Released on: The Holy Bible (Album #3) Epic Records, 29 August 1994
One of the most thrilling recordings on The Holy Bible, the infamously titled ‘ifwhiteamerica…’ (as it’s more often known) kicks the album into a whole new, angry gear. With its rapid-fire lyrics attacking the United States’ foreign policy, domestic inequality and racism, the song feels like a kind of counterpart to the likes of [A22] ‘Slash ‘N’ Burn’ that shows just how far the band had come in their songwriting within the space of just a couple of years. Married to a fantastically savage and scathing performance from the whole band, it is at least on a par in quality with [A59] ‘Faster’, but has never received the same recognition.
The song is also one of the best examples of the extremely dense lyrical style that dominates most of the album. The first verse in particular is steeped in references to a whole range of countries in which the US has interfered over its relatively short history, from Nicaragua (where it supported the brutal and murderous Contra faction and was convicted of illegally mining territorial waters) to Mexico (which the US absorbed an enormous tract of following the Mexican-American War of 1846-8, and seeks to keep immigrants off land in which their ancestors were born). The song attacks the US for its naivety in adopting the concepts of Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism and a kind of national superiority complex that has encouraged generations of US politicians to provoke dozens of bloody entanglements in foreign countries in the false belief that the American way of life is inherently superior to any other.
By contrast, the second verse turns its attention to American domestic life, pointing out the collective apathy of much of the population concerning endemic inequality and huge levels of violent crime, especially in poor, black inner-city communities in cities like Los Angeles and New York. The chorus is focused primarily on racism, but mentions British politicians as well as American ones. This reflects the opening quote from the Republican Party’s GOP TV channel, advertising its coverage of Ronald Reagan’s 83rd birthday event; his political ally and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher being the special guest. During the 1980s, the two had espoused the neoliberal agenda that continues to dominate Western political discourse. One of Thatcher’s famous comments was “there is no such thing as society”: ‘ifwhiteamerica…’ proposes that this was becoming true of America, also.
In his 1994 Melody Maker interview, Wire expanded on the lyrics by saying
It’s not a completely anti-American song. It compares British imperialism to American consumerism. It’s just trying to explain the confusion I think most people feel about how the most empty culture in the world can dominate in such a total sense. I’ve got an ambivalent attitude to America. I can’t tell whether I should embrace it or just be confused by it. When we went to New York, I’d watched ‘Cagney & Lacey’ so much that I felt like I knew New York already when we got there. The last lines (fuck the Brady Bill/if god made man they say/Sam Colt made him equal) are about the gun laws that Clinton is trying to bring in. It would disenfranchise the black community, who generally don’t have licences. The white rednecks in Middle America do have licences, but statistics show they cause as much crime.
Edwards expanded on the oft-misunderstood Brady Bill line by saying it referred to a delayed response to gun crime which came only when the phenomenon moved from the inner cities to the suburbs. Clearly gun control is still a huge issue in the United States, but it is always reactivated by major massacres as opposed to the “normal” murders that take place on a day to day basis.
Moore’s drums are particularly key to this song – perhaps moreso than the guitars. One of the reasons the US mix is often favoured in the case of this track is because of the way Tom Lord-Alge handled the drum sound. Finally, the song’s title comes from a quote ostensibly spoken by controversial US comedian Lenny Bruce (1925 – 1966).
Choice Lyric (Full Lyric)
“who shall we choose for our morality / I’m thinking right now of Hollywood tragedy”
Napalm – a thickening substance used in concert with petroleum or other fuels to create an incendiary weapon, used in flamethrowers or dropped from aircraft. Particularly associated with the Vietnam War, in which it was used by both French and American forces. A famous 1972 photograph showed a young, badly-burned girl running away from a napalm strike in Vietnam; on seeing it, Richard Nixon initially believed the picture had been faked.
Big Mac – flagship burger sold by McDonald’s fast food restaurants.
Smack – heroin.
Phoenix, R. – River Phoenix, US actor who died of a drug overdose at the age of 23 in 1993.
Tipper Gore – (1948 -) wife of US politician Al Gore and among the founders of the Parents Music Resource Centre or PMRC.
Compton – a city south-east of Los Angeles, California known for its association with hip-hop and heavy concentration of gang violence.
Harlem – an area Manhattan, New York City known for as a centre for the African-American population.
Zapruder – Abraham Zapruder (1905 – 1970), American clothes manufacturer who inadvertently filmed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. His recording became known as the “Zapruder film”.
Brady Bill – formally known as the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, a piece of US legislation instituting background checks on firearm purchases that went into effect in February 1994 and was named after James Brady, the US politician shot during the failed assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in March 1981.
Sam Colt – Samuel Colt (1814 – 1862), American industrialist who made possible the mass production of the six-shot revolver just before the American Civil War.