Rodney Atkins’ “It’s America,” which he debuted on last month’s CMA Awards broadcast, is presumptuous and without substance. More importantly, it makes poor use of subjective personal pronouns.
The first single from Atkins’ upcoming project, “It’s America” boasts a chorus that rattles off a list of very pleasant nostalgia meant to conjure the warm and fuzzies in all of us country bumpkins, with all of “it” finally climaxing into the supposedly lump-in-throat-inducing catch phrase “it’s America.”
But wait…what’s America? What is the “it” that supposedly represents this nation of millions? Is “it” really, as the song suggests, “A man on the moon?” Think about that: A man on the moon is America. That sentence doesn’t even make sense.
And that is exactly why this song represents both the worst of contemporary country music and the worst of contemporary patriotism. It’s not because of bad grammar (a crime all its own), but because here syntax and meaning have both been displaced by symbolism. The actual words don’t mean two shakes of a dog’s tail. The “it” Atkins is singing about has nothing to do with Springsteen or lemonade stands or technological advances or anything else mentioned in the lyrics—these things are only tokens meant to reaffirm an image of what some consider the pure America, the wholesome America, or the ideal America. It is not a song meant to define what America “is,” it’s a song meant to reinforce what a slice of the population already believes—that “real” Americans are essentially the same, that there is some set of “core American values,” and that patriotism means never complaining, never asking questions, and never challenging the ideas we’ve acquired through our political socialization.
It doesn’t matter that the “it” in “It’s America” doesn’t mean anything, because we’re not supposed to actually turn our brains on and think about what’s coming out of Atkins’ mouth. “Just listen to the song and enjoy it,” people will say. Or, “It’s just a song.” The reaction it is meant to elicit is a gut reaction—“it” is what we believe to be true because of what we feel, not because of what we know. “It” is what makes us say, “America is the best country in the world, dadgummit.” And if the song were boiled down to its elemental parts, if most of it were removed or altered, it would not make a single bit of difference, because what matters is not what “it” is, but what “it” represents. Atkins could be singing about high school football games, hanging out at the lake on a long hot summer day, or two old men playing checkers at the courthouse square (none of which appear here)—it doesn’t matter, because the images utilized are only relevant in that they serve as confirmations.
But it isn’t just a song. And it isn’t harmless. It’s a three and half minute message that’s going to be blasted into millions of homes and cars from coast to coast for the next three months or more. And to imply or expect that we shouldn’t think about what it means (and doesn’t mean) is absolutely absurd.
That’s what mainstream country has become, however, to a large degree in 2008—a place where symbolism trumps everything else and where any song that asks us to think is an outlier. Mainstream radio reinforces that we’re country, that we love God, and, of course, as is the case here, that America is a land of milk and honey where everyone who is willing to work gets a fair and equal shot at the American Dream, and where everyone pitches in to help out their neighbors.
To that end, the only acknowledgment this song makes to any part of the complex nature or nuance of our great nation comes in one line of a two line bridge that passes so quickly it is not only expendable but almost unnoticeable if you’re not listening for it, one line that declares that “We don’t always get it right,” and which is immediately thereafter canceled out by the proclamation that “There’s nowhere else I’d rather build my life.”
“We don’t always get it right” is a line composed of the same mass as the rest of the song—zero. It’s designed as a counterweight to those who might criticize “It’s America” for being too positive, thereby giving critics like myself an easy out, a way to say that Atkins does indeed acknowledge America’s imperfect nature.
While Atkins is singing about Springsteen songs, he fails to tap into any bit of the dusty Americana that makes the Boss’ music enduring and quintessentially American. While Atkins is singing about lemonade stands, he seemingly fails to recognize that they are, by and large, a thing of the past, that we live in a society where parents are so protective of their children and fearful for their safety that there’s no way most of them would allow their kids to set up and sell drinks to strangers on the street. The “Picture perfect postcard” Atkins sees is one printed in black and white, and is one which is perfectly incomplete and sentimentalized. It’s not that anything he’s singing about is incorrect—it’s that all of these things are discussed only topically, as if the character of America can really be summed up by “Fireflies in June” or by saying “One nation under God” in the pledge of allegiance.
That may be what Atkins or his audience wants America to be, but that’s not what America is.
That’s not to say that a song of this nature should neutrally discuss the state of the nation–this is, after all, a positive proclamation and there’s nothing wrong with that. But “It’s America” pretends that the images it presents as fundamental exist in isolation, which simply isn’t true. And it makes no attempt to discuss why those images are personally relevant or important to the singer, which just advances the idea that personal relevance is irrelevant and that these symbols of America are universal.
“It’s America” is a symbol not a song, an advertisement not art. And maybe in that we find the most true metaphor relating to this discussion: When it comes to mainstream contemporary art, perhaps this song is America.