I saw the Clash at their first Boston area performance, in early 1979, at the long-gone Harvard Square Theatre. Anticipation ran high - for as the hype went, the Clash was “the only band that matters” - and, hype be damned, the Clash did not disappoint. In fact, they opened the assault with the salvo that was “I’m So Bored with the USA.” It was a British kids anthem - they were not only fed up with their own system, be it pop music or politics, they were tired of being fed American pop culture.
Here, when they performed the song, it hit home immediately. We too were bored with the USA. (Well, bored and angry … Jimmy Carter’s malaise had settled in.) At the Harvard Square Theatre, people were standing, pogoing, fists pumping. At one with the band, with those sentiments.
But here’s the thing: The song wasn’t originally conceived as an anti-American song at all. When Joe Strummer wrote it, it was initially an anti-love song, a kiss-off to a soon-to-be-ex. “I’m so bored with … you!” It was only through the band working it through together that it became what it became. Iconic, important, cathartic. It surely would have been a great song had it remained in its initial form, but in its political form, it gained a whole lot more traction than it might have had, had it remained personal and pissed off.
It is worth noting: The song has got to work as a song - the melody and rhythm - before is works as a message. People hear and feel the music first; understanding the lyrics - or the thematic thrust - comes a bit later down the line. For the bands, for fans.
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