Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy Defeat of Napoleon Day

Tonight all over the USA fireworks will burst (except in towns that have cancelled them to reduce budget deficits caused by the recession.) As the pyrotechnics explode overhead, the oohs and ahs will be accompanied by music that celebrates the defeat of Napoleon by Tsarist Russia and a pop song about the poor treatment of Vietnam Veterans.

Of course I'm talking about the 1812 Overture and Born in the USA. I like both pieces of music a lot. Both are catchy. Both have melodies with a palpable sense of triumph.

The cathchiest bits of the 1812 Overture quote the Marseillaise, France's national anthem. Tchaikovsky also quotes Russian folk melodies and God Save the Tsar. The music commemorates Napoleon's retreat from Russia in 1812 after having defeated the Russian army. Upon his arrival in Moscow, he discovered the city deserted and all the provisions gone with the remains of the Russian army or burned. He suffered casualty rates of 90% fleeing to Poland as winter came on.

So 1812 could symbolize Pyrrhic victory or the Romanovs or just a fun piece of music. We still have Born in the USA. This one has lyrics we've heard on the radio dozens of times:

I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone


People might not know the back story to the 1812 Overture. It has no lyrics, just that inspirational music. But people can hear the lyrics to Born in the USA. I've even heard people singing along as orchestras played the music. People know the lyrics and sing along triumphantly, missing the irony and adding to it with their ignorance.

I wonder how that looks to the rest of the world, when they see news clips of Americans punching the air and shouting Born in the USA. Do people who speak English as a second language have any greater appreciation of the irony?


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