Patriotic Music and Cultural Identity
How is it that patriotic songs resonate so deeply?
Posted Jun 30, 2016
Stars and Stripes Forever
The Star Spangled Banner
God Bless the USA
America the Beautiful
Born in the USA
Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue
This Land is Your Land
God Bless America
These are just a handful of the dozens of songs that instill a sense of patriotism and pride for Americans. These are also some of the songs many will play (or hear) during this weekend’s Fourth of July celebrations. These are songs played at sports games, official government events, and even impromptu memorial performances (BTW I got chills with this one).
How is it that these patriotic songs resonate so deeply? How is it that they are able to bring about a shared sense of unity? How is it that music can be such a strong carrier of cultural identity?
There are many ways to explore these questions, one of which is through examining music’s function in our lives.
Function describes purpose. In other words, examining music’s function in our lives means we consider the reasons behind why we listen to or create music. In his seminal work The Anthropology of Music, anthropologist Alan Merriam (1964) outlined ten principal functions of music he observed when exploring the role of music across different cultures. Three of his functions hold particular significance for the purpose of this discussion:
1) Validation of social institutions and religious rituals.
This occurs when music is used during official state functions, religious ceremonies, and other institutional events. This role of music is at play every time you hear The Star Spangled Banner prior to an official event, Pomp and Circumstance during graduation, Here Comes the Bride to usher in the bride, taps at a military funeral service, even Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the 7th inning stretch. Music functions in a sense to confirm or legitimate the solemness and integrity of the occasion. Given that many of these occasions reflect a ritual for a particular culture, music, by extension, serves as a way to support that culture’s tradition.
2) Contribution to the continuity and stability of culture.
This functions describes how music provides a reflection and expression of cultural identity and cultural values. Here, I am reminded of Tony Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue. I lived in Washington DC in the summer of 2002, when the country was still reeling from the aftermath of September 11th. This song was released that summer, and I remember listening to the track over and over and over again, and feeling strongly that this song really reflected the current sentiment of the time…that we Americans would “put a boot in their a**, it’s the American way.” In a sense, this song provided an outlet for what many in the US felt in that time and place.
This is, of course, not the only example. In a more longitudinal sense music serves as a carrier of cultural identity and values. We pass on our the identities of our many cultures through music, including our religious, national, social, ethnic, gender, geographical, even generational cultures. Music provides a thread that passes on cultural identities and values from generation to generation.
3) Contribution to the integration of society.
Music helps bring people together. This is a rather unique quality of music—it can connect people. This connection can be communicative in the sense of how it can be used as a way to interact with each other; it can be physical in that it entrains motor activity between people; and it can be emotional, through facilitating a shared group emotional experience. When Americans hear The Star Spangled Banner, we as a group feel a common sense of pride. And when we listen to God Bless the USA, it’s not uncommon to find groups of people standing together with their arms draped on each others shoulders, swaying in time to the beat.
In these ways, the patriotic songs that will play over the radio, TV, Pandora, and Spotify this weekend serve a much larger purpose than simply entertainment. They carry and pass on our American identity and values; they signify and remind us of the importance of our independence; and they remind us of our shared bond as American citizens.
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Merriam, A. P. (1964). The anthropology of music. Chicago: Northwestern University Press.