Great music can create history. History can also create great music.
When the United States was brutally attacked in the Autumn of 2001, most recording artists reacted by temporarily toning down their usual liberalism. Groups like Rage Against the Machine – whose lyrics speak openly of bombing government buildings among other things – decided not to protest when their music was blacklisted on every responsible radio station in the country. Left-leaning outfits like Green Day (who would later record the horrible song ‘American Idiot’), chose to remain silent rather than agitate while the bodies were still warm. Even rap artists refused to exonerate or understand the killings and a Dr Dre track entitled ‘Kill Bin Laden’ was at one point rumoured to be in production (the track was later cancelled).
After about a month, the liberal truce fell away and things returned very much to normal. Later, when Europeans ended what had been up-till-then a remarkable period of solidarity and rejoined the traditional “dumb American” narrative bolstered by talk of an ‘unjustified’ war, many US musicians and celebrities treacherously joined with them. In 2003, when anti-US hatred and victim-blaming reached a shameful apex, almost every US recording artist of note was speaking out against the march to war in Iraq and against the US president – the “stupid fat, cowboy Texan” (and American hero) George W. Bush.
Almost every recording artist…. Almost.
There were exceptions to the idiotic trend described. Perhaps the exceptions are not very well known internationally, but inside the US, every Patriot will have observed who stood by the flag in an hour when the world was mocking it.
One of those exceptions was a gentleman named Toby Keith.
Toby Keith was an established country artist long before 2001, enjoying great success within the broad confines of the Southern and Heartland country music scene. But his name would become much more famous and controversial after the Islamist attacks of that September.
Keith, who suffered the passing of his USAF veteran father around the same time of the atrocity penned a song in reaction to it that is now notorious.
“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)”.
This song is unabashedly patriotic and admonishes in a swaggering, confident voice those responsible for the hijackings. The lyrics include the following –“My daddy served in the army, even lost his right eye,
But he kept a flag out in our yard till the day that he died,
He wanted my mother, my brother, my sister and me
To grow old and live happy in the land of the free.
Now this country that I love is falling under attack,
A mighty sucker-punch came flyin’ in from somewhere in the back,
As soon as we could see clearly out of our black eye, Man we lit up your world like the fourth of July.”
The last line here offended many. Keith is referring to the bombardment of Afghanistan (the song was written before Iraq), and many thought the boast of ‘lighting up’ someone’s world with incendiary bombs was somewhat tasteless.
But many weren’t offended by it. Many loved it, and Keith’s album ‘Unleashed’ topped the Billboard 200.
Later during the Iraq war, Keith penned other songs in a patriotic vein like the hit single ‘American Soldier’, and (mocking his critics) even titled the 2003 follow-up to Unleashed, “Shock’n Ya’ll” after the recent bombing of Baghdad. This second album transcended the achievement of Unleashed and reached number 1 in the first week of release. Just as the Dixie Chicks were by then strongly associated with anti-war sentiment, Keith’s name was now synonymous with support for the Bush regime and with patriotism more broadly.
Over in Britain, I suppose it’s harder for people to comprehend the idea of a patriotic singer topping the charts.
In the UK, there is no Toby Keith figure, or even a tradition of patriotic music to produce one. The nearest equivalent Britain has to country music is folk; a genre equal parts unpopular and dronefully uninspiring.
Some time ago I remember listening (out of curiosity) to the BNP internet radio station – Radio Red, White and Blue. Most of the airtime was taken up with nationalistic folk tunes with lyrics like
“What would good old Winston say,
If he could see England today…?”.
The songs were the opposite of uplifting. They were funny, but not in any way the artists could have intended. They harked back to the simple, boring Britain of the 1930s. Whereas Toby Keith’s America was about fireworks, shopping-malls, rodeos, megachurches and capitalism, the folk scene of radio RWB reminisced about a Britain of petticoats, tea-cosys, patterned wall-paper and WI meetings.
Can’t we do better than this?
Toby Keith’s patriotism is complemented by a more general social conservatism, as is evidenced in the song “Beer for my horses”, especially the lines (sung by Willie Nelson)“Grandpappy told my pappy, back in my day son,
A man had to answer for the wicked that he done.
Get all the rope in Texas,
Find a tall oak tree,
Round up all of them bad boys
Hang em’ high in the street….
….For all the people to see.”
This utopian vision of old-school justice was the subject of further criticism for Keith, but the singer dug down admirably and defended the song, denying any of the racist undertones some had suspected.
Back in blighty, I think there’s a genuine market for a singer espousing such views. But to be successful, unlike those played on radio RWB, he can’t be a laughable George Formby figure from a buried age, but someone identifiably modern and talented.
That is another of Keith’s distinctions: talent. Consider these lines from “Made in America:“My old man is that old man
Spent his life living off the land;
Dirty hands and a clean soul.
It breaks his heart seeing foreign cars
Filled with fuel that isn’t ours,
And wearing cotton we didn’t grow.”
This verse has a real poetic quality, one that many wouldn’t expect from the genre (or even the nationality).
I won’t list all my favourite tracks and lyrics here. It would take too long. Let’s just say I highly recommend listening to Keith’s records, even if you’re British. To help you start, his best album in my opinion is still Unleashed. After this go on chronologically. Shock’n’Ya’ll is a superb second place and is let down soley by being too polished.
One day I dream of escaping the confines of my gentle, quietly imploding England and flying to America, whereupon I replant myself somewhere in the Bible Belt. Somewhere like Birmingham, Alabama, or Nashville, Tennessee. The pull of these places involves their social warmth and cultural confidence. That confidence is protected by heroes like Toby Keith. When Britain, now so ill, produces a matching equivalent of him, it will be a sign that some kind of recovery has begun.