Everyday Semiotics

Friday, February 11, 2005

Observations on the new, multinational American nationalism

Part One: "Hey Jude, go wave a flag..."

Super Bowl XXXIX was an undeniably exciting event. The boneheaded fumbling of both teams throughout the first half ensured that the game itself would not want for entertainment value. But the spectacle, of course, can no longer be contained by the sport. Before kickoff, and during halftime, we witnessed as we have always at Super Bowls, but especially at XXXVI, the first Big Game after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (perhaps you’ve heard of them?), a demonstration of lighthearted, good natured patriotism. This year, Super Bowl coverage began with the combined choirs of several military academies singing an overly dramatic National Anthem. After this performance, one radio commentator, noting the litany of military and political figures in attendance, said something to the effect of, “Anybody who’s patriotic ought to be watching this.” And so began the rehersal of patriotism that has become the mainstay of any American sporting event.

But most striking about it all this year was the metamorphosis of two time-honored rock n roll songs, one overtly political, one not, into something quite other than what they had been before kickoff.

First was U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” a song obviously enough by the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” massacre of unarmed Irishfolk by British troops. Now, suddenly, the song had nothing to do with British imperialism and everything to do with American football. It was used to signal the transition between the aggressive (bloody?) Sunday Super Bowl and a commercial break.

At halftime, Paul McCartney gave his second Super Bowl performance (the first being at XXXVI). The final song was “Hey Jude,” a song until then about John Lennon’s son Jules. Suddenly, though, it was a patriotic hymn. By the climax of the song, jumbo screens around McCartney’s band displayed the Statue of Liberty in all her majesty. Rather than, as he did at XXXVI, write a song specifically supported by an unspecified manner of fighting for a nebulous concept of freedom, he combines the tone of “Hey Jude” – reassuring, uplifting – with the imagery of immigration. It is, by its elements, a much less jingoistic performance than that of three years before; but it is not. The elements are transformed by their combination and context.But also take into account the person making the utterance – /Sir/ Paul McCartney, a Briton. It is interesting that, the singer of this suddenly patriotic hymn is an Englishman, one whose nation we won our independence from, and more recently have allied with in our efforts to propagate the same nebulous concept of freedom supposed by the Super Bowl XXXVI performance around the world.

It is more interesting still that the symbol used in this pageant is the Statue of Liberty, on whose pedestal is inscribed, “Bring us your poor, your weak, your downtrodden.” In summary, we have the old ideal of independence won by traveling here from any comparatively harsher environment. Now the symbolic range of Lady Liberty has changed. After 9/11 she was closed to tourists, and she has long been inactive as a immigrant processing station. Now, but not for long, she is what New Yorkers see where they once saw the World Trade towers – she is in the same line of sight, a coincidence most useful and almost too perfect to believe in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Fortuitously, the she now signals the survival of American freedom in the face of extremist hatred and international criticism.But to backtrack for a moment: remember that the monument was given us by the French, who lately have opposed our government’s “march of freedom” as it progressed from Afghanistan to Iraq.

But these are only just impressions. The larger conclusion to be drawn from so many semiotic rearrangements is harder to pin down. Is it true that now national anthems must be recycled, commodified cultural imports? Is it true that the tone of “Hey Jude” can subsume any meaning its lyrics may hold and, paired with the imagery of the Statue of Liberty, becoming a chant of Anglo-American solidarity – if not on the basis of fighting the good fight (war on terror, freedom on the march), then at least the enjoyment of American football and rock n roll music sung frequently enough this side of the Atlantic to have lost its British accent?

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