Tragedy is one of the most influential inspirations for art, including songwriting. In recent times, many artists responded to their feelings toward the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, with an abundance of artwork, poetry, and songs. One of the songs, Toby Keith’s “The Angry American,” may conceivably be portrayed as a summation of the artist’s patriotic values in a reaction to the event. Although in initial observation it may seem as though the song attempts to also inspire patriotism in its audience, it does quite the contrary, inspiring revenge against acts that hurt or threaten the USA, namely September 11th. Patriotism is defined as positive acts of nationalistic feeling: Keith suggests, however, that vengeance or at least violence defines nationalistic feeling.
Before performing this piece, Toby Keith gave a speech about his reasons for creating the song. Although Keith states in his speech that he wrote the song following September 11th, as if for the victims of that tragedy, he in fact wrote it not as an emotional reaction toward the victims, but for his own personal feelings, including those of his father and his sacrifices in the line of duty. In dedicating the song to his father, Keith furthers the idea that the song was written for personal reasons and not just as a response for the victims of September 11th.
Although Keith may be conceivably trying to express the idea of the USA prevailing over any evil, he conveys this idea in a violent, vengeful way. He clearly suggests the idea of America as being a country that any enemy will be “sorry that they messed with,” basically saying that if you harm the USA, they’ll “put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” By stating this about the USA, Keith suggests that Americans will violently take revenge against any threat made upon them, and to such a great degree that it will cause the enemy to never be able to threaten the USA again.
Keith characterizes the USA almost as if it was the school bully, who no one can take the top spot from, or hurt without being hurt in return. This dominating ideology of the USA, which Keith seems to use to try to boost the morale of the song’s listeners, in fact weakens the song by suggesting violent acts as an acceptable means to substantiate any feelings of anger or hatred toward past events harmful to the US.
The roots of hatred sprout from many different feelings: fear, ignorance, competing beliefs, sadness, frustration, helplessness. Through the use of certain terms in both his speech and song, Keith portrays this hatred, in many forms.
Keith presents feelings of helplessness when he expresses the idea of the US in a cage. The use of the term “cage” may be due to the fact that Keith feels frustrated and vulnerable from the attacks on September 11th, in that the perpetrators of the attacks are either already dead or too difficult to find, and if revenge were to be taken, it would not bring the victims back, or make the pain and grief of the attacks any easier to bear. Therefore one might say that Keith’s patriotic ideals are caged, as he feels that someone has stricken his country and all he believes in, and there is not a way to avenge this entrapment.
Keith expresses further feelings of frustration in his ignorance as to who his enemies actually are. As he states in his song, “a mighty sucker punch came flying in from somewhere in the back,” Keith conveys the USA’s ignorance as to who really gave it its “big black eye,” and his hatred for not being able to determine who his enemies are and who to retaliate against, or more specifically, which ass to put his boot in first.
These feelings of uncertainty can be seen in Keith’s mentioning of his father in both the speech and song. He states that his father lost his eye in a training combat mission while serving his country, and it can be inferred from this mentioning in the speech, the song, and his dedication of the song to his father, that Keith feels angry that he does not know specifically how his father lost his eye, who (if anyone) caused him to lose it, or why no one could help him. As stated previously, feelings of sadness, ignorance, and helplessness can lead to hatred, and those feelings, mixed with those surfaced after September 11th, could plausibly have lead Keith to express the need for violent vengeance to be taken towards those responsible for that hatred.
Keith’s sense of vulnerability is also seen in the rhyme scheme of the song. His haphazard rhyme scheme suggests Keith’s feelings of confusion, not knowing where to turn, who to go to, who to avenge. Keith’s use of patriotic and familial terms, such as Statue of Liberty, Mother Freedom, mother, brother, sister, are emphasized in order to convey the idea of America as a giant family, all striving to protect their country and its history. Keith’s word choice helps to further illustrate the idea of the need for Americans to stand together to seek out and avenge their enemies, namely those of the September 11th attacks.
Throughout “The Angry American,” Toby Keith uses many techniques to stress the need for revenge to be taken for the pains our country has had to endure from attacks by enemies, specifically those enemies of September 11th. Keith is emphatic that America will prevail over any evil, and that the attacks on September 11th give Americans a chance to fight for their country, and “stand on what our fathers and forefathers did for us, and make sure we don’t let ’em down.”