Toby Keith, an American country music singer, has played a large role in American nationalism through nationalistic ideals that can be seen and heard in his music. Most notably, his song, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” peaked at number one in 2002 over the 4th of July weekend, the year after its debut. This illustrates Benedict Anderson’s point of nationalism being defined as an imagined nation and inventing a nation where one does not exist (Anderson). The audience that this song appealed to is an imagined audience because they do not, and will not ever know each other; however, they are an invented nation under the influences of this song. The fact that the song debuted at number one over the 4th of July weekend is just another illustration of imagined community and comradeship that Anderson describes as the phenomenon of nationalism.
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Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” was written in 2001 in honor of his patriotic father and the events that occurred on September 11th 2001. At first, Keith performed the song exclusively for soldiers at live performances. Due to the song’s popularity among audiences, it debuted for the general public on his next album in 2002. Despite being written for nationalistic purposes, this song also displays an array of nationalistic elements unique to America.
Country music has been viewed as representative of general America ever since Aaron Copland, the first composer to ever achieve a style that represented and appealed to America, began publishing “cowboy songs” he used in Music for Radio (1937) and continued to use in the ballets Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942) (New Grove Dictionary of Music Online). It is the vision of “the West” and folk music influences that give country music an American feel. In “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue”, the music is very simple. Keith sings, at first, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. He sounds somber and the message is clear that he is singing about his father and the attacks on September 11th. He is then joined by many other instruments such as an electric guitar, drums, and the piano during the chorus. His singing also builds in intensity and he now sounds prideful and passionate. After the chorus, it goes back to just him singing and the one guitar until the end of the song. By having a mostly acoustic song, it really allows the lyrics to shine and the audience to be able to sing along. That in itself is nationalistic because it allows for everyone to participate. The country influence is seen in the twang of his voice and the simple guitar chords he plays.
The song opens with the line: “American girls and American guys will always stand up and salute.” The song calls out specifically to Americans in the very first line and brings attention to our nation’s flag. Throughout the song, Keith references historically significant elements such as “Uncle Sam”, “the Statue of Liberty”, and also referring to America as the “eagle” which is the national bird of America.
The most controversial part of the song is where the attacks from September 11th are referenced.
“Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage: This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage. An’ you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. ‘Cos we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.”
After September 11th, Americans were rallied against the terrorism that took place and everyone experienced a deep sense of pride. With that pride, came the desire to take action against terrorism which is exactly what Keith states in his lyrics. You can just picture audiences listening to this verse and screaming “Yeah!”
One of the important musical aspects of the song is that it starts out slow pace and builds up in speed and intensity as it reaches the chorus and the most patriotic part of the song. The buildup creates a tension that is released once the chorus comes, the most intense part of the song. He also emphasizes certain words and phrases such as, “Red, White, and Blue”, “the fourth of July”, and “Mother freedom”. The emphasis reinforces the theme of the song because all of the emphasized words are patriotic.
Keith is actually subtle throughout the whole song and never comes out and says anything. The meaning is implied which is why it is so significant to Americans. Every American whether or not they have anything in common, all can understand the meaning of this song.
The timing of this song is another reason it has a strong nationalistic influence. It is a song that was a part of another bigger movement after September 11th. After September 11th the American nation saw a resurgence of American pride. There was a huge jump in enlistment into the ARMY, the American flag could be seen everywhere, and people like Toby Keith were expressing their feelings about it through music. Anderson states, “Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings”. This statement sheds light on why people are inspired to fight for America or write songs about America after such tragedy. It is the camaraderie people feel when something terrible happens to their country. The final line in Keith’s song says “courtesy of my Red, White, and Blue” and the fact that he says “my” instills a sense of pride in the audience, like this is my country. This sense of pride in one’s country that people felt was nationalism.
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As illustrated in the case study, people can create a national community through music. It doesn’t necessarily have to be part of a bigger movement; it just has to instill nationalistic feeling or nationalistic invoking thoughts in the audience. In this particular case it was both. The song created thoughts of America fighting back, together, against terrorism and brought up America’s history. Historic elements are also an important part of nationalistic music. Whether it be through musical influence like, country style music, or lyrics that call attention to historical events; history is what bonds a community. History is what a nation has in common and that is when an “imaginary nation” is created. This song in particular is even historic because of the events it is written about. The generation that was around when it was written will always remember that day when they hear this song. They will always feel that sense of pride when Keith mentions “the eagle” flying and “the Statue of Liberty shaking her fist”. The reason nationalism is so hard to describe is for that very reason. It is based on feelings, and abstract things like sense of community, pride, and brotherhood. Music is a way nationalism can be expressed in a widespread sense.
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