Nearly a year after Sept. 11, enough music has been recorded in reaction to the events of that day that it could form a sort of mini-genre. But of all the songs that have appeared, none has had the impact— commercially speaking— of country singer Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).” Largely on the strength of that single, Keith’s album Unleashed recently debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart, elbowing aside recent leader Nelly and even beating the latest release in the hugely successful Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation series.
Interestingly, Keith made a bold prediction of No. 1-level success for the song back in June. He claimed that ABC had offered to let him perform the tune on a July Fourth special and then reneged because Peter Jennings didn’t like it. Referring to the Canadian Jennings, Keith commented to USA Today at the time, “I find it interesting that he’s not from the U.S.” But, he said, the song would be huge without the network’s help. ABC, meanwhile, insisted that it hadn’t made Keith any promises and that its reasons for not booking had to do with schedule conflicts, not distaste for his song’s message.
Whatever the truth may be, it’s not hard to imagine that some people, at least, might be a little squeamish about some parts of Keith’s message. The tune, a driving and anthemic number very much in the mainstream-country mode, starts out treading a familiar I-love-America path—not surprisingly, since country music was one of the few cultural zones, pre-9/11, where fervent and irony-free patriotism was pretty much a given. Next comes a verse paying tribute to Keith’s father, an Army veteran. Then he sings that “this nation that I love has come under attack” and addresses a few words to the attackers about what happened next:
Soon as we could see clearly
Through our big black eye
Man, we lit up your world
Like the Fourth of July.
Keith riffs along with images like the Statue of Liberty shaking her fist, and a flying eagle, then more or less wraps things up with:
This 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 in a boot in your ass
It’s the American way.
Lex talionis, in other words. (At least the song was written before U.S. forces apparently “lit up” an Afghan wedding, right around the Fourth of July.) In any case, it’s precisely the two-fisted tone of the song that sets it apart from other 9/11 music. On the country charts the previous standout hit in this realm was Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” a song of confusion and affirmation told from the point of view of a man uncertain of the difference between Iran and Iraq but very certain of Christ’s love. Among rock artists, Neil Young had a talked-about song with “Let’s Roll,” a tribute to courageous passengers on Flight 93, and, of course, there’s the thoughtful brooding of Bruce Springsteen (“the poet laureate of 9/11,” according to Slate).
But highbrow judgments are a matter of perfect indifference to Toby Keith and to most of his fans. Keith knew what he was doing when he wrote “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”—an “angry song,” as he’s put it. “It was the way everybody felt when they saw those two buildings fall.” Perhaps there’s some truth in that, but he’s stretching things a bit: You’ll note that his most incendiary lyrics aren’t written from the point of view of someone yowling for revenge, but rather from someone beating his chest over retribution delivered.
Either way, the point is that Keith, like any self-styled populist, sees himself as expressing things that lots of people think but few had dared articulate. (Keith himself reportedly wasn’t sure if he should record the song.) He knew that there was likely to be controversy about what he had chosen to say and how. Most of all, he knew there would be an audience for this sentiment, expressed in this way. And he was right.