Bill Withers may have been born on the 4th of July, but that didn’t stop him from showing America a little tough love when he saw things going wrong. Unfortunately, nobody paid attention when he did, probably because “USA” came out in what might have been the worst year imaginable for a platinum-selling singer/songwriter to release a political protest record. In hindsight, it was actually a pretty punk-rock move on Withers’ part, right down to the Sex-Pistols-inspired sleeve art, which placed black bars over the eyes of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Lady Liberty herself.
In 1981, the saddest song on the FM dial was about a fun-loving millionaire
See, we may have had problems in the early ’80s, but you wouldn’t know it listening to the radio. Reagan stepped in to office, the Iranian hostages came home, and the saddest song on the FM dial was about a fun-loving millionaire caught between the moon and New York City. Listen to the songs that dominated 1981 — think “Endless Love,” “Physical,” and “Bette Davis Eyes” (clap-clap) — and suddenly Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” seems like a full-on feminist call to arms (don’t worry, fellas: Sheena Easton’s #1 hit, “Morning Train (9 to 5),” would silence that revolution just a few weeks later). And yet Bill Withers decided this was the time to set America straight.
“USA” hasn’t lost any of its relevance or bite
With an ironically rousing, yankee-doodle jamboree of kazoos, banjos, and dixieland horns behind him, Withers breaks down America’s ailments just as Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” had a decade earlier. From poverty (“you can’t afford room and board”), to our jobs getting shipped overseas (“the whole USA’s damn-near made in Japan”), to our sometimes baffling foreign policy of funding our enemies (“we get the finger, then we give them a hand”), to the song’s ultimate call for unity, “USA” hasn’t lost any of its relevance or bite. Which makes it all the more baffling that, after everything else the man has recorded (save for that first, frantic, fabulous 45) has been remastered, repackaged, and reissued, this one song has remained out of print for 25 years.
We think the time its time has come. Again.