Toby Keith out of tune with reality
By Julia Keller
Tribune cultural critic
Published July 21, 2002
Alexander Pope had an inkling of what made certain works of art resonate so powerfully. They suggest "what oft was thought/But ne'er so well expressed." They deliver words, images or ideas that make us shiver with sudden recognition: Yes, we say to ourselves, that's just how I feel.
Conversely, there are works that evoke the opposite: Nope, not even close.
Contrary to tradition
The latter precisely describes my reaction to "Courtesy of The Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)," the odious but wildly popular new tune by country music performer Toby Keith. I was especially dismayed because country music has always been associated with a willingness to take on political and social issues in a straightforward, heartfelt way, a way that avoids mere loudmouthed loutishness. Until now.
Keith says his song, which appears on the "Unleashed" CD that shows up in stores Tuesday, is his response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He also claims that he's speaking for the nation: "It was," Keith confidently declared in an interview, "the way everybody felt when they saw those two buildings fall."
The song is a crude caricature of true American values, as it snarls with schoolyard braggadocio and bristles with taunts and threats and coarse language: "The big dog will fight/When you rattle his cage/And you'll be sorry that you messed with/the U.S. of A./'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way."
You're a real tough guy, aren't you, Toby?
He's got it backward
In fact, the song does little more than echo the sentiments of the terrorists who perpetrated the terrible crimes of Sept. 11: If you don't like somebody, wellsir, just step right up and wipe 'em out. Simple as that. "Courtesy of The Red, White & Blue" makes us no better than the fiends who attacked us.
Compare Keith's silly, chest-thumping antics with how two other country music performers reacted to Sept. 11: Alan Jackson's thoughtful "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" and, in what provides an even starker contrast to Keith's macho bluster, the startlingly lovely "American Child" by Phil Vassar.
A sky-is-the-limit attitude
"American Child" is a much more effective retort to Sept. 11 because it reminds us of what's special about this nation -- not our blood lust, but our freedoms and the limitless possibilities our citizens enjoy: "I was ten, I was thin, I was playing first base/with a secondhand glove and dirt on my face/in nowhere Virginia -- who'd ever figure/that kid in the yard would go very far?"
But the kid does go far because, as Vassar sings, "Dreams can grow wild born inside an American child."
That's what makes us better than those who attacked us: Our dreams and the people who harbor them. Not our barroom bravado.
Do we need to punish those responsible for Sept. 11? Of course. And we're doing that. But the idea that the only legitimate response to that terrible day is to become as blind, bloodthirsty and bombastic as the terrorists themselves -- the essence of Keith's song -- is insulting. Our nation seeks justice, not vengeance.
Terrorists know all about vengeance -- it's their meat and drink. What they don't know about are beat-up baseball gloves and fair play and entrepreneurship and all of the other things, abstract and tangible, of which this great nation is made.
Vassar's song includes another poignant line, a nod to the sacrifices sometimes necessary to keep the country safe for its dreamers: "My grandfather would have been 80 today but in '45 he fell down beside/an American child." The grandfather's motivation wasn't the wish to plant a boot in somebody's rear end to prove his manhood; it was, Vassar's song implies, the memory of a kid's face, an American flag snapping in a crisp autumn breeze, a sunset seen from a front porch in a small Midwestern town.
The publicity trail
Keith reaped a bonanza of publicity for his song when ABC decided not feature it on its July 4th special. He got to act all dissed and outraged, reifying the bully's blather in his song. He stomped around in his shiny new cowboy boots and got himself booked on radio and TV shows to whine about his plight.
Vengeance is for sissies. It takes women and men of genuine courage to absorb a monumental blow such as the events of Sept. 11, feel a surpassing grief and bottomless rage, and then use those emotions as fuel to make wisdom -- or, in Jackson's and Vassar's case, memorable music.
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune