The 2021 annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference played host to many memorable moments. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri drew on public speaking skills honed at Stanford and Yale to warn his audience about “elites.”¹ Senator Ted Cruz of Texas denounced “political theater” while comparing himself to Braveheart’s William Wallace and his listeners to the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars.² Former president Donald J. Trump suggested that he might win the White House for an unprecedented third time in 2024.³ Just about everyone complained about being “canceled” in speeches that obviously had not been.
Perhaps, for those of us willing to listen, this sonic dissonance renders audible the political debates and social turmoil that have always been central to the messy workings of American democracy. If we cannot always achieve harmony, we can at least raise our voices together as we strive toward a more perfect union.
Yet the performer who attracted the most attention, at least in left-of-CPAC circles, was a singer. Nineteen-year-old Sailor Sabol’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was, to put it charitably, out of tune—more accurately, she seemed to change key frequently and unpredictably, sometimes in the middle of a line. News outlets and social media posters, spotting a musical metaphor for CPAC’s unearned self-regard and uncritical jingoism, accused Sabol of singing “in the key of Q” or demonstrating that “all keys matter.”⁴ Musicians on YouTube added their own accompaniments to the performance, following the unpredictable twists and turns of Sabol’s melody with complex harmonies and bracing modulations. Many viewers surely laughed, but others felt that the joke was mean-spirited and perhaps insinuatingly sexist, as these musicians, mostly men, devoted considerable chops to humiliating a young woman who was trying her best and who probably was not responsible for CPAC’s most inflammatory rhetoric. Perhaps their mockery lent an air of plausibility to Trump’s CPAC claim that “Democrats are vicious” (Republicans, in contrast, are “becoming a party of love”).⁵
As a music professor with a penchant for the avant-garde, however, what struck me at first is that I unironically liked a lot of the newly harmonized versions. Take, for example, “CPAC 2021 NATIONAL ANTHEM YouTube Orchestra,” a mashup of Sabol and accompanists including a guitarist, an a cappella quartet, and two pianists, one of whom yells sarcastic encouragement to the singer throughout.⁶ The whole tangle abounds with crunchy, theoretically “wrong” sonorities that defamiliarize the melody in a way that American modernist composer Charles Ives, known for incorporating patriotic airs into his uncompromisingly thorny scores, would have appreciated. Perhaps, for those of us willing to listen, this sonic dissonance renders audible the political debates and social turmoil that have always been central to the messy workings of American democracy. If we cannot always achieve harmony, we can at least raise our voices together as we strive toward a more perfect union.
At least, that could be the hook of this review. I could try to redeem the whole CPAC episode through lofty meditations on dissonance and harmony. Deep down, though, I think it was all just ugly—sour sendups of a bad performance at an event dripping with pandering contempt. To turn Sabol’s performance into an aesthetic object, even if only for the sake of mocking it, may merely distract attention from the very real stakes of the debates between CPAC and its detractors. Perhaps musical metaphors for political divisions can only reveal so much. While there may be value in forging an arrangement from themes played in conflicting keys, one might also recall a question posed in a 1930s union anthem: which side are you on?
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Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest and the Music That Made a Nation leans heavily on metaphors of harmony and dissonance with results that are often thought-provoking. Its co-authors are Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who teaches at Vanderbilt and has written speeches for President Joe Biden, and Tim McGraw, one of the biggest stars of country music for the past twenty years. The cover of Songs of America shows its title and the authors’ names painted on weather-beaten, red-white-and-blue wooden planks. The design, familiar from advertisements for pickup trucks and macrobrewed beer, connotes a “real” America that is rural, working-class, and as often as not implicitly White. Happily, the book is much more nuanced than its cover suggests. The authors honor their subtitle by devoting sustained attention to musical statements of both patriotism and protest, and most importantly making it clear that these categories overlap. Their vision of United States history, while it values dissent, ultimately aims for a reassuring consensus as shouts of protest inevitably find their way into the great American songbook.
Songs of America surveys U.S. history chronologically from the 1760s to the Obama administration by examining songs that deal with America, patriotically, critically, or both. The authors divide their labor neatly, with Meacham providing the main narrative while McGraw comments on specific songs in inset boxes. At first glance, I cynically assumed that country superstar McGraw’s name was on the cover only to sell books, but he takes his contribution seriously with earnest and thoughtful observations on songs from John Dickinson’s “The Liberty Song” (1768) to Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America” (2001). As an educator, I especially appreciated McGraw’s humble but enthusiastic Acknowledgments section, in which he points out that the book is not a “comprehensive effort” and encourages (presumably American) readers “to do your own research and learn more about the crossroads of history and music in our country.” (234)
Their vision of United States history, while it values dissent, ultimately aims for a reassuring consensus as shouts of protest inevitably find their way into the great American songbook.
This is helpful advice, because the book’s vision of U.S. history is inevitably incomplete and sometimes dated. Its opening line, a sacralizing riff on the Gospel of John, proclaims: “In the beginning were the words—the stately rhythms of the Declaration of Independence, the passionate eloquence of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the steady notes of the constitution.” (3) This is more or less what I learned in school, but as The New York Times’s recent “1619 Project” on slavery and its legacy controversially demonstrated, there are other beginnings to consider. Elsewhere, Meacham credits Americans with a “frontier spirit,” (215) a formulation that many contemporary historians of the United States would reject as a celebration of settler colonialism. The chapter covering the 1980s to the present includes eight enthusiastic pages on Ronald Reagan, shoehorned into the book’s theme as a metaphorical “musician whose voice and melodies enabled a goodly number of his followers to transcend the limitations and disappointments and anxieties of their workaday worlds and cast themselves as players on a larger stage,” (207) but only four cursory paragraphs on hip-hop. The authors closely recount the horrible attacks of 9/11, including chilling quotations from victims’ final cell phone calls, but the ensuing war in Iraq is addressed only briefly in relation to the Dixie Chicks’ criticism of George W. Bush.
Meacham and McGraw are not, for the most part, guilty of what media critics have recently termed “bothsidesism.” Despite his invocation of the “frontier spirit,” Meacham plainly asserts that the oppression of Native Americans during the nineteenth century is a “tragic, depressing, and irredeemable” story. (48) The African-American civil rights movement and its freedom songs receive detailed and appropriately reverent treatment. But other important stories get less attention. Asian and Latinx Americans are essentially absent from the book. After early discussion of Susan B. Anthony and the suffragist movement, the fight for women’s rights drops out of the narrative, to return only briefly in a short passage that quickly covers the 1960s to the present.
To point out such omissions may seem ungenerous. A survey aimed at a general audience cannot be expected to cover every aspect of U.S. history in depth. But neither can such a survey speak for every reader, which makes the authors’ frequent use of the third-person plural feel somewhat forced. Meacham writes, for example, that “at its best, American public life has moved forward not in moments of total agreement—moments virtually unknown in human experience—but when enough of us have seen that devotion to the ideal of liberty should prevail over our inevitable divisions of opinion.” (31) But if some of us have been devoted to the ideal of liberty while some of us have actively sought to deny liberty to others, was there ever really an “us” to begin with? Elsewhere, McGraw opines that “‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ unites us as one nation.” (41) Yet before Sailor Sabol, recent conversations about the anthem have centered on NFL players kneeling during its performance to protest police violence, a gesture that inspired then-President Trump to exhort team owners to “get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”⁷ One could easily make a case that today the anthem is as much a symbol of division as one of unity. Yet Meacham and McGraw continue to suggest that although we may be reading different scores, we are still playing in the same orchestra.
A few examples from later chapters well illustrate the authors’ desire to discover a sense of unity and shared purpose underlying U.S. history. One of McGraw’s inset boxes couples Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” one of the biggest hits of 1966, with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” (1969), a scathing attack on privilege and inequality. (180) McGraw contends that “it’s hard not to feel pride when you listen to [‘Green Berets’]. Maybe it’s not cool to say that, but it’s true,” but he also credits “Fortunate Son” for “incorporating the timeless motif of poor men fighting rich men’s wars.” McGraw seeks to mollify hawkish readers by pointing out that CCR’s “John Fogerty himself served in the Army Reserve,” and he adds that “Fortunate Son” has been “added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for its significance to the time,” which casts the song as a safe museum piece rather than a disruptive cry of dissent. But what was that significance, and more importantly, who was right? Celebrating these diametrically opposed songs side by side seems to abdicate judgment, advancing instead a Forrest Gump notion of history in which the past is a collection of free-floating signifiers that one gets credit merely for recognizing.
Or take the book’s account of Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 hit “Born in the U.S.A.” Meacham opens with the story of conservative columnist George Will’s visit to a Springsteen concert, at which Will noted approvingly that “there is not a smidgen of androgyny in Springsteen” (thank goodness!) and concluded that “there is still nothing quite like being born in the U.S.A.” (201, 203). Meacham points out correctly that “Will’s conservative take on Springsteen’s oeuvre elided the complexities of the lyrics themselves,” which describe the struggles of a Vietnam veteran with no job and no future who despairs of himself as a “dog that’s been beat too much.” (203)⁸ Meacham also notes that Springsteen made a point of distancing himself from Ronald Reagan’s conservative policies after the president dropped his name in a New Jersey campaign speech. Yet McGraw understands the song as one that “reminds us that for all of that it’s still our country…we’re in this together, however painful it may be. You’re in it together” (209). But are we? The song’s narrator, pushed around by the military, government bureaucracy, and the “hiring man” at the refinery, hardly seems to think so. To understand “Born in the U.S.A.” as a celebration of American unity requires one to mishear it.
A few examples from later chapters well illustrate the authors’ desire to discover a sense of unity and shared purpose underlying U.S. history. One of McGraw’s inset boxes couples Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” one of the biggest hits of 1966, with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” (1969), a scathing attack on privilege and inequality.
The final song discussed in Songs of America, Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America,” stands out because it was used by both the George W. Bush campaign in 2004 and the Obama campaign in 2008. “There, briefly,” Meacham writes, “in a time of warring camps, was a bit of common ground as two parties—two Americas, really—celebrated their competing visions of the future to the sound of the same song.” (225) A more skeptical listener might wonder whether the song’s string of clichés (“Dreamin’ in red white and blue…We all get a chance / Everybody gets to dance / Only in America”) is so generic that anyone can take it to mean anything and use it for any purpose. (225) Or, more troublingly, does its celebration of inequality cast as opportunity—“One kid dreams of fame and fortune / One kid helps pay the rent / One could end up going to prison / One just might be president” (225)—demonstrate the broad appeal of a distinctly American ethic not of unity, but rather of heartless, cutthroat competition? (Is it really one of America’s selling points that your kid might end up in prison?)
Songs of America casts U.S. history as a kind of dialectical cycle: America is formed from a constant process of debate and dispute, but that conflict is all in the service of trying to achieve a shared ideal enshrined in the Constitution by the Founders, except sometimes some of us are working against that ideal, but that is to be expected because America is formed from a constant process of debate and dispute. To aspire to unity is to take part in the same conversation and to work toward the same goal, even if that goal can only be approached, never reached. The role of songs is to help us to understand and perhaps like one another better. Meacham writes that “in a dissonant world, every moment of harmony counts—and if we share music, we might just shout in anger a little less and sing in unity a bit more. Or so we can hope.” (225) Certainly I, and perhaps you, have experienced magical moments when music helped to forge connections between disparate people or revealed unfamiliar aspects of lives different from my own. But sometimes we find ourselves shouting in anger because we already understand one another perfectly well. Are there any themes with which one should simply refuse to harmonize? Is every middle finger really just a peace sign you have not met yet?⁹
My favorite passage in Songs of America, McGraw’s discussion of “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land” (better known simply as “Dixie”), suggests that there are limits to the value of consensus. (83) At first, McGraw seems to be heading in that direction. He points out the song’s origins in blackface minstrelsy, but he also notes that “Abraham Lincoln said it was one of his favorite tunes.” In what sounds like a “both sides” formulation, he writes that “for a lot of white Southerners, the song evokes warm memories of home; for a lot of African Americans, it’s one more tragic reminder of the horrors of slavery and the all-too-persistent realities of racism.” But then McGraw takes his stand, one informed by revisiting his own experience through the lens of history. He movingly remembers growing up near the cotton fields of northeast Louisiana and listening to country music with his stepfather, memories that make “Dixie” evoke “my little postage stamp of earth, with a reflexive emotional longing to go back to the simplicity of being a kid in Louisiana. Then, though,” he continues, “my brain kicks in, and I remember all that the song represents to so many others, and what history, not my heart, tells me it means.” What it means is a “pro-slavery point of view” that “relegates African Americans to the most un-American of places: a place where human beings are considered inferior because of the color of their skin and the circumstances of their birth. That may have been who we were, but it can’t be who we are.”
Certainly I, and perhaps you, have experienced magical moments when music helped to forge connections between disparate people or revealed unfamiliar aspects of lives different from my own. But sometimes we find ourselves shouting in anger because we already understand one another perfectly well. Are there any themes with which one should simply refuse to harmonize? Is every middle finger really just a peace sign you have not met yet?
As McGraw surely knows, and as the recent flourishing of open White supremacism in the United States sadly demonstrates, that is who some of us are. But McGraw does not want to join their band, and neither do I. Perhaps a more perfect union will arise only if, as we continue to seek the noble ideal of harmony and find ways to endure or even appreciate unavoidable dissonance, we can also recognize when the time comes to pick sides.