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A TREND TOWARD MUSICAL FLAG-WAVING : But these new songs aren't in the unquestioning spirit of earlier anthems like 'God Bless America.' : ROBERT HILBURN

October 19, 1985

America is almost as popular a theme for pop records these days as love and broken hearts.

Three singles titled "America"--by such varied artists as Prince, Waylon Jennings and Kurtis Blow--are either on the national sales charts or have been in recent months. But these songs aren't in the unquestioningly patriotic spirit of anthems like "America," "America, the Beautiful" and "God Bless America."

Those older songs were such unfailingly positive expressions of national pride that it's no surprise that one of them ("God Bless America") was written by the same man (Irving Berlin) who wrote "Blue Skies."

There are songs in the '80s that exhibit much of the same evangelical zeal, including Neil Diamond's "America" from "The Jazz Singer" and Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U. S. A.," which was featured prominently last year in President Reagan's reelection campaign.

The three new "America" records temper this spirit to reflect at least a hint of Watergate-inspired suspicion of government and/or a challenge of national policies.

Sammy Johns, best known for 1975's "Chevy Van," wrote the "America" that was a Top 10 country single for Jennings late last year. Of the new "Americas," Jennings' record is closest to the traditional patriotic pop, even evoking "home, sweet home."

But the record includes a reminder that the government doesn't always live up to its word. Key lines: "And my brothers . . . are all black and white, yellow too / And the red man is right / To expect a little from you . . . promise and then follow through . . . America." Kurtis Blow's "America" is more pointedly political, if also frequently unfocused. It recalls the disco-plus-commentary format of Paul Hardcastle's recent "19" in its mixture of an insistent beat with voices or words of numerous U. S. leaders (from Lincoln to Reagan). The idea is to salute the country's ideals and to remind us of our failure to live up to them.

Blow, one of the key figures in New York's street-oriented rap-music movement, is mostly concerned in "America" with the danger of stumbling into World War III.

In his spoken-word, rap style, he warns, "Revolutionary terrorists swarm like bees / Take American hostages across the seas / But how long (will) Reagan go for that / Before he really gets mad and then he goes for . . . war. " The just-released single is already on the black-music sales charts.

But it is Prince, predictably, who has come up with the most controversial "America."

No, this Prince song doesn't contain the aggressively sexual language that has made him Public Enemy No. 1 to the Parents Music Resource Center, the Washington-based organization seeking a record-rating system to warn parents about overt references to sex, drugs or violence.

In fact, a glance at the words of Prince's "America" might make you think the rock star was trying to make up for his "Dirty Mind."

His "America" quotes a line from "America, the Beautiful" and then all but suggests that we're better off dead than Red. At one point, he sings, "Communism is just a word / But if the government (here) turns over / It's the only word that's heard."

Elsewhere, he adds, "Little sister making minimum wage / Living in a one-room jungle monkey cage / Can't get over, she's almost dead / She may not be in the black / But she's happy she ain't in the red."

Does the new single mean he has caved in to the pressure?

You might be able to make a good case for it--except "America" was written before the Washington wives went on the offensive.

The amusing sidelight about Prince's "America" is that no one can quite figure out the meaning of the song. Is it a satire on the "better dead than Red" thinking, or is it support for it?

Some listeners will surely hear it as the latter and find "America" a far more objectionable track than the sexually oriented numbers. Does that mean peace groups should begin demanding a warning sticker of their own?

The point is that Prince--and art--are too complex to be interpreted and categorized by committee. How appropriate that a song titled "America" would help underscore that point.

LIVE ACTION: Whitney Houston will be at the Universal Amphitheatre on Dec. 1. . . . Bobby Womack will be at the Beverly Theatre on Nov. 27, while Tom Waits is due there Nov. 23 and 24 . . . David Lindley will be at the Palace on Nov. 6, while 'Til Tuesday returns there on Nov. 15 and 16. . . . Toots & the Maytals will be joined by Yellowman on Nov. 16 at the Wiltern Theatre. . . . Billy Swan will be at the Palomino on Friday, while Shriekback and the Hoodoo Gurus will be at Fenders the same night. . . . Husker Du will be at Fenders on Oct. 31.

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