By Jonathan Bradley

OK, I’ve written about Martina McBride’s 1993 song “Independence Day” on 4th of Julys previous, but hopefully I won’t repeat myself on this one. There is a lot to say about the song; the Fourth is the day the story of the American founding, usually an unspoken but everpresent subtext in American culture, is brought to the surface and becomes something acknowledged, explored and celebrated. Art that uses this day as a motif forces ideas implicit in American life to be made explicit. If nothing else, you get an idea of what Americans think it is to be American.

I began thinking about this song recently when, during the our Key Issues in American Culture class (at the United States Studies Centre), Erin, the USSSoc’s President, proposed that in addition to the story of the Revolution and subsequent drafting of the Constituion that is the prevalent founding narrative of the United States, there existed an alternate story of the nation, which used the Bible as its founding document. Erin’s idea suggests two Americas: one based on liberty and self-government, the other on (Christian) faith. I like the notion, because it helps reconcile some of the more egregious paradoxes in American life.

McBride’s “Independence Day” combines both stories of America so naturally that on first listen, it isn’t clear how unusual that combination is. The central conceit underpinning the song is that it is a telling of a personal story using the symbols of the American natonal story; a woman, tired of her husband’s abuse, revenges herself on him by burning their house down (it’s not stated, but I suspect he perished in that fire). And it all happens on Independence Day.

McBride explicitly sings about the woman’s “revolution,” the verse references the lyrics of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the chorus begins “Let freedom ring…”; this is hardly an allegory designed to be subtle. But apart from all the patriotic detritus floating around the track, there is also a strain of the religious as well, something that has nothing to do with the uprising against the British forces or self-determination. The song’s violent act — a fire — has Old Testament rather than military overtones (though the lyric “She lit up the sky that Fourth of July” also hints at fireworks), as does the idea of swift and destructive action being an appropriate punishment for sin. The lyric preceding the title in the chorus makes the song’s religiosity even more evident: “Roll the stone away, it’s Independence Day.”

Wait, what? “Roll the stone away?” Exactly what does the Resurrection have to do with the American Revolution. But this reference, seemingly airdropped into a song about something entirely different, works. McBride, starting off with an allusion to America’s birth, transforms it into a reference to American salvation so naturally this disconnect is barely noticeable. The America of “Independence Day” is a state safeguarding individual freedom while similtaneously being God’ beacon of liberty guiding the world.

(Interestingly, despite the genuine patriotic joy expressed in “Let freedom ring!” and the almost disturbingly pugilistic “Let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning,” the song has an, at best, ambivalent conclusion, one which suggests none of the characters emerge better off. The house-igniting woman appears to be psychologically damaged by the abuse, and when the narrative concludes, she has lost her home and her daughter. This “Independence Day” has not the triumphant victory America usually celebrates each July.)

But what makes the song truly compelling is that, quite apart from all thematic complexity, it is a sharply drawn story with strong characterisation and resonant lyrics. The setting itself feels classically American without being trite. It is told from the point of view of the abused woman’s daughter, and there’s a nice sense of the mundane in between the more dramatic moments in the song. “I was just eight years old that summer, and I always seemed to be in the way,” McBride relates, making herself a universal observer (what kid doesn’t know what it’s like to feel in the way?) to the plot, and enabling her to narrate it with a candid remove. And she situates herself in what feels a highly naturalistic circumstance: “So I took myself down to the fair in town/on Independence Day.” In between the grand notions of America as God’s Country and America as Land of the Free sits these small scenes of America as a place where kids run off to the fair on a national holiday. Very often, these portrayals of the United States are incompatable. McBride glues them together the way — well, the way they’re glued together in real life America.

And if you’ve made it this far, do remember that on this Independence Day, the 4th of July 2009, the USSSoc is throwing its own celebration, at the Australian Youth Hotel in Glebe. Do take a look at our invite, and do join us.

All USSSoc blog posts reflect the opinions of the writer, and are not reflective of the views of the USSSoc.