American Songbook

I’ve had the same tune in my head all day.

‘There’s a fire in the priory
And it’s ruining this cocktail party’

I’ve had the same song in my head all day. Last night’s sense of unstable calm has given way to skittishness, and I’ve not been able to write the post I wanted to. Right now, thoughts all over the place, I’m too scattered to concentrate, and I’m accepting that—so here’s the song.

I was thirteen when I first heard Rufus Wainwright. YouTube and Spotify didn’t exist back then: if you hadn’t figured out mp3, you had to watch TV. I watched Jools Holland’s programme because my dad did. His taste in music was gayer than he was—gayer, I sense in hindsight, than he felt allowed to let me be—and when one episode featured Wainwright, he outed himself as a fan. ‘Waiting for a Dream’ is a song about the Bush era, written after Iraq and released in November 2004, whose lyrics mention an ogre in the Oval Office and hint at homophobia. ‘It’s about the screwed up world we live in,’ Wainwright remarked, ‘and how everything’s going to be awful in the future.’

A lot happened in 2004. That was the year I first came out at school, and more importantly, when I started buying records. (On seeing Wainwright on Later again, covering Marlene Dietrich with Burt Bacharach, I begged my sister for Want Two. It remains one of my favourite albums, and in my eyes his best.) I was aware enough of world events back then to get the references, but it only registers now how much of the music I listened to playing Jedi Knight was about the USA’s moral fall. Also in my CD pile was Morrissey’s You Are the Quarry—‘America,’ its first track snarls, ‘you know where you can shove your hamburger’—and 2004 was the year American Idiot came out, all colour draining from the US flag in the title song’s video.

I took all that for granted at the time, but having turned eighteen in 2009, I’ve spent my adult life with Obama in the White House. Frankly, I forgot how things were when the world hated the US. Its next head of state will be infinitely worse than Bush, and although it’ll be a good four years for satirists (if no one else), I’m only just wondering where popular music will go. Please, USA, give me something to sing about.

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