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Divine Symmetry I 14 I James Brown’s “Living in America” versus “Young Americans” and “I’m Afraid of Americans”

There it, in the middle of the song performed by James Brown* in the middle of Rocky IV:

Living in America
Eye to eye, station to station

Did the Godfather of Soul just drop a Bowie reference?
As much as I’d like to think yes, yes he did, I think “station to station” is just a coincidence. He rhymes it with “nation” and “celebration.” That said, Brown and Bowie make surprisingly similar observations about America.

Brown performed “Living in America” (1985), in its entirety in the movie Rocky IV. That’s the one where Rocky fights the Russian. But before that, the Russian had to do something to get Rocky mad, so he beat Apollo Creed to death in an exhibition bout. Creed entered the ring while Brown performed the song, live, decked out as Uncle Sam. He danced and jumped about while the giant Russian just stood there, before destroying Creed and giving Rocky a reason to get revenge.

Brown’s flashy and enthusiastic performance of the song, especially in the context of the all-American Apollo Creed dancing and shadow boxing wearing red, white and blue, certainly comes off as celebratory. He ends the song with, “I feel good,” which kind of closes the circle on the song’s attitude toward living in the United States. But the actual lyrics are a little more nuanced.

The lyrics mention various features of the country, not all of which are unambiguous selling points. The very first line of the song is, “super highways, coast to coast,” which is a very different image than purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.

Much of the song focuses on transportation and movement. That’s where the “station to station” line comes in. Brown sings of the movement itself along with what the traveler might see, eat and experience:

Smokestack, fatback
Many miles of railroad track
All night radio, keep on runnin’
Through your rock ‘n’ roll soul
All night diners keep you awake
On black coffee and a hard roll

These are not glamorous evocations. Brown sings about finding oneself on the journey and accidentally finding the promised land, but that comes amidst working overtime and taking a hard line. While he does proclaim, “got to have a celebration,” I kind of wonder if he’s suggesting we have to celebrate the American experience he’s describing or if he’s saying that we need to take a break.

Actually, I think he wants to celebrate the American experience he’s describing. But it’s a gritty, meat and potatoes experience. Reaching the promised land and finding oneself comes after exertion.

Bowie actually paints a similar picture in two of his best-known songs about America (though not his only songs about America), “Young Americans,” and “I’m Afraid of Americans.”

In “Young Americans” (1975), Bowie sings about his impressions of America. The song begins almost as a story about a young married couple, but quickly evolves into a series of associations with things American: Ford Mustangs Cadillacs and Chryslers, Barbie Dolls, Afro Sheen, the ghetto as well as political events such as Watergate and the American underclass- pimps, vagabonds and hustlers. Despite all this and not unlike Brown’s song, Bowie concludes, “all I want is the young American.”

Bowie’s characterization of Americans turns darker in, “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Americans, in this song, “don’t need anyone,” are obsesses with sex, cars and Coca Cola (at least I think, in this one context, that’s what Bowie means by “Coke”). And actually, that’s about it. The song itself doesn’t get to any kind of American redemption, but I have long viewed the video as suggesting that the song’s narrator is delusional.

In any case, these three songs could easily be compatible with one another. James Brown might have fooled people, much as Bruce Springsteen did with, “Born in the USA,” into thinking he’s singing a patriotic song. Actually, maybe he is— but if so, this brand of patriotism doesn’t attempt to whitewash America’s more challenging elements. Bowie’s young Americans live in the same country. Adjusted a little to fit in one or the other songs, the lyrics could be swapped without changing either song’s meaning.

The most prominent common element of all three songs is the car— the car is essential to the American character. Though Brown also acknowledges train travel, you get the impression that he’s describing a journey of self discovery experienced primarily along those super highways. In “I’m Afraid,” Bowie’s American personification, Johnny, wants “pussy in cars.” In “Young Americans,” he mentions that “the pimp as a Cadi and the lady has a Chrysler,” linking sex, status, cars and work (of a sort). While seedier than Brown’s description of everybody working overtime, in the abstract they are both describing the necessity of challenging work for survival in the United States. And everything — work, sex, self discovery— everything goes through cars.

By the way, Steve Miller’s “Living in the USA” (1968) isn’t too far off. That song contains fewer words than Brown’s and Bowie’s, but one of the few substantive sets of lines is also about movement, difficulty and self discovery:

Where are you goin’ to
What are you gonna do
Do you think that it will be easy
Do you think that it will be pleasin’?

Miller never quite spells out his dilemma but concludes, “It’s my freedom; Ah, don’t worry ’bout me, babe; I got to be free.” (Although that’s not my favorite part of the song— my favorite part is Miller’s random demand for an all-American food— “Somebody gimme a cheeseburger”).

And I think that actually is the unifying element to all this— America holds freedom and self-determination as a higher value than an easy life.

Which brings us back to Rocky IV: If the movie has a moral, it’s related to the moral of Rocky III, which showed Rocky losing to Clubber Lange after going soft and enjoying the flashy perks of celebrity. This was more or less Apollo’s downfall in Rocky IV. In order for Rocky to overcome the humorless Russians, he put himself through a hellish training regiment in a cold and bleak environment. Winning involved outlasting his foe, but taking a brutal beating in the process. This is actually in line with the American ethic expressed by both Bowie and Brown (and, more fuzzily, Miller).

In that respect its fitting that James Brown ends the song with, “I feel good,” because none of these guys are necessarily saying it feels good along the way.

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There’s one other similarity between “Living in America” and a Bowie song— at one point, James Brown just starts listing off American cities. The technique reminds me of Bowie shouting the names of cities in his infamous duet with Mick Jagger of “Dancing in the Street”— I believe that’s a Bowie innovation and not part of the original version of the song. Both the Bowie/Jagger song and the James Brown song were released in 1985, so I suspect the callouts, like the reference to “station to station,” were coincidental.

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* James Brown did not write, “Living in America.” It was composed by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight, however I’m going to refer to it as James Brown’s song in this post.

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