In 1968, a band called The Nice released a track called “America”, which became the first instrumental protest song of popular music. Evening out the odd meter into 4/4, it featured blazing keyboards, heavily distorted guitar, and the trademark theatrics that had earned The Nice their reputation. In the final moments of the song, the band lifted a spoken word passage from a previously released song called “Dawn”, with some slight alterations: “America is pregnant with promises and anticipation, but is murdered by the hand of the inevitable!” As one could expect, this song was very controversial upon its release, drawing ire from everyone from the U.S. Embassy to the original composer of the song, Leonard Bernstein.
This was one of the first times the idea of America was mentioned in progressive rock music, but hardly the last time. Many bands would go on to write charged, political songs about America and the American dream, but the criticism seemed to be the same in nearly every song- America, a land full of potential, has squandered its’ greatness. Here are a few more examples of popular progressive rock criticism of the American Dream.
Kansas- Song for America (1975)
“Song for America” was the title track from the album of the same title, released in 1975. Kansas begins as an almost Copeland-esque tribute to America’s beautiful terrain, and an expression of admiration for the Native Americans that did not “rule the land”, or had not yet “soiled this paradise”. Near the end of the song, the colonists cross the ocean with Utopic visions, and begin to “ravage, plunder, see no wonder/ rape and kill and tear asunder/ Chop the forest, plow it under”. In Kansas’s eyes, America, once pristine and untouched and full of abundance, was replaced by this less than ideal vision:
“Highways scar the mountainsides, buildings to the sky, people all around
Houses stand in endless rows, sea to shining sea, people all around
So we rule this land, and here we stand upon our paradise
Dreaming of a place, our weary race is ready to rise”
Styx- Suite Madame Blue (1975)
“Suite Madame Blue” was released a year short of the American Bicentennial, on their 1975 album Equinox. Begininning with shimmering keys and passionate singing by Dennis De Young, the song progresses through several “suites” (which was a somewhat clever play on words). As the previous songs mentioned, De Young sings that America, once powerful and great, had “changed”, and that he “longed for the past, and dreamed of the day” of America’s greatness. They sing,
“Suite Madame Blue, gaze in your looking glass
You’re not a child anymore
Suite Madame Blue, the future is all but past
Dressed in your jewels, you made your own rules
You conquered the world and more, heaven’s door”
This part can be seen as an indictment of materialism, as well as American imperialism. The song progresses into a heavier section, where band members harmonize “America!” in a minor key, until the epic return to the chorus, where the words “Suite Madame Blue” are replaced with “Red, white, and blue” (as if the previous name wasn’t clear enough), and the song ends with, “So lift up your heart, make a new start/ And lead us away from here”. Once again, this song details that America, blessed with nobility and power, had wandered off the trail and was in dire need of a course correction, which they, as a band, seemed to hope for very much! They would go on to criticize America again for its frivolity and squandered potential, but through (and perhaps mysoginistically) the foil of “Miss America”.
Supertramp- Gone Hollywood/Breakfast in America (1979)
While Supertramp have emphatically denied that this album was some sort of protest statement against the United States, there is a sarcastic derision that is the thread throughout several songs on this album. Perhaps the most popular song is “Breakfast in America”, with the famous lines, “Take a look at my girlfriend/She’s the only one I got/ Not much of a girlfriend/ Never seem to get a lot”. This song was mostly written by Roger Hodgson, and is from the point of view of a young man who wants to travel a Jumbo jet and meet all the girls here. Paired with the album’s opener, “Gone Hollywood”, in which someone travels to Hollywood to become rich and famous, but instead finds himself lamenting his circumstances and his crushed hope.
“It’s such a shame about it
I used to think that it would feel so good
But who’s to blame about it
So many creeps in Hollywood
I’m in this dumb motel near the Taco Bell
Without a hope in hell, I can’t believe that I’m still around”
While not as high and mighty in concet and bombast as the other songs previously mentioned, it still plays into America being a land of hollow promises and false hopes.
Queensryche- Empire (1990)
Arguably Queensryche’s crowning acheivement, Empire was an indictment on the state of America in the early 90s. Specifically focusing on crime, Empire‘s themes trade high concepts for direct transmission of fact. In the middle of the title track from the album, a deep, serious voice, presumably Geoff Tate, passionately reads off fiscal reports about expeditures on law enforcement. Not beating around the bush, his young protagonist is “out on the streets all day, selling crack to the people who pay/ Got an AK-47 for his best friend, business: the American Way”. The final song on the album, “Anybody Listening?” features a forlorn Tate singing lines like, “Long ago there was a dream”…”Is there anybody listening? Is there anyone who sees what’s going on?” , pleading with the listener to question the status quo.
Pain of Salvation- America (2007)
Pain of Salvation is a progressive metal band that is not afraid to shy away from large, sprawling, intense topics. They’ve written about God, war, child abuse, nuclear proliferation, and many other topics with the candor and passion that became their trademark. In their song “America” from their album Scarsick, they don’t hold back in their criticisms in the least. Lambasting the States for their then-recent involvement in Iraq and general warmongering, obsession with materialism, and use of religion to justify politics, the song becomes the most charged criticism of America and the American Dream.
The lyrics take a melancholy pause, where they return to the previously mentioned concept of the American Dream vs. The American Reality:
“It could have been good America
It could have been great America
Land of the brave and free
Welcoming you and me
But this Brave New World is not as new anymore
Each day a new store
Each year a new war
While chosen whites rule the poor
But after engaging in a serious set of jabs, comparing the US to other fallen powers ( in which he parodies our media obsessions, asking questions like “Dr. Phil or Operah? Letterman or Leno? Idol or Big Brother?”), Gildenlow and the band extend a hand to the States, with the following invitation: “Rise to your former glory, Be brave and warm, Oh America.” Rise to your former glory.
This particular post wasn’t meant to be a political statement necessarily, but was written to point out what I saw as a consistent theme throughout progressive rock music. When America is mentioned, it is almost always talked about in similar terms: once great, now “murdered by the hand of the inevitable”. Why do they focus on this idea? Why the obsession with the glory days of yesteryear, and the modern lament?
I think it’s because there is a timelessness in criticizing America as a land of squandered promise, and a hopeful enthusiasm to restore the United States to it’s former glory. Almost every era looks back nostalgically (and with rosy colored glasses) at previous eras, and it’s a particularly effective rhetorical tool as well to use an undetermined, idealistically portrayed (and perhaps even non-existent) era of the past as a point of comparison for a modern reality. If a progressive rock band (or any rock band, really) wrote a song that was unabashedly patriotic, it would not have the edge or timelessness that a more critical song would.
Proglodytes: Did I leave anything off the list? Is there a song that I didn’t mention that follows a similar narrative pattern? Is there a song that contradicts the songs in this piece? Why do you think progressive rock seems to discuss America in similar terms- ideal past, squandered potential? Let me know in the comments.
Oh, and HAPPY 4TH of JULY!