In Search of America: 50 Very Diverse Rock Songs About the U.S.
What’s more American than rock ‘n’ roll? Rock ‘n’ roll songs about America, that’s what. In our below list of 50 Very Diverse Rock Songs About the U.S., you’ll find the glory of Old Glory, the bite of righteous protest and the sardonic smirk of the smartass. Put it all together and that’s about as American — and about as rock ‘n’ roll — as it gets.
R.O.C.K. IN THE U.S.A. (Classic Songs)
Chuck Berry, “Back in the U.S.A.”
If Chuck Berry’s legendary singles for Chess Records are rock music’s Rosetta Stone, then “Back in the U.S.A.” has to be the wellspring from which all other tunes about America flow. Everything from its guitar riffs to its travelogue lyrics would be borrowed by everyone from the Beach Boys to John Mellencamp. The word “iconic” gets thrown around a lot, but really, this is as iconic as it gets.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “American Girl”
Shockingly, “American Girl” has never been a hit single in the U.S. Despite that, it remains one of the late Tom Petty’s most enduring cuts, with a dual guitar assault from Petty and Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike Campbell that still gives chills decades after its release. Appropriately enough, it was recorded on July 4, 1976.
John Mellencamp, “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”
John Mellencamp’s tribute to the rock and soul of the '60s was the third Top Ten single from his 1986 album Scarecrow. To achieve maximum homage, Mellencamp required his band to learn hundreds of actual songs from the '60s to capture an authentic feel. It worked, as the production and arrangement instantly call to mind many of rock’s most enduring singles.
The Guess Who, “American Woman”
The Guess Who were just a crew of innocent boys from Canada who found themselves shocked by the ladies they met in the United States. “What was on my mind was that girls in the States seemed to get older quicker than our girls and that made them, well, dangerous,” lyricist and lead singer Burton Cummings told the Toronto Star in 2013. Hard to imagine a lead singer complaining about that, but there you have it.
Simon & Garfunkel, “America”
In 2014, readers of Rolling Stone ranked “America” as the fourth-greatest Simon & Garfunkel song. But it’s hard to think of another that lingers on the mind like this one, still full of a singular mystery even decades after its release, maybe because it hasn’t been as overplayed on radio as “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “The Boxer.” It’s an aching song of searching without destination, of disconnected moments that together merge into a portrait of our country that’s as unclear as it is beautiful.
Don McLean, “American Pie”
Don McLean’s elegy for the early rock generation uses surreal imagery and analogies to mourn the deaths of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens (“The day the music died”). It’s also a travelogue of the '60s, culminating in what’s widely believed to be an allegory for the death of Meredith Hunter at Altamont in 1969. That’s all buried within an uptempo folk-rock jam with one of the all-time great singalong choruses.
The Beach Boys, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
Inspired by Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.,” the Beach Boys marry their Four Freshman-inspired harmonies to guitar riffs straight out of Berry’s playbook (its similarity to Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" eventually resulted in a co-authorship). The result is an instant classic.
Huey Lewis & the News, “The Heart of Rock & Roll”
Another rock travelogue, this one chronicling the many forms of pop in the '80s that owe their origins to plain ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. The third single from Huey Lewis & the News' massive 1984 album Sports peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Grand Funk Railroad, “We’re an American Band”
Released just days before July 4 in 1973, Grand Funk Railroad’s first No. 1 single is the tune that opened the group’s opportunities to pop success. There’s not much mystery to the straightforward lyrics; Todd Rundgren’s production emphasizes rhythm, especially what every classic rock song truly needs, more cowbell.
Grateful Dead, “U.S. Blues”
The lead-off track from the Grateful Dead’s 1974 album From the Mars Hotel is a loose, rambling number with a whimsical, wistful lyric from Robert Hunter that allows singer Jerry Garcia to become Uncle Sam. The song was a frequent live staple throughout the band’s touring career, often appearing during the encores.
AMERICA, F--- YEAH (Patriotic Songs)
Neil Diamond, “America”
If you’ve spent time at a local Fourth of July fireworks show anywhere in the country, you’ve heard “America,” one of the easy go-tos for pyrotechnic producers across the land. It’s become a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason: Neil Diamond manages to build from nothing to epic patriotic grandeur in just under four minutes.
Elvis Presley, “An American Trilogy”
A medley of the Southern anthem "Dixie," "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the Negro spiritual "All My Trials," “An American Trilogy” is a key transition piece in the transformation of Elvis Presley from the lithe leather rock god of the 1968 Comeback Special to the bloated Vegas crooner found dead less than 10 years later. Presley debuted it in 1972, but the most famous performance was captured for Presley’s Aloha From Hawaii concert album, where its pure schmaltz was elevated solely by the singer’s sincere grit and fire.
Ray Charles, “America the Beautiful”
You might be forgiven for never realizing that there are four full verses to “America the Beautiful.” Ray Charles opens with the third verse, a gorgeously lyrical tribute to the soldiers who serve our country, before returning to the top with a rousing invitation to sing along. Charles marries patriotism to deeply-felt soul with his performance.
Sammy Hagar, “Remember the Heroes”
An album cut from Sammy Hagar’s 1982 record Three Lock Box, the tune was never released as a single but has stood out as one of the earliest and best '80s songs about American soldiers and the sacrifices they make to serve. In some ways, it’s a precursor to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
Damn Yankees, “Don’t Tread on Me”
Hard rock supergroup Damn Yankees ascended in the early '90s just as the U.S. was entering into the first Gulf War. “Don’t Tread” became one of several unofficial hard rock anthems for the cause, also seeing airplay around the Barcelona Summer Olympics in 1992.
Rick Derringer, “Real American”
Rick Derringer’s career is itself a tribute to American gumption—from achieving chart success with “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” to producing “Weird Al” Yankovic’s early hits and even an abortive attempt to record the guitar solo from “Peg” for Steely Dan. Derringer worked with the World Wrestling Federation in 1985 to create The Wrestling Album, a cash grab tie-in product that featured “Real American.” The tune became an instant classic as the entrance music for Hulk Hogan as he geared up for his battles against Nikolai Volkov and the Iron Shiek.
Ted Nugent, “I Still Believe”
He may be one of the most politically controversial figures in rock, but Ted Nugent can still shred like no other. For this 2014 ode to the American dream, he adapts the descending riff from the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” and makes his guitar do unspeakable things. Recommended at the maximum available volume.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Red White and Blue"
The surge of patriotic spirit in the wake of the 9/11 attacks inspired this late-era Lynyrd Skynyrd hit, which reached No. 27 on Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. As Johnny Van Zant sings, it’s a tune for people whose hair is getting white, necks are still red, and collars remain blue.
Night Ranger, “(You Can Still) Rock in America”
The first single from Night Ranger’s 1983 album Midnight Madness, it’s been eclipsed since by the album’s biggest hit, the stone-cold classic “Sister Christian.” “Rock in America” may not hold a candle to “Christian,” but it’s still an entertaining slice of early '80s classic rock, with dueling guitars and synths. And of course, you can still rock in America tonight.
Eddie Rabbit, “American Boy”
Eddie Rabbit’s final Top 40 single before his untimely death in 1998 is a simple catchy ode to American living. Like many of Rabbit’s best singles, it’s got a healthy dose of twang, which led to the song hitting No. 11 on the Country chart as well.
Jonathan Richman, “Parties in the U.S.A.”
Decades before Miley Cyrus, Jonathan Richman wrote this as a gently swinging tribute to the era of classic party rock, swiping its riff from “Hang On Sloopy” and name-checking “Louie Louie” and “Little Latin Lupe Lu.”
TEARS OF RAGE (Protest Songs)
Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.”
It’s an iconic song about America, one that chronicles the anguish and abandonment of Vietnam vets returning from the war. And yet, it’s also one of the all-time great arena rock anthems. We’re not meant to pump our fists and shout the chorus, but how can we help it? Bruce Springsteen captured the American contradiction in a four-minute rock single.
Little Steven, “Voice of America”
Steven Van Zandt’s second solo album had the misfortune of hitting shelves just four weeks before his then-former boss’ massive Born in the U.S.A. Van Zandt’s take on the state of the union is far more blunt and biting, and this title track sums up the album’s concerns, exhorting listeners to become the “voice of America” in speaking out to support human rights around the world.
John Mellencamp, “Pink Houses”
The only artist to make two appearances on his own on this list, Mellencamp has built his career and success on roots-rock tunes that alternately glorify and critique America. “Pink Houses” has a little bit of both, paying tribute to the real people in the “little pink houses” upon which this country continues to churn. If those houses are as much a trap as a refuge, that’s America too.
Neil Young, “Rockin’ in the Free World”
Sometimes a protest song uses metaphor and allegory to suggest its meaning. Other times, there’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Neil Young’s anthemic blast of guitar fury doesn’t take prisoners or pull punches; it’s protest rock as suicide mission, with Young himself holding the detonator.
Jimi Hendrix, “The Star Spangled Banner”
Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the national anthem was part of his two-hour closing set at Woodstock in 1969, arriving at around 10AM on Monday morning after delays pushed his appearance back from Sunday night. It wasn’t the first time he’d performed it live, but this incendiary version has endured as a singular expression of American pride and rage.
Paul Simon, “American Tune”
Paul Simon continues his search for America begun on his 1968 song of the same name with “American Tune,” borrowing a melodic phrase from Johann Sebastian Bach and matching it with lyrics that capture both hope and ambivalence about the American dream and image.
The final U.S. single from Prince’s 1985 album Around the World in a Day peaked at No. 46 on the Billboard Hot 100. Like many of his contemporaries, Prince uses the Cold War’s constant fear of nuclear winter as partial inspiration for this track, adding in criticism of the “me” decade’s deepening economic divide.
R.E.M., “Little America”
Reckoning is pure early R.E.M. straight from the tap. That means a jangling Peter Buck guitar riff that’s part punk, part Skynrd and part Byrds, simmering under lyrics from Michael Stipe that defy easy understanding. So this could be a protest song, or it could be about getting lost on tour. Your guess is as good as ours.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son”
Creedence Clearwater Revival left behind the swamp and the back porch for this straight-ahead indictment of the Vietnam War and the draft. There’s a clarity to the production and vocals that makes it clear the band isn’t trying for the voodoo mystery of their other hits, but instead want to hit the listener straight between the ears.
IMMIGRANT SONGS (Non-Americans on America)
Nick Lowe, “American Squirm”
For this U.K. single that was added to the U.S. pressings of Nick Lowe’s 1979 album Labour of Lust, Lowe is backed by members of Rockpile and the rhythm section from Elvis Costello’s Attractions, with Costello himself chiming in on backing vocals. The tune is Lowe at his sardonic best, conjuring visions of late nights in hotel rooms on the road as he commits the titular act.
Paul McCartney, “Momma Miss America”
Completed as part of the sessions for Paul McCartney’s first solo album in the wake of the end of the Beatles, the first half sounds almost like a lost B-side from the Fab Four, a distant cousin of their B-side “Flying.” For the second half, the structure loosens up into a shambling blues riff and some noodling guitar solos. If it sounds like it was recorded in about 45 minutes in someone’s garage, that’s because it probably was.
Elvis Costello, “American Without Tears”
Two very different Elvis Costello albums hit shelves in 1986: Blood and Chocolate, his last effort for years with his backing combo the Attractions, was revenge-and-guilt spite rock in his frequent style. King of America upended expectations with a probing, rich set of twangy folk rock, produced by T-Bone Burnett. This tune is representative of the album as a whole, both in its delicate instrumentation and its exploration of the American experience from an unexpected point of view—here, two British expats who find themselves in the States as G.I. brides.
Supertramp, “Breakfast in America”
Supertramp’s primary songwriters Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies have resisted the suggestion that their 1979 breakthrough hit album Breakfast In America was meant as a critique of the United States. That said, the title cut seems to express a very British yearning for the girls and status of the U.S., even if there’s an unfair assumption that they can somehow find kippers in Texas.
David Bowie, “Young Americans”
On his 1975 album Young Americans, David Bowie attempted to marry his own very English pop sensibilities to American R&B and funk, with mixed results. One of the unqualified successes is the sinuous title number, featuring pre-fame support from saxophonist David Sanborn and soul singer Luther Vandross.
The Kinks, “Oklahoma U.S.A.”
There’s the America where people live and work and die, and the America of longing fantasy, the one that Kinks leader and songwriter Ray Davies captures in “Oklahoma U.S.A.” Just as he would a year later on “Celluloid Heroes,” uses the movies of Hollywood as an extended metaphor for escape and longing. It’s hard to imagine anything more American than that.
Elton John, “Philadelphia Freedom”
Elton John has always been a classic example of the British pop star with an American obsession — he toured with American soul acts in the U.K. in his pre-fame days, and has always professed deep admiration for the U.S. piano rock legends that preceded him, including Fats Domino and Little Richard. Written for friend and tennis star Billie Jean King, the song pays homage to the pro’s Philadelphia Freedoms tennis team and to the Philly sound popular in soul and disco in the '70s.
U2, “Elvis Presley and America”
An album cut from their 1984 release The Unforgettable Fire, “Elvis Presley and America” captures a U2 in transformation, as they work for the first time with producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who would become key architects of the classic U2 sound. This track finds Bono caught unexpectedly as he improvises lyrics over a backing track cooked up by the band; Eno liked the feel of the vocal so much that he kept it in its rough state.
Def Leppard, “Hello America”
Every U.K. rock band dreams of the fabled land across the ocean, where girls and beer flow in equal measure. This cut from their first studio album is Def Leppard’s anthem to the America of their dreams, awaiting them on tour.
Sting and Shaggy, “Dreaming in the U.S.A.”
If you’re one of the rock fans who dismissed this unlikely collaboration at first glance, this cut deserves a listen. Sting lays down a bass line that bops through a verse and chorus before a jumping guitar line pivots the tune effortlessly into lazy uptempo reggae with Shaggy’s verse. The lyrics may be a little cliche but the total package is a perfect accompaniment to a cold beer on the Fourth of July.
AMERICAN IDIOTS (Smartass Songs)
Green Day, “American Idiot”
Before it became a Broadway hit, “American Idiot” was the lead-off song from Green Day's album of the same name, its razor punk chords slicing a chunk out of the “redneck agenda” that lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong perceived at the time.
Violent Femmes, “American Music”
Violent Femmes may be forever known for “Blister in the Sun,” a staple of every high school dance and alternative radio station throughout the '90s and early '00s. But the band’s singer/songwriter Gordon Gano best captured the repressed tension of American teenage life with this song, the lead-off track from their 1991 album Why Do Birds Sing?
The Clash, “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.”
Clash guitarist Mick Jones originally brought the song to the band as “I’m So Bored With You,” a tune about his current girlfriend. Thanks to a misheard lyric by singer Joe Strummer, the song transformed into a gusty, sarcastic slam at the U.S., taking aim at the Army, Richard Nixon, and Kojak, among other things.
Alice Cooper, “I Love America”
Featuring a surrealist classic from Salvador Dali as its cover art, Alice Cooper’s 1983 album DaDa features its own surreal “tribute” to our country. With one-liners such as “I love Velveeta slapped on white bread” and “I watch The A-Team every Tuesday night,” Cooper captures the absurdity of extreme blind patriotism.
Randy Newman, “My Country”
Randy Newman has frequently taken aim at the societal norms of the U.S., but here he takes direct sarcastic aim at the American family, paralyzed before the glowing light of the television set. A somber horn section swells; flutes and fifes actually trill in response. Meanwhile, “if we have something to say, we bounce it at the screen,” and that family remains glued to the set long into the singer’s twilight years, even when the kids all “have TVs of their own.”
David Lee Roth, “Yankee Rose”
Released in 1986 just as the monument was coming off a major renovation, “Yankee Rose” is widely believed to be about the Statue of Liberty, although lathered heavily with David Lee Roth’s trademark lascivious leering. It’s also a mysterious two-word phrase printed on the final page of Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible, although even the high priest of the Church of Satan could never have predicted Lee Roth’s solo career.
Kiss, “All American Man"
One of five new studio tracks included on Kiss' 1977 live album Alive II, much like the band itself, “All American Man” leaves little to the imagination. This Paul Stanley cut is a straight-up come-on from a rock star, framed as a shout-out to the titular man.
Glenn Frey, “Better in the U.S.A.”
It’s a bit hard to tell if Glenn Frey is singing with a twinkle in his eye on this, a cut from his 1984 solo effort. It’s the apex of his synth-heavy, blue-eyed rock and soul style, with a riff lightly borrowed from Chuck Berry and lyrics that suggest, “If we’re so awful and we’re so bad / You oughta check out the night life in Leningrad.”
The Doors, “L’America”
At turns sinister and surreal, the Doors' “L’America” has been interpreted as being about both Latin America and Los Angeles, the psychic center of so many of Jim Morrison’s lyrics. As Morrison croons about “the gentle rain,” keyboardist Ray Manzarek dribbles out a riff that sounds like the moment in a horror movie before the axe murderer brings down his justice. The song accelerates, and then it’s gone.
Steve Miller Band, “Living in the U.S.A.”
“We’re living in a plastic land / Somebody give me a hand,” Steve Miller hides his sardonic observations in an incredibly tight jam that calls back to the band’s original moniker as the Steve Miller Blues Band. With harmonica from Miller and lead guitar from future star Boz Scaggs.