America’s a pretty great country, isn’t it? The spacious skies, amber waves of grain and all that. But there’s more to the nation than just one shade. Move from one state to the next, and you’ll discover different customs, accents, and insight about the land that 314 million people call home. Our list of the Best Songs About America doesn’t just look at the U.S. through a pair of red, white and blue glasses. We’ve got some patriotic and joyful songs, but we’ve also got some angry and frustrated ones. They’re all part of the American experience.
One of Paul Simon‘s greatest compositions rolls out like a travelogue of America, as seen through the eyes of a pair of young, hopeful lovers as they crisscross the country by car and bus. What they find at the other end of their journey doesn’t always coincide with their ideals. But it was the late ’60s, and there wasn’t a whole lotta hope going around back then.
Petty’s first classic, and the closing song on his debut album is all about a girl as American as apple pie. But it’s not all red, white and blue glory. “Raised on promises,” she’s restless, always searching for something more. Something else. When Petty passionately sings, “God, it’s so painful when something that’s so close is still so far out of reach,” he’s referring as much to the heartbroken girl (recalling a distant memory of some guy somewhere) as he is the American dream.
Bruce Springsteen’s anti-anthem has been misinterpreted and misappropriated for so long that most fans have given up defending it. ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ is no patriotic flag-waver. The main character of Springsteen’s gut-wrenching song has been beaten down and betrayed by his country, which shipped him off to fight a war and forgot about him once he came home. (Flip over the 1984 single for ‘Shut Out the Light,’ a companion tale every bit as despairing.)
John Mellencamp celebrated his partial victory over his record company in getting his real name on an album cover by getting serious for the first time. Like ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ (see elsewhere on our list of the Best Songs About America), ‘Pink Houses’ looks at a side of American life often shoved aside or just plain ignored. But unlike Springsteen’s song, Mellencamp’s offers a little bit of hope in the end.
There’s nothing more American than celebrating your God-given right as a rock star to indulge in as many hedonistic adventures as possible. The Michigan-bred Grand Funk Railroad had racked up four Top 10 albums in a row before they released ‘We’re an American Band.’ So they undoubtedly had some experience with groupies, as they detail in their first No. 1 hit. Apparently, it was quite a night: The hotel detective was summoned, rooms were trashed and willing young ladies were ready to “get it on.”