Renewal of Hope on This Year’s Fourth

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Those of you who were present at the conception will remember my inaugural post on HT, which was about my experience watching Independence Day fireworks on Labor Day. I found much to be troubled about, but also good reason for hope:

Things didn’t start out too well, though, because when the fireworks began, our hotel began blasting “Born in the U.S.A.” …

So I’m sitting there, and while my six-year-old is dazzled by the fireworks, I’m starting to get really worried about whether there’s still an America worth saving for her. Sure, I can tell her what the fireworks are really about, but if she only hears it from me, it’s not a real national identity. If the hotel doesn’t play it, it’s not a culture…

The national anthem was played, but in instrumental only – no scanning of difficult 19th century poetry for us! Worse, they didn’t even play the whole frikkin’ song. They started it halfway through…

But about halfway through this, there was one song that, by itself, gave me all the confidence I needed and more. It was a song that convinced me America has as good a shot at sustaining its culture in the coming century as any country on the planet.

That was Ray Charles covering “America the Beautiful.”…Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I defy you to show me any nation in the whole history of this world where that blind, black son of sharecroppers grows up to be Ray Charles….If it’s the good, true and beautiful you’re looking for, a country in which Ray Charles can grow up to be Ray Charles has a lot to offer.

Well, we were staying at the same hotel this year, and just to mix things up they held Independence Day on July 4. And it was a much more hopeful experience for the future of American culture.

Once again they started off on an unencouraging note – this year the fireworks opened to the tune of “Firework,” a catchy pop song that wallows in the worst excesses of expressive Romanticism. Its original performer, Katy Perry, is essentially in the business of marketing pornography to teenage girls. But after that, they pretty much switched gears.

What we got this year was a reasonably balanced mix of traditional Independence Day songs and more recent songs. They not only played the entire national anthem, they even played – get this! – Stars and Stripes Forever! The whole thing!

Another thing that gave me almost as much hope for our cultural integrity was the total absence of right-wing culture war songs. Last year’s “Red, White and Blue,” “American Soldier,” etc. just about screamed WE’RE LOSING OUR CULTURE! WE’RE LOSING OUR CULTURE! Strong cultures don’t play songs in which fidelity to the nation is presented as a contested cause to be championed. Strong cultures play songs so outdated and corny that you learned parody versions of them as a child. (“Be kind to your webbed-footed friends/’Cause a duck may be somebody’s moooooooother…”) If last year’s ceremonies were 90% weak culture and 10% strong enough culture to give me all the hope I needed, this year’s were more like 50/50.

And yes, once again Ray Charles slammed “America the Beautiful” out of the park.

As I said last year:

The old songs – even the national anthem – may well be past saving as central cultural products. But we can always make new cultural products. And we clearly have deep resources upon which to draw.

Turns out not even the old cultural products were quite as dead as I’d feared. God bless this beautiful country.