Sam Fender, “Hypersonic Missiles”, and the Art of the Political Ballad

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Picture this, one hour (on a bad day, more like three) south of D.C., the sun sets on July 4th between the trees that could light up like firecrackers if something went wrong. The air is saturated with the sweat from the ninety-something degree heat of the day and the stomach-turning baked grease covering the fingers of a kid eating funnel cakes a couple blankets down. Someone in the back turns on the crackling loud-speakers, and the lights of the fire trucks somewhere behind the treeline go out of sight. The first three bars of “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen hiccup through the stale air with the first whistles of flying fireworks. Disregarding the location, this is a scene most of us in the United States have or will probably experience at least once in our lives, perhaps, as a kid dancing with a small plastic flag or covering our ears because of the noise or lying on our back watching the sky or, even, singing along.

However, “Born in the USA” wasn’t exactly written for that sort of celebratory moment, and it’s almost cringe-worthy in the irony of it. Between the howling bars of the chorus is an almost bitter “yelping about the dead ends of being ‘Born in the U.S.A.’,” to quote Rolling Stone from 1984 (the same year as the album’s release), from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran. Yet, this unequivocally political ballad is glorified in a celebration for which it was not created. We could argue all day about whether or not this is “good form” to take songs out of their context, but there’s something important about the way “Born in the USA” has unified instead of divided.

Now, Springsteen seems completely unrelated to the subject at hand; however, we’re living in a time where political songs are the norm (although we could argue that they have always been the norm, and generations just grow to become the status quo), and the art of making a song that addresses the issue without dividing the population seems to be completely ignored. Of course, everyone loves a good rant every once in awhile, and there are niches for songs that are pure unadulterated frustration and, dare I say, hatred that we need to get everything out of our systems. However, these songs rarely have a lasting impact outside their niches, their generations, their anger.

I start with this long introduction to usher in a song that I believe has dabbled in the art of a political ballad, “Hypersonic Missiles” by Sam Fender. The track was released as a single back in March, and, on first listen, I heard the racing pace of the strums on the (fittingly) Fender American Pro Jazzmaster Fender plays and the steady drums that mimic a gait halfway before a skip and a run. The build up allows for the perfect circumstances to get pulled over on a country road with a passive-aggressive police officer stating, “You’ve got that that music cranked pretty loud,” (See Footloose if you haven’t already), and the chorus jangles like something worthy of the open road. The following sax solo in the second half of the song is a beautiful play straight out of Springsteen’s book. Off the bat, the song seemed like something to save to all of my playlists. Yet, it took a couple months and a couple hundred listens for me to start processing the real substance behind the song.

The lyrics begin with the speaker’s bitter observations on the state of the world around him, starting local with the external (“Dutch kids huff balloons in the parking lot/The golden arches illuminate the business park”) before moving internal to the personal pronoun “I” (“eat myself to death, feed the corporate machine”) and making the ironic (yet, almost convicting for the listener) statement: “I’m not the first to live with wool over my eyes/I am so blissfully unaware of everything.” Fender goes on to mention the bombings in Gaza and the increasingly unsteady geo-political atmosphere, but “I’m not smart enough to change a thing/I’ve no answers, only questions, don’t you ask a thing.”

While the first two verses certainly identify the song as political, it’s the shift in the end of the chorus that makes it into more than a song about all that could go (and is going) wrong. “And when the bombs drop, darling/Can you say that you’ve lived your life?” With this lyric, we realize that we’re listening to a love song. “But I believe in what I’m feeling, and I’m falling for you/This world is gonna end, but ’til then, I’ll give you everything I have/I’ll give you everything I have” Fender declares at the end of the third verse followed by the blaring siren of the saxophone. A short intercession precedes another refrain of the chorus followed by a bitter-sweet outro. But, it’s those small snippets of a love story that make the song brilliant. The perceived pessimism is both highlighted and softened by the hope conveyed in those short lines. All at once, the listener is hit with the existentialism of youth, with the idea that the world is ending, that it’s due to end, and that it ends with every small or major life change (entering or leaving college, perhaps?). The idea of using one’s time wisely during a season grips any active heart. And, yet, I’m brought back to those moments in my car with the music peeling out of the speakers before I started really reading into the lyrics, because youthful fear and hopelessness are best paired with fleeting moments of contentment.

Regardless, I watched Amazon Prime, Spotify, YouTube, Instagram, all of the music-lover stalker utensils for the release of the full album on September 13th. The title track’s worth a listen.

Rating: 10/10

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