One of the most famous icons of America is the images of the long Route 66, stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles. It has come to represent opportunity and freedom. John Steinbeck (and later Bruce Springsteen) picks up on these ideas and twists them in his novel.
One of, the most famous pieces of American literature, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, features Route 66 prominently in the novel, both in the story of the Joads and in the in between chapters. The novel includes themes of helping out one’s fellow man. The novel was intended to show more of the brutal aspects of life during the Great Depression, specifically people who were put out of work by the Dust Bowl droughts. Bruce Springsteen echoes these themes by referencing many aspects of it in the song. Rage Against the Machine, a band known for political-minded songs, covered this. The song resonated with so many that other acts such as Nickleback, Mumford and Sons, Junip, Martyn Joseph, the band Solas, and Rise Against have all covered this. The only American between these (outside of Rage and Springsteen) is Rise Against, showing that the themes and images (especially of the highway) presented here resonate internationally.
Springsteen sings about the Ghost of Tom Joad, who acts as the spirit of many of these themes the way he does in the novel. He sings about the highway, evoking the ever famous Route 66 without mentioning it by name. In the novel, the highway is the path of mass migrations out west, which is alluded to in the song. In both novel and song, the highway is a path to a hopefully better life, and a path to discovery. This plays on two classic American mythology themes: the romanticizing of the West, it’s vastness, its opportunities, and it’s hardships. The second theme played on here is the idea of moving around to make a better life. However, both are a subversion of each theme as it shows “Families sleeping in cars in the southwest”, “Bathing in the aqueduct”, etc. It shows poverty, desperation and anger (especially the Rage Against the Machine version). But the song uses these themes, and the image of the highway (more specifically Route 66-even though it is never mentioned by name in the song) to get it’s point across.
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When I think of the road, I immediately hear “Born to Run,” in my head. It could be that my brother’s obsession with Bruce Springsteen has completely morphed my thinking process or that this song is actually a great representation of the road. Perhaps it is a bit of both. This song conveys the road as freedom, illustrated in the first verse of the song:
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line
Oh-oh, Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run
Highway 9 refers to a highway that passes through his hometown in Jersey. He is trying to escape and wants his love, Wendy, to go with him. He insinuates that the road is the answer to his problems that he is facing in his town. The road symbolizes his freedom from his responsibilities and that is why they have to get out while they are young. He does not want to be tied down because they are, “born to run.”
America, as a country, is a representation of the road itself. Hundreds of thousands of people fled here escaping some sort of trouble in hopes of experiencing freedom. That is the same attitude Springsteen is conveying about the road in this song. “We’ll run till we drop, baby we’ll never go back.” This country was established through movement and expansion, in which the road provides a defined path to limitless opportunities.
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Can a song be an american icon? When contemplating what song represents the U.S.A, there are many that spring to mind, Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ or Don McLean, ‘American Pie’ to name but a few. But perhaps ‘White America’ by Eminem is a song that represents more of the U.S.A and its people than other songs, as it addresses something that is so very much an integral part of the American ideal, freedom of speech.
The song was released by Eminem in 2002, describing his rise to fame and prominence in the rap game concentrating on allegations by parents and politicians that he was negatively influencing criminal behaviour on young white children. Lynne Cheney, the former Second Lady as wife of former U.S Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly spoke out against Eminem’s lyrics citing her objections to his ‘glorification’ of violence against women and homosexuals and his sexually explicit lyrics (picking up on the issue already made famous by another former Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper Gore).
Lynne Cheney gave testimony before the U.S Congress in September 200 in which Eminem was singled out and his lyrics condemned and his right to free speech questioned. She said that Eminem and those like him “ironically” threaten First Amendment freedoms because they are “so objectionable that more.. good citizens find appealing the idea that government regulation should remove entertainment industry products from the public square.” Eminem’s response in the song made good use of the First Amendment, “…Hypocrisy, fuck you Ms. Cheney, fuck you Tipper Gore, fuck you with the freest of speech this
divided states of embarrassment will allow me to have, fuck you…” While freedom of Speech is protected under federal law and the protections afforded under the First Amendment are undoubtedly the most expansive of any industrialised nation, there are a few exceptions such as; child pornography laws, speech that incites imminent lawless action, and regulation of commercial speech such as advertising.
But to question Eminem’s right to free speech must seem alien to so many Americans. Part of the reason why the government was able to garner so much support for its war against Nazi Germany and in its global fight against communism was its portrayal of America as the last bastion of defense against tyranny, freedom vs oppression. As he mentions in the song, “how many people are proud to be citizens of this beautiful country of ours, the stripes and the stars for the rights that men have died for to protect, the women and men who have broke their neck’s for the freedom of speech the United States Government has sworn to uphold”.
The significant point about having legislation and a bill of rights to protect Freedom of Speech is that no matter how much you may disagree with it, it is there to protect everyone. When we encounter speech we disagree with, we shouldn’t try to suppress it, but should instead use our own freedom of speech to argue against the ideas that offend us. While this song is perhaps not so typical of representing America, it raises the issue of one of the keystones of American society.
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Some songs make a real impact on our lives. Everybody has a song which rings a bell in one’s mind. Everybody knows a song which brings him or her back to certain moments, certain places, the melody of which stays in their mind, and including lyrics which particularly speak to them. But sometimes there are songs which have a meaning for more than just an individual and which have significance for a whole people regardless of their age, sex, ethnicity, or social group. For this reason, we can say of these songs that there are iconic. In the case of America, many songs became cult. We can think about “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood, “The Star Spangled Banner” performed by Whitney Houston, or again “America the Beautiful” by Ray Charles. As far as I am concerned, I decided to talk about “Born in the U.S.A” by Bruce Springsteen, because even if I am not an American, I can remember myself singing it a lot of times without really realising what was the meaning of the lyrics I was singing. This makes me aware of the fact that a song can also be iconic even if we do not share the same origin and culture than the singer and the targeted people.
Born in the U.S.A. was the best-selling album of 1985 in the United States, and also Springsteen’s most successful album ever. 15 million copies were sold in the United States alone, and 30 million worldwide. The title track is often misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem as a result of the repeating chorus, but actually, the message of the song is something completely different. In fact, the eponymous hit denounces the Vietnam War and evokes an America disappointed by Ronald Reagan. In his song, Springsteen addresses questions of national identity and confronts the legacy of Vietnam. The song bears witness of the heartache and disillusionment of a man returning from war after personal loss, both as a citizen and as a recruit. It talks about the mental trauma and images that the returning soldiers will never forget, but also reveals the grotesque treatment and the lack of respect that they received. The narrator says he was born in a country that made big mistakes, but he has nowhere else to go, so he stays and tries to make the best of it. He tries to cope with the struggle between patriotism and self-doubt.
This song represents America, not America as a whole, but at least a part of his history which cannot be ignored. It is interesting because most of the time, the United States are highlighted and shown as an example to the world, but in this song Springsteen reminds us that even the most powerful country sometimes makes things wrong, and that some people pay the price for it. He brings us behind the scenes, far from the spotlights and confronts us to the reality. Nevertheless, one thing is for sure that the controversial song is now part of the legend and will still be sang again and again.
Orlane Liscouët (QUB)
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