Reporter's Notebook

Songs of Complicated Patriotism
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A series of songs on American life whose refrains are often misunderstood as blindly patriotic. Submit your own recommendation to hello@theatlantic.com.

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Track of the Day: 'I Love L.A.'

A reader circles back to our songs of complicated patriotism:

Almost everything the great, sardonic songwriter Randy Newman has ever written has been misconstrued, from the scathing “Rednecks” to the sly “I Love L.A.” to this fairly recent song on the absolute greatness of the U.S.A., “A Few Words in the Defense of Our Country.”

On the meaning of “I Love L.A.”:

This song is an example of Newman’s ambivalence toward the American Dream, as it celebrates living the dream (“look at that mountain, look at those trees”), while giving a nod to those who have been unable to fulfill the dream (“look at that bum over there; man, he’s down on his knees”).

John Gurnick is the latest reader contributor to the series on complicated patriotism:

I submit Mister Dylan’s song for these lyrics:

They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king

It’s also a complicated ballad for other reasons:

Oliver Trager’s book, Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, mentions that some have criticized this song as sexist. Indeed, music critic Tim Riley makes that accusation in his book, Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary, singling out lyrics like “a woman like you should be at home/That's where you belong/Taking care of somebody nice/Who don't know how to do you wrong.” However, Trager also cites other interpretations that dispute this claim.[7] Some have argued that “Sweetheart Like You” is being sung to the Christian church (“what's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?”), claiming that Dylan is mourning the church’s deviation from scriptural truth.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)