Every year on the Fourth of July I remember a song from my childhood that exists in my mind as the ultimate emblem of campy Americana patriotism. I’m talking, of course, about Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.”
Released in 1993, the song was an instant hit peaking at the number 12 spot on the US Billboards Hot Country Songs. It went on to nab two Grammy nominations and win two CMA Awards for Song and Video of the Year.
“Independence Day” was a staple at every Fourth of July church picnic I ever attended back in Kentucky throughout the 1990s. As I got older and started to question all of my received knowledge about God and country–especially as a budding liberal gay kid in the midst of a second Bush presidency–hearing the song would inevitably cause me to roll my eyes and grimace.
Rewatching the video now, I realize that I, like most of the church folk at the time, had missed the message of the song entirely. Where I used to interpret it as a nauseating display of the form of “Amurrica! Get ‘er Done!” conservatism I grew up around–a politics of the white suburbs that has since morphed into the MAGA base of Trump supporters–it is actually quite the opposite.
Gretchen Peters, a Nashville based singer-songwriter who wrote the song for McBride, drew inspiration from the story of Francine Hughes, a woman who set fire to her home on March 9, 1977 with her ex-husband inside after enduring 13 years of an abusive relationship. A jury found Hughes not guilty of murder charges due to temporary insanity in one of the first cases involving “battered-woman syndrome” as a plausible defense.
Responding to the way that Republican talking heads such as Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin have used the song on their radio shows and campaign events, Peters stated in an interview with UnRated Magazine:
[They] completely perverted the song’s meaning. Much like ‘Born In The USA’ being miscast as a patriotic anthem, when in fact it’s a protest song, ‘Independence Day’ is about domestic abuse, about a woman who’s powerless to escape a deadly situation. Everything Hannity (and later, Sarah Palin, who also used it) stands for goes against what that song is about. I used to think it was that people like that didn’t listen to the words carefully enough. Now I think it’s that they just don’t care.
Since because of publishing legalities Peters was unable to bar Hannity and Palin from using her song, she decided to donate the royalties earned from their use to Planned Parenthood, Moveon.org, PFLAG, and other organizations that stand for causes she cares about. Given that we now have a professed “pussy grabber” in the White House, and the Justice Department recently announced that it would no longer consider domestic violence as a legitimate ground for women seeking asylum, the protest message of “Independence Day” is more relevant than ever.
Looking back at my childhood now with the insight afforded by years of distance and therapy, I can appreciate–if ironically–the soaring melody of McBride’s voice on the chorus and the twangy guitar riffs. As I scream along to the lyrics, I can picture very clearly the hot summer BBQs in my parents’ backyard, the teenagers throwing each other into the swimming the pool fully clothed, the fireworks erupting dangerously close to our house, the pastor who fused Republican politics with Biblical scripture week after week from the pulpit. I am now able to think about all of these memories with something other than disdain–as simply a part of my history that’s funny and unique, especially in the context of my chosen family of mostly queer New Yorkers as an adult in my 30s.
Today I choose to revel in the message of Martina McBride’s song, to recognize the political intent of Gretchen Peters, and to reclaim “Independence Day” as a call to independence from patriarchy, from a culture that would tell a woman, or any other person for that matter, to stand by an abusive partner at all costs. I choose to celebrate Independence Day as a day to freely criticize the policies of my country as it tears children away from their parents and locks them in cages; I celebrate Independence Day for the strong women who have escaped the oppressive strictures of unhealthy marriages and are choosing better lives; I celebrate the crowds of protesters who resisted the fascism of the current administration in a march across the Brooklyn Bridge last weekend; I celebrate the courage of the #MeToo movement and the overdue cultural reckoning it is bringing; I celebrate the independence to wake up every day and be our authentic selves.
Lastly, I choose to celebrate not for the America in which we currently live, but for the America I believe we can achieve in the future.