May 7, 2018 | by C.M. Crockford
Summer's (nearly) here, and the time is right to talk about summer songs. Songs that implant themselves in your heart, that seem to describe with just a melody or a vocal hook nights of drinking, heat, lust, and simple joy that only really happen a few times a year. They range from the iconic (“Get Lucky”) to the secretive and neglected (“Radiation Vibe”). “Parties in the USA” by Jonathan Richman is one of those secretive songs — but it also happens to be a protest song, one about the decline of the summer life, about the slow death of a fun, older America in the face of hegemonic authority.
“Parties in the USA” opened parent record I Jonathan, released by the former Modern Lover in 1992. The album was a lo-fi collection of brilliant, nostalgic, and personal songs on topics ranging from “That Summer Feeling” to the carefree fun of dancing at the lesbian bar, all with Richman's sense of awkward, goofy idiosyncrasy. All the songs are his, and this is no exception. It starts with a ripped off “Hang on Sloopy” guitar riff, but that homage has a very specific point here. Richman knows he's just using the McCoy's sound, and he sheepishly acknowledges his own baby boomer nostalgia:
Hi everybody! I'm from the ‘60s
The time of Louie Louie and Little Latin Lupe Lu
And I know we can't have those times back again
But we can have parties like there were then
We need more parties in the USA.
What makes the song so smart and so tender is that self-awareness, that Richman knows longing for the past is pointless. (Jonathan Richman was just also young enough in the ‘60s to not idealize the time period completely, and didn't truly belong to the hippie culture — he was a punk too, able to dance on the edges of both periods in pop culture.) But he's a nice, kind man, sharp enough to see things are changing in the United States compared to when he was in his teens. And he was observing a communal, egalitarian spirit getting crushed by a free market neoliberalism that was really just getting started.
Consider when “Parties in the USA” was put out, 1992. The year after the Soviet Union collapsed and Francis Fukuyama released his bullshit book The End of History and The Last Man, positing that now modernity and free markets had erased any need for progress or evolution in life. The Democrats tilt farther to the right and erase any mainstream left-wing opposition to a country dominated by multinational companies. While these trends had already been happening in the 1980's, Richman was also predicting that the 1990's would introduce a harsher, even more authoritarian technocratic state, permanently ending the ‘60s dream of a more open and permissive world.
And his response is that of Voltaire, anarchists, dozens of other anti-authoritarian thinkers — tend to your own garden. Talk to your neighbors, and dance, sing, hold “wild beach parties around some open flame.” Otherwise we're just trapped in permanent isolation from each other, never able to do anything beyond spend money and wait to die. Richman uses cops ordering parties to shut down as a melodic bridge, the guitar rhythmically shifting with his calls of “go home!” and he clearly sees the police as enforcers of this new mentality of loneliness and individual “freedom.” The America that Richman worshipped and believed in on “Roadrunner,” the place that allowed him to speed down the highway in a rush of motor-engine transcendence, is threatened, and that will not do.
It's been 26 years and Richman's call for parties all over the US of A, for barbecues and shindigs unfettered by television and phones, is still weirdly relevant in the age of social media. I won't go into the spiel of “Facebook connects and isolates us,” because I don't have to. We already know what it does and while it didn't exist when Richman wrote this song, he had an inkling of where neoliberalism would travel into the 21st century, somewhere disastrous and cut off from the bonds that make us feel alive. And sometimes those relationships can be as simple and as powerful as sharing a six pack on a windy beach night or saying hi to the neighbor you haven't spoken to in a few months.
Midway through “Parties in the USA” Richman sings the chorus to “Hang On Sloopy,” mentions “Little Latin Lupe Lu” in the lyrics. It's a callback to his own past, sure, but it's also a reminder, an echo of other summer songs that seemed to mystically document collective longings, good times, careless evenings. And no, you can't go back to when that song was a Top 10 hit. But you can get that feeling back and defy a world bent on crushing that kind of joy. So why not try?