It’s a routine of the modern world that as soon as anything really important happens say, the president announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden, or the leak of a new Beyoncé video we rush to the Internet to talk about it. Usually this happens on Twitter and is immediately followed by an equal volume of people tweeting that they’re sick of reading everyone else’s tiresome and stupid opinions on the topic. Last night, though of all the places on the Internet that people might gather to crow “USA USA” and “RIP OSAMA, 2001–2011” (that’s an actual post) and then “WHY ARE YOU SAYING RIP, HE CAN ROT IN HELL” a whole lot of them picked a pretty strange locale: the official YouTube video for Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.”
The flood of comments that ensued under the video is marked — much to my surprise — less by egregious racism than by (a) geopolitical conspiracy theories, (b) discussions about which male commenters would or would not like to have sex with Cyrus (also, from one woman: “the breasts were very big I’m not a lesbian but it stands out”), and (c) people pointing out that the song was co-written by Jessie J, who is English, and thus maybe the Tony Blair of this whole situation. There was pretty wide agreement, though, that this was “the official funeral song of Osama bin Laden.” A Facebook group to that effect was soon launched. People played the song while celebrating outside the White House. College students played it while celebrating in Columbia, Missouri. People on Twitter adopted it as the night’s theme song. And 151 YouTube users took the time to thumbs-up a comment reading: “LIKE THIS COMMENT IF WATCHING THIS VIDEO IS LITERALLY THE FIRST THING YOU DID AFTER YOU LEARNED OSAMA WAS DEAD.”
I have to confess that my list of reactions to the news did not get anywhere near “watch a Miley Cyrus video.” The reason it occurred to others is surely as simple as it seems: This is a recent hit song whose title is dominated by the words “party” and “U.S.A.” Looking for anything more apt would be overthinking it. And for the young people leaving comments on YouTube — or gathering and cheering on the streets — Bin Laden is potentially less a figure of gravity than he is a comic-book villain the nation’s been after since they were in third grade. A little upbeat end-credits music will work just fine. According to Slate’s Dave Weigel, the crowd in D.C. was full of post-ironic symbols like Captain America’s shield and signs referencing Team America, a movie that features counterterrorist marionettes destroying the Eiffel Tower.
Which is to say that I doubt anyone much cared about the song’s lyrics. Depending on your politics, though, those lyrics are sort of fun to analyze in this context — either as evidence of our nation’s blustering narcissism or its bumptious sense of community. For instance: The song is about a Southern girl nervously visiting Los Angeles, the “land of fame and excess” — which sounds for a moment like an internal critique of Western decadence, right up until she asks, “Will I fit in?” She will, in fact, fit in! She hears her favorite pop songs playing on the radio and immediately feels at home. Moral: Mass culture and the laissez-faire deregulation/consolidation of radio creates a glorious nation where we all, deep down, party the same way? Or else: Pop music brings the nation together as one. L.A.’s hips wiggle the same way as Nashville’s. The first of the pop songs in question is played on the radio by the “taxi man” — even the cab driver is forced to partake in our American pop politic, instead of listening to, say, the local Armenian station. U.S.A.! J.A.Y.Z.! B.R.I.T.N.E.Y!
Thus does the death of Bin Laden, who was sort of the evil photo negative of a pop star — a charismatic multi-millionaire who communicated mostly by releasing videos — turn into something very much like a pop song. Most Americans want to party, and most Americans wanted Bin Laden to die of something other than renal failure. Listening to this song as a festive assassination theme has a classic Bush-era “bring it on” quality: We cherish a solid excuse to indulge in a little high-spirited cockiness, chauvinism, and provincialism about the things we like and do well. Cyrus’s video, which cribs heavily from the clip for Lenny Kravitz’s cover of “American Woman,” is stocked with a great many of those things we like and do well: a drive-in theater, trucks and muscle cars, Daisy Dukes, giant flags. It is, just like bin Laden’s death, another convenient opportunity to celebrate ourselves.
Or else just the first and cheeriest song some people could think of with “U.S.A.” in the title.