When America was attacked 14 years ago, it sent a massive shockwave throughout the country. Americans were stunned after Al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and, naturally, several musicians tried their best to capture exactly what that shock felt like. Many artists — even some of the best songwriters of all-time — tried and failed to write something poignant in the wake of 9/11. Paul McCartney couldn’t think of anything better than his banal “Freedom,” which might be the worst song he ever wrote, while all Neil Young could muster up was “Let’s Roll,” a clumsy attempt to turn Todd Beamer’s famous quote into an action hero’s catchphrase. That said, no song written in the aftermath of 9/11 is more infamous than Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).”
When someone says they hate Toby Keith, what they really mean is they hate this song. When an episode of Family Guy about Peter becoming excessively patriotic includes a joke about him sacrificing a goat to Toby Keith, it’s because of this song. When Keith appeared as a guest on The Colbert Report to let us know he was in on the joke, it was because of this song. For better or worse, it’s come to define him as an artist. The song likely won him plenty of new fans, but it also permanently painted him as a war-mongering jingoist who represented everything negative about America, and its collective reaction to the attacks.
Many people hate this song, but it’s interesting to consider why it’s loathed so much. Sure, in retrospect, it comes off as excessively bloodthirsty. But let’s be honest — if Keith was just one random redneck wingnut who was far more violent than the rest of us, this song wouldn’t mean anything. No, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” represents the angry, violent reaction many of us had to the attacks. And, in retrospect, maybe a large portion of us who had that reaction feel bad about it. Not because we wanted revenge – that made sense – but because that desire for revenge often manifested itself with ignorance and Islamophobia. The difference is that whatever ugly words may have spewed out of our mouths in the days and weeks following 9/11 have vanished into the air. Keith’s lyrics will stick for life.