Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century

Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century

Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century

Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century

Synopsis

Identifying music as a vital site of cultural debate, Struggling to Define a Nation captures the dynamic, contested nature of musical life in the United States. In an engaging blend of music analysis and cultural critique, Charles Hiroshi Garrett examines a dazzling array of genres--including art music, jazz, popular song, ragtime, and Hawaiian music--and numerous well-known musicians, such as Charles Ives, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Irving Berlin. Garrett argues that rather than a single, unified vision, an exploration of the past century reveals a contested array of musical perspectives on the nation, each one advancing a different facet of American identity through sound.

Excerpt

On the night of 28 April 2006, when the recording “Nuestro Himno” (Our anthem) debuted on hundreds of Spanish-language radio stations across the United States, its premiere confirmed that the act of making music can have important political repercussions. As the first single from a multiartist album entitled Somos Americanos (We are Americans), the song attempts to enact in sound an affirmation of group pride. Moving in a slowly majestic tempo, it features ensemble choruses, a familiar hymnlike melody, and Spanish lyrics. Considering that it was concocted by a British producer, Adam Kidron, and features a roster of gifted Afro-Caribbean and Latin American musicians—among them the Haitian performer Wyclef Jean, the Mexican rock singer Gloria Trevi, the Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Ivy Queen, and the Cuban-American rapper Pitbull—some might deem “Nuestro Himno” a modern-day multicultural anthem or an expression of panLatin pride. Yet it instead became a musical lightning rod for both harsh criticism and enthusiastic praise. Perhaps this musical premiere would not have set off alarms under different circumstances. But what made “Nuestro Himno” so divisive arose from its historical context as well as the revisionist strategy applied to the material on which the song was based: the national anthem of the United States.

This was certainly not the first time that an unconventional interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” generated public outcry. José Feliciano, Marvin Gaye, and Jimi Hendrix are among the performers who have been charged with taking too many musical liberties or injecting political overtones. But, as its creators freely acknowledged, “Nuestro Himno” is less a literal interpretation than a musical reinterpretation of the anthem. in fact, the introduction to this heavily produced recording initially makes one expect a typical contemporary pop ballad, complete with chanted vocal interjections . . .

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