Prince Wrote America’s Best Patriotic Rock Song You’ve Never Heard

Prince Wrote America’s Best Patriotic Rock Song You’ve Never Heard

Prince’s ‘America’ deserves to be one of the handful of classics played every Independence Day and as crowds mill around waiting for politicians to speak.
Andrew Cline
By

America’s two greatest patriotic pop songs of the rock and roll era were released within two months of each other in 1985. One you know: James Brown’s “Living in America.” The other — “America” by Prince and the Revolution — deserves to be lifted from obscurity and showcased as one of the great musical tributes to the country that managed to produce both James Brown and Prince Rogers Nelson.

Jimi Hendrix played “The Star Spangled Banner” like no one had ever played it before, and Ray Charles sang “America the Beautiful” like no one had ever sung it before. But they didn’t write those iconic songs. Remarkably, both Brown and Prince released new patriotic masterpieces in the final months of the first year of Ronald Reagan’s second term.

Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” had been released in May 1984, and he performed it at that year’s Republican National Convention. It has since become the singular staple of Republican candidate events. Even candidates who hate country music have it rotated into the warm-up music before their speeches. Yet its musical and lyrical weaknesses are so evident that it should have been dethroned the following year, when two monumentally superior patriotic songs were released back to back.

But in politics cultural branding trumps musical quality (among other things), and Greenwood’s saccharine coated tripe remains the go-to patriotic tune, a safe, soft country ballad that offends only Americans cursed with both Republican sympathies and musical taste.

Great Music, Hokey Lyrics

“Living in America” is a classic that needs little explanation. It may be the greatest musical expression of American pride ever written. It may be possible to remain seated and unmoving while listening to the song, but it is impossible to want to. The music is meant to lift the listener up, to express unrestrained joy.

As an expression of American exceptionalism, it falls short of what any moderately gifted high school civics student could do.

“I live in America!” Brown exclaims before trumpets punctuate the point. This is what it feels like to live in my country, the music says behind him. Lyrically, however, Brown falls short of rousing us behind American ideals. “You might not be looking for the promised land, but you might find it anyway,” is the best he can muster.

Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” is even worse, for it tries and fails to do lyrically what Brown does musically. Greenwood has said he’d always wanted to write a patriotic song and when he just couldn’t hold his patriotism in any longer he crafted “God Bless the USA.” Yet as an expression of American exceptionalism, it falls short of what any moderately gifted high school civics student could do.

The chorus, which is intended to rouse the listener into a spasm of patriotic zeal, manages to declare, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Replace “American” with “Canadian” in that sentence, and its accuracy would not change. This is the sentiment of the drunk at the end of the bar who suspects America isn’t such a great country because the system is designed to keep him down, but hey, at least he’s free.

Prince’s Complete America Package

With “America,” Prince gave us the complete package. It is a musically brilliant, uplifting dance song that turns the chorus of “America the Beautiful” into a fabulous funk riff while expressing a more thoughtful lyrical patriotism.

Here are the lyrics to “America,” as best as I can decipher (I’ve long since lost my cassette liner notes to “Around the World In A Day”):

Aristocrats on a mountain climb
Making money, losing time
Communism is just a word
But if the government turn over
It’ll be the only word that’s heard

America, America
God shed his grace on thee
America, America
Keep her children free

Little sister making minimum wage
Living in a one-room jungle-monkey cage
Can’t get over, she’s almost dead
She may not be in the black
But she’s happy she ain’t in the red

America, America
God shed his grace on thee
America, America
Keep her children free

Freedom
Love
Joy
Peace

Jimmy Nothing never went to school
They made him pledge allegiance
He said it wasn’t cool
Nothing made Jimmy proud
Now Jimmy lives on a mushroom cloud

America, America
God shed his grace on thee
America, America
Keep her children free

America, America
God shed his grace on thee
America, America
Keep her children free

Freedom
Love
Joy
Peace

boom, boom, boom, boom
the bomb go
boom, boom, boom, boom
the bomb go boom.
Teacher, why won’t Jimmy pledge allegiance?

The song’s Wikipedia entry calls it a “sardonic attack on the mid-1980s United States,” which is utter nonsense. In a 1986 interview with MTV, Prince called the song “straightforwardly patriotic.” But that is evident from the lyrics.

Get America Right, Yo

This is not a typical patriotic song (because it’s Prince). Instead of presenting the United States as a utopia, Prince gives us glimpses into the imperfect lives of three different types of Americans who feel no particular pride in the country so he can correct their thinking (and the thinking of listeners like them).

Prince gives us glimpses into the imperfect lives of three different types of Americans who feel no particular pride in the country so he can correct their thinking.

The aristocrats care only about money, not politics. The minimum-wage woman struggles to get by. And the schoolboy thinks himself too cool to be patriotic. To each of these stereotypes, Prince presents communism as an obviously unthinkable alternative. But that alternative is inevitable, he suggests, without a commitment to keeping America free, and that commitment comes only through patriotism.

Obviously the Cold War juxtaposition and imagery are outdated, but the idea — that American freedom requires an intellectual, moral, and physical commitment — is expressed as well, if not better, than any other lyricist has done since the advent of rock and roll.

Prince explicitly rebukes the left-wing criticism of America — that its unequal distribution of wealth makes it worse than countries that strive to be socialist utopias. He asserts instead that America is worthy of celebrating because freedom is the most important value, more important than equality of outcomes, more important than being cool.

Billboard last year listed “20 Awesome America Songs” that, incredibly, include songs sharply critical of America (such as “Born in the USA” and “American Idiot”) but not Prince’s masterpiece.

Prince’s “America” deserves to be one of the handful of classics played every Independence Day and as crowds mill around waiting for politicians to speak. Americans deserve better than to be subjected to “God Bless the USA” on endless repeat.

Andrew Cline is a writer and communications consultant in Bedford, New Hampshire. His Twitter handle is @Drewhampshire.

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