Written by Julie Kleberg. 1 March 2016.
“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” was written and recorded by American Country artist, Toby Keith. It was a song inspired by both the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and his father’s death in March of the same year. It was released about a year after these two events and proved to be a very influential song in his career. It received a lot of attention and press in the country music world, not only as a popular song about current events but also as a controversial take on such a sensitive topic. This American anthem has received both very positive praise and very negative feedback, but all in all it remains one of Toby Keith’s most famous songs to date.
Let’s first dive into who exactly Toby Keith is. He is an American singer, songwriter from Oklahoma who started out in Nashville in the early 90’s. For the next decade he recorded tons of hit songs that became very well known and started out his career on a high note. These included, “Should’ve been a Cowboy,” “How Do You Like Me Now,” “I Wanna Talk About Me,” and so many other top singles. His style of music became known as “Contemporary Country” (Fabian). Keith’s typical audience is comprised of “blue-collar fans and families, proudly showing their colors and embracing the music that gives voice to the lives they live,” says CBSnews. He says his goal audience is the average Joe and he does a pretty good job of maintaining that.
In 2002 came “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”, which, like I mentioned, was influenced by two big things that occurred in his life in 2001. His Father was a United States Army Veteran who died in a car accident the same year as the September 11th attacks. The song was both an expression of admiration about his father’s patriotism and faith in the United States as well as a bitter response to the 9/11 attacks that reflected his nationalistic and militaristic feelings. You can imagine how emotional he felt that year which ultimately resulted in a pretty angry American anthem. CBS news reports that Keith had written this song in just 20 minutes the week after the attacks and never intended to actually put it on a CD. At first he would only play it live at concerts because it was written solely for the troops on USO tours, but he eventually released it anyway and it immediately went virile.
Ultimately, the song became the lead single of his 2002 album, Unleashed, and peaked to number one over the weekend of Fourth of July that year. This song reached the top of the Billboard Hot Singles and Tracks chart and number 25 on Billboard Hot 100 chart. It became his biggest solo hit to date. Since “Angry American” was released, this controversial artist has never received so much publicity or been so wealthy. In one year alone, he grossed over $45 million dollars from his music.
The responses to this song, however, were mixed. While many people were definitely angry about what had happened to the United States in 2001, some claimed that Toby Keith was being “too patriotic” (Flip). While national self-defense is generally a good thing, after something so terrible, many saw this song as “too extreme” or “too politically incorrect,” according to CMTnews. ABC Television had invited him to play on their show for a Fourth of July concert but when the host, Peter Jennings, heard the song, he revoked the invitation claiming that it would set the wrong tone for the network given how angry and aggressive it was.
This song also fueled a fire between Toby Keith and Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. Their debate started when Natalie accused Toby of making, “Country Music sound ignorant.” Offended, Keith fired back with condemning this Dixie chickadee for her comments about being embarrassed that George W Bush was our president. This little cat fight turned into an all out country music feud in which Toby Keith began projecting images of Natalie Maines and Saddam Hussein at his concerts, according to CBSnews. This lasted for several months and brought him a lot of attention. He jokingly told CBS, “If my career keeps going the way it’s going, I’m going to hire her as my publicity agent.” He eventually stopped because he said he had far more important things to deal with.
The lyrics in this song, however, were the primary source of controversy. The verse that goes, “Justice will be served / And the battle will rage / 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 a boot in your ass / It`s the American way,” is a direct jab at the enemy and is one of the main reasons this song has rubbed people the wrong way. The idea is that after something so sad, and in a time when everyone is feeling very vulnerable, the last thing we would want to do is puff up our chest and claim that fighting back is “the American way.” This was Keith’s cry out for his desire to go to war out of revenge which a lot of people were very opposed to.
Many 9/11 songs were written after the attacks and Keith’s song stands out against the rest of them. For example, Hank Williams, Jr.’s song, “America Will Survive,” has a much more positive message in regards to the sensitive subject. While Keith is shouting, “let’s go to war!!” Hank Williams is saying what happened, happened for a reason and it will change America, yes, but we will survive. He argues that this tragedy will bring us together and we’ll make it through this. I will admit, that is a little softer on the ears than, “We’ll put a boot in your ass.”
This “Angry American Song,” however, was not hated by all; it was embraced by many. President Bush, for example, asked Toby Keith to be his opening act several times because he loved this song so much. Keith also told CBSnews in an interview that the marine Corp commandment told him, “You have to release it. You can serve your country in other ways besides suiting up in combat. We will go kick their butts. But we survive on morale(…) I highly recommend you put that song out.” This quote shows that the song clearly fired people up and expressed what many were truly feeling. When something so terrible happens to your beloved country, it’s hard not to get mad and to want to express that kind of anger. Many praised Keith for saying what everyone was really thinking. The official music video shows clips from a live performance that he played for a group of soldiers on duty, all of which are jumping up and down going crazy to this song because to many it served as their personal anthem. It screams American pride and those who are risking their lives for this nation were not scared to show their love for such a passionate song.
Keith told CBS news that he knew this song would be controversial and might strike up some conflict. That is why he was unsure if he should release it. He says, “It wasn’t written for everybody (…) And when you write something from your heart — I had a dad that was a veteran, taught me how precious our freedom is — I was so angry when we were attacked here on American soil that it leaked out of me. You know, some people wept when they heard it. Some people got goosebumps. Some people were emotionally moved. Some cheered, turned their fists in the air.” He is saying that something so extreme, so terrible, so sad, so shocking is obviously going to arise all types of feelings and he is not scared to express his own. It is clear why such a unique song could strike up so much controversial blabber, but I say we just take it for what it is, a personal, emotional ballad, and send off some fire crackers because our country rocks and it should be celebrated!
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