There is nothing I love more than when Pop Culture mocks itself. For those who don’t know, Top Secret! was a 1984 Jim Abrams and David Zucker film that parodies World War II spy flicks, but in this absurd version rock and roll idol Nick Rivers (played by Val Kilmer) is central in the rescue of an imprisoned scientist in East Germany. I watched this movie REPEATEDLY as a kid, and while it’s a fairly terrible film I do still enjoy the mashups of imagery and sounds with which we’re all familiar, care of the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley among others. Take, for example, the song “Skeet Surfin'” that ran during the opening credits: a hilarious commentary on the place of firearms within American culture. Well, maybe not so hilarious if we think about it seriously. But (starting at 5 o’clock today) it’s the weekend! So enjoy this bit if Friday Funny.
To further illustrate the everlasting impacts of historic events on popular culture is this Portugal. The Man Take Away Show recorded in Paris, France. Aside from the latent choice of performing a song titled “So American” in a foreign country (such an American thing to do), this is a legacy song that synthesizes decades of U.S. history. In deconstructing the song critically, we see specifically American tropes and challenges highlighted in under four minutes.
Jesus Christ enters the song first and points to the country’s foundation as a Christian escape from religious persecution; to this day, the country that emblazons its currency with “In God We Trust” while bestowing religious institutions with tax-exempt status struggles to separate Church and State. This is immediately followed by a shout-out to rock and roll, the instantly identifiable American genre and possibly one the greatest American contributions to music. Music, in and of itself, is no stranger to religion and is used heavily in church to reinforce the gospel. Gospel and Blues, when viewed as secular genres both rooted in slavery, beget Rock and Roll, and although Jesus didn’t know no rock and roll it’s interesting that this type of music has been exalted by many to religious status as a supplement for religions that had alienated them. Take, for example, Rockabilly teenagers who craft their entire existence around a movement that had its moment in the 1950s. That type of immersion takes a religious devotion, and offers the same sense of belonging as that of a worshipping community within traditional brick and mortar churches. This sense of community, I believe, is the essential lure of religion today.
Next up is the Vietnam War, the watermark of American shame. During this conflict, American G.I.s were sent into foreign jungles to quash a civil war so as to prevent the spread of communism into the American sphere of influence. Sound like the logic of a deranged lunatic? That’s because it was; it was the result of many men infected by Red Fever enacting the Domino Theory in which they had been politically raised and would dominate American politics throughout the Cold War. And what did those GIs bring with them to Vietnam? Rock and roll. The domestic impact of the Vietnam War, fueled by anti-war songs, occurred in tandem with the general unrest of the 1960s that included, among other events too numerous to list, the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of not one but two Kennedys.
In retrospect we must ask ourselves that which Portugal. The Man implores: is there madness in us all? Did we inherit this chaos as vegetables soak up chemicals from the soil? The entirety of the 1960s and 1970s seems anathema to American values, as does the institution of slavery (ironically, perpetuated by direct descendants of persecuted Christians) when viewed with the perspective afforded 21st-century citizens. We were raised to revere the American flag because it stood for liberty, equality and justice for all, but once we grew into our critical thinking skills we were left to wonder: who broke the rules, and where are we supposed to turn when the policemen don’t even understand?
So, you see, this Portugal. The Man song truly IS so American. It’s a conscious rebuttal to the past that ends with the nullifying “There’s two eyes for every one of us, but somebody got there first and took them all.” Americans are aware of their sins, but unable to atone for them because they cannot see through the haze of the past. This isn’t our fault, either, because the ability to see, our crucial sense of sight has literally been taken away from us by those who broke the rules, obfuscated the truth, and smiled while they did it.
No wonder we’ve all gone mad.