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Thursday, April 18, 2019

April 18, 2019: Patriots’ Day Texts: “The Land of the Free”

[Only a couple New England states celebrate Patriots’ Day, which officially pays tribute to the colonial Minutemen who helped begin the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord. But the holiday offers a chance to think about patriotism in America more broadly, which I’ll do this week, starting with my annual Patriots’ Day post, continuing through a series on critically patriotic texts, and leading up to an update on my new AmericanStudying book!]
On two critically patriotic texts that together produce one of our best recent cultural works.
Despite their being one of my favorite 21st century bands, it seems that I’ve only written about The Killers in one paragraph of one post in this blog’s first 8.5 years. And that paragraph itself reveals the main reason why they haven’t shown up much here: not only has their music not generally engaged in the kinds of social or political commentary that typically lands musicians on the “pages” of AmericanStudies; but indeed they’ve offered critiques of those artists who do provide such commentary, at least in front man Brandon Flowers’ October 2006 criticisms of Green Day’s American Idiot album and tour that I referenced in that prior post. Of course no musical artist (or artist period) is required to do or feature any particular thing in their work; but unsurprisingly, many of my favorite artists (in all media) do include such social threads and themes more consistently in their works, so I can’t say I haven’t hoped that The Killers might not do so (and haven’t perhaps at times tried to read contemporary social issues into songs like 2012’s “Battle Born” that don’t necessarily entirely bear out such readings).
Well, in January of this year I got my wish, and indeed got way more than I could have predicted or imagined. That’s when The Killers released “Land of the Free,” their new single and a song that offers one of the most overt and compelling critically patriotic takes on American identity I’ve encountered in pop culture in a long while. “Land” shares much more than most of a title with one of my favorite American short stories, Sui Sin Far’s “In the Land of the Free (1912)”: like that story, the song opens with idyllic images of immigration and the American Dream, and then moves into a series of increasingly biting, critical depictions of the gaps between such national ideals and the lived realities and experiences for far too many Americans (if not indeed us all). The song features a number of such social issues, from racism, police profiling, and mass incarceration to mass shootings and gun violence. But its final verse returns to those opening themes of immigration for perhaps the most ironic engagement with the title phrase and ideal: “Down at the border, they’re gonna put up a wall/Concrete and Rebar steel beams/High enough to keep all those filthy hands off/Of our hopes and our dreams/People who just want the same things we do/In the land of the free.”
Such moments and lyrics would be more than enough to land “Land of the Free” in this week’s series, and on the short list of my favorite recent songs and works. But there’s a whole additional layer, one provided by filmmaker Spike Lee (!)’s stunning music video (really a short film unto itself in many ways). From what I can tell, Lee and his crew spent quite a bit of time with one or more of the migrant “caravans” that have received such over-the-top political and media attention over the last year, and the result is a short film that offers both profoundly humanizing depictions of those would-be asylum seekers and powerfully frustrating portrayals of the resistance and tear gas with which they have been met at the US-Mexico border. That film certainly embodies the song’s final verse, capturing both its critique of current policies and its patriotic recognition that these potential immigrants embody our national identity and ideals. But it’s also, again, a cultural work in its own right, and a striking addition to the career and oeuvre of one of our most consistently thoughtful, complicated, and critically patriotic filmmakers and artists.
Patriotic series continues tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other patriotic texts you’d highlight?

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