I have an Independence Day tradition: I like to listen to songs about America. My favorites tend to be critical of this country in some way, such as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” These aren’t the flag-waving anthems their titles suggest; they’re searing indictments of a nation that failed its citizens by leaving them poor, stuck and feeling — as Springsteen sings — “like a dog that’s been beat too much.” On our day of national pride, when celebratory words such as “freedom” and “liberty” are hurled about like Roman candles, it feels important to remain clear-eyed about our faults.
But at some point in the day, perhaps after taking in a greed-bashing punk tune or Nina Simone’s burning civil rights lament “Mississippi Goddam,” I have a secret favorite: Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” It’s a song my fellow liberals love to hate. I love it.
Yes, it is overwrought and jingoistic. It glorifies war. It trumpets self-righteousness. There’s a reason Greenwood was invited to perform the song at the inaugurations of the last four Republican presidents, including Donald “America First” Trump.
“I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free,” the song famously declares. It’s exactly the kind of vapid Independence Day rhetoric I can’t stand. Not everything about our country is rainbows and unicorns. What about government surveillance? Institutionalized racism? Children whose futures are determined by the Zip codes where they’re born?
And yet I still find myself moved by this song. Maybe it’s because I grew up surrounded by soldiers in Camp Zama, a U.S. Army base in Japan. I remember visiting home from college and seeing a soldier I knew sing the song one night at the local VFW, where my friend was a bartender. The soldier’s voice, unexpectedly beautiful, gave me chills.
Or maybe it’s because even though my mother is from the Philippines and my father is from India, I have always identified first as American. Or maybe it’s simply the line, so magnificent in its crescendo: “ ’Cause there ain’t no doubt, I love this land.”
Because despite the nation’s flaws, I do love this land. I am proud to be an American. And “God Bless the USA,” despite its flaws, beautifully captures that sentiment. The melody is an earworm, the swells are triumphant, and the emotion — though a bit syrupy — is authentic. I am impressed by its rawness, its conviction that we are one people and that we should be free. I admire its unabashed enthusiasm, its soft solemnity.
I’m reminded of a story about another Independence Day standard: “America the Beautiful.” Ray Charles’s enduring version appears on the album “A Message From the People,” released in 1972, not long after the height of the civil rights movement.
Charles revised the song’s lyrics, leaving out phrases such as “pilgrim feet” and “alabaster cities . . . undimmed by human tears.” He later explained: “Some of the verses were just too white for me, so I cut them out and sang the verses about the beauty of the country and the bravery of the soldiers. Then I put a little country church back beat on it and turned it my way.”
When a black magazine criticized Charles for “selling out” by singing the song, he said his attitude toward America was like that of a mother chastising a child: “You may be a pain in the ass, you may be bad, but child, you belong to me.”
I know that feeling. It is a sense of immense love, even if that love is sometimes tinged by disappointment. When Greenwood sings in “God Bless the USA” that he’d “gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today,” it’s easy to understand where that sentiment comes from. You fight for what you love.
I adore “God Bless the USA,” but, like Charles, I want to offer my own variation of the song — to “turn it my way.” It’s clearly a tribute to the armed forces, and I don’t deny the honor in that. But when I listen this Independence Day, I’ll also be thinking of the men and women who defended this country and its values in other ways: people like Edward R. Murrow, the broadcaster who risked his career to confront the demagogic Sen. Joe McCarthy; Harvey Milk, who helped pass gay rights legislation in San Francisco before he was assassinated; and Rosa Parks, whose courageous defiance was a spark for the civil rights movement, in which many were killed.
I think, too, of James Baldwin, who wrote in “Notes of a Native Son” that “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
For that, as the man says, I’ll gladly stand up.