USA Long Distance

Election song of the week #1: Sons of Freedom, USA Long Distance 

In which I try to channel my dread over the upcoming election into something positive. First of five.

The world has a love-hate relationship with the United States, don’t we? Everyone blames the US for doing lots of shitty things – to be fair, more often than not, they deserve the blame (choose your wars of choice over the past century) – but the reality is that they’ve also been a formidable force for good in the world in the 70 or so years since the dawn of what will one day be known as the American Empire. You like human rights? Well, the US was the driving force behind the creation of the UN. The ocean’s shipping lanes don’t patrol themselves. And culture? Well, I’m steeped in rock and roll, the preeminent US art form. 

What I love about this great Sons of Freedom song is the way they capture the complexity of the United States’ messianic relationship with the world, for better and worse, based in both violence and hope:

The first time I saw her, she was a black marine 

Fighting for justice, a part of the team 

Handing out bibles and sharing a dream 

The first time I saw her, she was a black marine 

It’s all there, the best and worst of the United States – respect for other countries, promoting a (mostly positive) ideology, and the potential for racial harmony, with the US represented by the military. You don’t get to spread your view of the good life unless it’s backed by force. 

More problematic in 2016 is what the band conjures as the other side of the US image: The next time I saw her, she was a drag show queen Which I always took to be a signal of US decadence and moral decay, since it’s followed soon after by the line, “You should’ve seen her; there’s nothing obscener.” 

It didn’t register at the time, but of course there’s some problematic gender politics going on there, right? One of the marks of good art, though, is that it can stand multiple interpretations. And it certainly is true that much of what the world considers to be progressive in terms of individual rights, including related to sexuality, comes from Americans and America, even if it takes the actual government too much time to actually catch up, and even if some people in 2016 still haven’t gotten the memo. So, since I like Sons of Freedom and I’m feeling charitable, in my 2016 interpretation of the song, if the soldier represents strength, the drag queen is a positive representation of freedom. In my reinterpretation, “You should’ve seen her; there’s nothing obscener” becomes not a definitive comment about US decadence, but a comment on how sometimes others (including other Americans) see moral progress as a form of immorality and moral violation. Until they don’t (see: same-sex marriage). 

I’ve been thinking about the role of the United States a lot these days. If Donald Trump wins on Tuesday, there’s a good chance that the American century truly will be over, taking all the positive aspects of the United States – belief in individual human rights, acceptance of other cultures, promotion of democracy – with it. I think Hillary Clinton will win, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified of what will happen if she loses. And even if she wins, US politics are so dysfunctional that a Clinton presidency will only buy the US a bit of time to try to put the United States back on the tracks.   

Musically, this song, from 1991’s Gump, is a beast. The of late, great, Sons of Freedom’s rhythm section – bassist Don Binns and drummer Don Short – are unparalleled in terms of heaviness and ferocity, and USA Long Distance is no exception. It’s a small tragedy that they didn’t last longer than they did.

USA Long Distance

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