Be warned: it’s not common for British songwriters to come out with a song which unabashedly says “BLIMEY! AMERICA IS FLIPPING BRILLIANT, ISN”T IT!?” and the reasons for this are twofold,
1: It looks too much like sucking up, which is a bit soppy for us.
2: Songwriters find it very hard to write songs which declare that ANYTHING is brilliant. Wide-eyed glee is an emotion which is very hard to get across in song form without sounding a little unhinged. That’s why you most often find America viewed through the mirror of some other situation, like the wannabes and fakes depicted in the Arctic Monkeys song “Fake Tales of San Fransisco,” the inference being America is great, but you’re not, faker.
However, if you read between the lines of certain songs, you can tell that the writer is so impressed with America’s scale and boundless energy, that they’re overwhelmed by being there. “BLIMEY IT’S SO AMAZING IN AMERICA I AM TIRED JUST LOOKING AT ALL THE NEON LIGHTS!?” is the best you can hope for, really. Here are five examples:
David Bowie – “Young Americans”
You’ve got to admire the chutzpah of a man who decides to throw the line “do you remember your President Nixon” into a song two DAYS after the man resigned his post. This is a British man’s culture shock in song form, but funky. David’s looking around 1974 America with awe and confusion, and throwing it all into one of the most uplifting songs he ever wrote. It’s part social critique, part astonishment and all brilliant.
Mind you, he did also write a song called “I’m Afraid Of Americans,” as well as “This Is Not America” so maybe we’ll chalk him up as ‘undecided.’
Kim Wilde – “Kids In America”
*strokes chin* Hey, do you think someone had been listening to Blondie at all? Oh and keep your ears out for the blokey refrain at the end, in which Kim’s backing band emulate the sound of a choir of Johnny Rottens, for proper punk credibility. There is indeed a new waye coming, Kim, but you are in no position to warn us about it.
Supertramp – “Breakfast In America
An unchivalrous and unashamedly ’70s ditty, in which a man in a band moans that his proper girlfriend is not as attentive to his many and various needs as the girls he meets on tour in America. This is largely why it’s a bad idea to trust the word of British pop stars when considering what Americais really like. Especially ’70s stars, who were treated more like visiting Roman emporers than cultural analysts.
Razorlight – “America”
Cards on the table, I’ve a really low tolerance for songs about being dissatisfied with the songs on the TV and radio, especially those written in the internet era. It’s really, really easy to find music to listen to, and unless you’re being a total mirror-kissing songwriter bore, obsessed with your own genius, there’s always something new to find and obsess over. So when Johnny Borrell writes a song about watching America for his whole life, with that air of fey disappointment, the only sane conclusion to draw is that he’s not been looking properly.
The Proclaimers – “Letter From America”
Trust folk music to bring the bitter reality into focus. Here we have a song about having to leave home (in this case Scotland) to set up a new life in America. It carries echoes of the Highland Clearances (where landowners evicted whole communities in order to rear sheep) and of every economic exodus since. The message may be relatively sweet, compared to, say, “Kilkelly, Ireland”, but the feeling is the same. Yes America is astonishing, but look what you’ve left behind to get there.
So there we have it, the States, consider yourself complimented. Trust me, it gets a lot worse in Part 2: Great British Songs Insulting America (coming soon).