An Ode to America

Les McCann & Eddie Harris, circa 1969The 1969 jazz-soul piece “Compared to What” performed by Les McCann and Eddie Harris is a keystone song in political music. Originally written for Roberta Flack, the song was popularized by McCann and Harris, with subsequent covers by countless artists, including Ray Charles and The Roots, “Compared to What” brutally evokes the warping of America’s shining image, into one of voracious consumption, closed-door governments, and unapologetic apathy. America was once the success story where honest people with enough elbow grease and grit, could attain prosperity. This aura, the ‘American Dream’, glistened afar to those of war-torn and persecuted countries, and appeared as a chance to wash away the past, and start fresh again. Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…But “Compared to What” calls bullshit on that.To begin the song, McCann decries “Possession is the motivation, that is hangin’ up the God-damn nation.” Noting how idealized capitalism has relegated into making a quick buck, McCann realizes the notion that capitalism fundamentally targets our extrinsic motivations as a means of fulfillment, and that this mentality is not getting us anywhere as we consume more and more in this hedonic treadmill. McCann turns to Nixon and the Vietnam War, saying “The President, he’s got his war. Folks don’t know just what it’s for… Have one doubt, they call it treason.” While the war was a proxy battle between capitalist US and communist USSR, the blood was shed in Vietnamese soil, and blurred what this war was really being fought for. McCann highlights the confusion and the lack of government transparency in a time when citizens questioned why their children were stationed East, and why those who enacted their free speech against such a conflicted war were treated like spies or cowards.Going for the hat-trick, McCann continues with “Church on Sunday, sleep and nod. Tryin’ to duck the wrath of God. Preacher’s fillin’ us with fright. They all tryin’ to teach us what they think is right.” McCann mocks the church’s sensationalization of eternal damnation, rather than promoting its foundational purpose of enlightenment and moral guidance. In a behavioral sense, McCann approaches Skinnerian topics of negative punishment–Hell, as the sole motivator for attending to church in America. You can be a greedy, gluttonous pig 6 days of the week (7 deadly sins anyone?), but when Sunday rolls by, put on your church suit, drive to church, put money in the basket, and you’re magically absolved of all wrongdoing. Relating back to rewards and punishment, we commit to religion on an interval basis, wherein people only behave on a certain time (ie: Sunday) to avoid something punishment in the future. It’s as if we’ve put religion on the same pedestal as going to the dentist.Even half a century later, “Compared to What” still resonates in today’s political landscape. The prejudice and persecution in America today continues to add fuel to the political music blaze, as artists–even mainstream ones like Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar, continue to release music turning away from the façade of the prosperous America, towards a cynicism of the seedy, hedonistic America.Stream the song here-Clem Mooc