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Looking for America

July 12, 2016

 

 

"Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together..."

 

The first time I noticed the opening line of "America," by Simon & Garfunkel, I loved the song instantly. It appealed to my youthful romantic idealism, and I played "America," along with Simon & Garfunkel's other greatest hits, until their writing and performance style became part of me.

 

It took me a while to pay attention to the lyrics of "America" beyond the first half of the song, with its heady images of young lovers who need nothing more for their grand adventure than a couple of bus passes, a stash of moon pies and cigarettes, and a flowing supply of witty banter about the other bus passengers.

 

But things change midway through. Idealism gives way to something "empty and aching," as they run out of cigarettes and conversation points. In the end, she sleeps while he stares out the window, wondering about all the other people out there who had the same quest they did: to look for America. Voices crescendo with longing, moving into the song's "hook" for only the second time in the song. To reward us for all that waiting, the drums pound, the vocals layer and echo, and Simon & Garfunkel pour all their passion into a few more iterations of that key line: "all come to look for America..." Then the song fades out over a cyclic chord progression, just as it had faded in at the start. 

 

This is my favorite song of all time, and I believe its staying power comes mostly from its resistance to simple categorization. It's not just a song about young lovers or about a road trip. It's not just a song about the American dream or the loss of the American dream. It's not, finally, about disillusionment. Instead, both in content and form, the song depicts an ongoing quest. The holy grail of this quest looks like many things: true love, freedom, home, connection, justice. It's an American quest, yes, but it's also a human quest. That the quest never ends in this song does not mean the quest is pointless; remember, the goal is to "look for," not to find, America. Justice may be impossible, but it is always worth the fight. 

 

I first posted the video for this song on Independence Day -- a fitting song for the celebration of our nation, complete with a silly version of the Bookends album cover starring my cat, Desmond. Then a week of violence and injustice passed, culminating in shootings in my own city of Dallas. All that playfulness seemed inappropriate, and I worried about posting. But as I reflected on the song, I recalled how it echoed not only my longing, but also my hope. It may feel futile at times, but I will never stop looking for America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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