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Patriotic tunes of the past fill a void today
The most popular songs in America these days -- the tunes that are on practically everyone's lips -- were not penned by rappers or rockers or heavy metal guitarists.
Nor are they hawked in the record stores or downloaded eagerly off of the Internet.
On the contrary, the biggest songs in the nation were written decades ago by songwriters that most folks under age 30 probably never heard of. In an age when sweet melody ostensibly is out of fashion, it's almost impossible to turn on a TV set or a radio without hearing someone crooning "God Bless America," "America the Beautiful," "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Battle Hymn of the Republic" or other, comparably patriotic odes.
That America should be singing nationalistic anthems at this time comes as no surprise, but one has to wonder why tunes of more recent vintage -- say those written 5, 10 or even 20 years ago -- haven't come to the fore. Why, after all, has "God Bless America," a piece of music unveiled more than 60 years ago, on the eve of World War II, practically dominated our airwaves ever since Sept. 11?
The answer may lie in the ways America has changed since Irving Berlin created the song, when all (or most) of America listened to the same music, saw the same films and shared the same popular culture.
The country that we live in today, by contrast, has become so fragmented that it's almost impossible to imagine a recent song that embraces and appeals to all tastes, ethnicities and demographics. We are accustomed to getting our music from radio stations that cater exclusively to our own particular niche, whether it's "lite rock" (WLIT-FM 93.9), mainstream jazz (WDCB-FM 90.9) or Mexican regional (WOJO-FM 105.1). If we enjoy commercial pop, we watch MTV; if we like our music a bit softer and skewing a bit older, we tune into VH-1.
Fitting into niches
When we go to the record store, the blues fans head to a different aisle than the country music fans, while the classical devotees generally depart to another room altogether (it's usually walled off and soundproofed).
But the niche marketing of music isn't the only way we have been transformed into a thousand different Americas. We think of ourselves as white-collar, blue-collar or pink-collar. We're proud to be black, white, Hispanic or Asian. We're under 40 (and hotly pursued by advertisers) or over 40 (and not). We're cable subscribers or satellite-dish users or neither. We're cruising the information superhighway or we're missing out on it. We're college-educated or under-educated. We're from the red states that voted for George Bush or the blue states that went for Al Gore.
Practically everything about life in America divides us into distinct groups who often have little or nothing in common, except geography -- we live on the same land mass (except if you're basking in the Hawaiian sun or shivering in Alaska). So how could we possibly find a recent tune that means the same thing to everyone and stirs all hearts in the same way?
The America in which Irving Berlin unveiled "God Bless America" (in 1939), on the other hand, was quite different, and not only because cable TV, the Internet and cell phones hadn't yet been invented. For better or worse, a single culture predominated in America, with just about everyone dancing to the same music (Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman), laughing at the same radio comedians (Bob Hope, Red Skelton and Fred Allen) and savoring the same movies ("The Wizard of Oz," "Gone With the Wind," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington").
Granted, this was a white, male, Eurocentric world that did not deal kindly with African-Americans, Jews, Asians, Hispanics or other "outsiders." Minority groups were left out of the halls of power; immigrants were expected to Americanize their names and master English if they hoped to get in WWII America.
Yet in a nation in which almost everyone shared the same language and entertainment (or tried to), a song such as "God Bless America" -- which was written for the Broadway stage and first performed in 1939 by Kate Smith -- could become an unofficial national anthem practically overnight. Its impact on the country proved so deep and pervasive, in fact, that at the start of the 21st Century, Americans in crisis again turned to "God Bless America" and songs of similar vintage.
In modern America, the past is about all that we really share, and patriotic old tunes link us to that past, and to each other. They're a life raft at a moment of peril, a sequence of notes and chords and lyrics that linger in the back of our minds, even though we barely realized they were there.
The proof is in the sheer ubiquity of the old tunes during the past few weeks. Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" was sung by Celine Dion during the telethon "America: A Tribute to Heroes," by Diana Ross at Shea Stadium during the first New York Mets game since the terrorist attack and by thousands at other baseball games around the country.
"The Star-Spangled Banner" has been nearly as popular, with everyone from Chicago jazz musician Kurt Elling to Daniel Barenboim's Chicago Symphony Orchestra opening recent concerts singing Francis Scott Key's only hit. "Battle Hymn of the Republic," meanwhile, turned up at Yankee Stadium during the interfaith service "A Prayer for America" and at the televised memorial service at Washington National Cathedral.
These songs have surged in popularity simply because they are among the only pieces that virtually everybody knows, the only works that inspire essentially the same emotional response in most American listeners.
Should the current adversity inspire Americans to continue to come together, as they have in the past few weeks, perhaps it's possible that someone will come up with a "God Bless America" for the new century, a tune that everyone hears and immediately embraces at a critical juncture in history, remembering it forever after.
Until then, "God Bless America" -- written by a Russian immigrant to celebrate a long-gone America -- and tunes like it will have to suffice.