Music has been a fascinating and emotive form of expression throughout human history. In addition to conveying the thoughts and feelings of the individual writer, songs can also provide insight into contemporary views at the time of composition. This is especially true if the song achieves iconic status, with some songs becoming synonymous with particular periods or movements within history. From the days of the Civil War to today’s multi-billion dollar music industry, there are countless iconic songs that represent the American experience, for better or worse. We can clearly see the diversity in tone and viewpoints, that often correspond with changes in lifestyle or America’s actions abroad. On one hand, there is the innocuous and upbeat “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus, whose vapid lyrics positively describe modern party lifestyle. In contrast to this would be the intense vocals of “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against The Machine, which confront the issue of racism and brutality in the American police force. The dichotomy between these two show the broad range of issues songs can cover, with the songs usually achieving iconic status by coming to represent important affairs in American history.
The song I have chosen to nominate is “Living in America” by “The Godfather of Soul”, James Brown, who is arguably an icon himself. Although he did not write the song, his performance of it proved to be a huge success. I decided to write about this song because as previously stated, there is constant ebb and flow to iconic music, so why not choose a song that celebrates something constant – America’s size. Since its discovery, America has always been regarded as a huge expanse that is open for adventure and the song honours this spirit. The song talks about “Superhighways, coast to coast” and says that there is “no destination that’s too far.” There is also mention of sliding “behind the wheel”, which proves the importance of the automobile in fully appreciating the American landscape. The overall topic of the lyrics is the value of mobility in American life. The concept of connectivity and unity between Americans is also promoted with the words ” eye to eye, station to station … hand in hand, across the nation.” Although this may initially seem idealised, American transport does allow people to maintain connection with family and friends. Finally, the lyrics compare the large iconic cities of America, such as New Orleans and Chicago, to a “promised land.” This arguably describes America best as life within the iconic cities cannot be authentically recreated elsewhere.
The use of this song in Rocky IV highlights its importance as a patriotic piece of music. The movie is overtly pro-American and was released amidst Russian-American tension during the Cold War. In the film, Apollo Creed enters the ring garbed in American flag clothes and an Uncle Sam-style top hat to face the cold, brutal Russian boxer Ivan Drago. James Brown actually sings the song in person alongside the character of Apollo Creed. The bold and confident Creed, representing America, is subsequently beaten to death in the ring. This shocking turn of events contrasts with the uproarious and celebratory entrance and is clearly used to illustrate the dangers America faced from the Soviet Union.