I don’t remember the exact year I discovered Broadcast, but it was somewhere in 2008 or 2009. Prior to then, it’s hard to overstate how little I knew or cared about music. I didn’t really listen to it growing up and partially defined myself by not caring about this trifling art form that other people loved. Broadcast were one of the first bands to prove how wrong and dumb I was. For me, they occupy a space that for most people is taken by classic bands like The Beatles — the band I heard when I was at my most open and impressionable, that shaped the entire way I perceive music.
Sometimes this makes it hard to tell if I like Broadcast because of my taste, or if my taste was shaped so much by hearing Broadcast when I did. Whenever I do a list of my favorite albums at the end of the year, I’m struck by how much they all resemble Broadcast — sometimes literally through sound, but more often philosophically, through the ideas and principles of their music. Their traits are what I think every band should aspire to: imagination, thoughtfulness, intelligence, etc.
Lately, I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about topical music, and wondering why it does so little for me. It’s another area where Broadcast set a standard: their lyrics almost never were about providing commentary, but instead focused on more abstract concepts of the mind and self. It’s not so much that I view music as a pure escape that should never address the real world. It’s more that using it as a platform for basic political bickering feels like such a diminishment of music’s potential power. If a song can be about anything, and make someone feel anything, why would you choose to make it resemble a bad Thanksgiving dinner conversation?
As usual, Broadcast provided a guide on how to do this sort of song the right way with “America’s Boy,” the first single off 2005’s Tender Buttons. It is one of their only songs that provides anything resembling commentary on society, but it is done in a way that is uniquely theirs that makes it hold up 14 years later. It also represents possibly their greatest departure in terms of sound. With the band reduced to a duo of Trish Keenan and James Cargill, it has a repetitive drum machine beat, a distorted synth, and a more claustrophobic feeling that combines the minimalism of The Noise Made By People with the buzzing clatter of Haha Sound.
But it’s the lyrics that stand out. Keenan offers up a collection of free association images and words that cohere into a portrait of an American soldier, or possibly just America in general. Given the timing of the song’s release, it’s not hard to connect the dots to the Iraq war, but it’s also far from one of those ineffectual artist screeds informing us that war is bad, actually. The tone from her words and her singing is more one of bemusement, a British person looking at our weird culture with a sense of amazement.
Keenan said the inspiration came from doing a crossword puzzle and getting annoyed by its difficulty. “In my frustration at not being able to decipher the clues, I began to react to them, make up my own answers, mimicking back the language of the clues,” she said. “I was interested then in possible answers. I got on a roll arguing with the clues, asking questions back, taking offence to them and deliberately misreading them.” It’s a fitting creative spark given how often Broadcast’s songs resemble cryptic puzzles that are fun to solve. It’s not hard to gather a general meaning at what the lyrics in “America’s Boy” are hinting at, but Keenan’s own motivations are where it gets trickier. Is she in awe of America or angry about its imperialistic tendencies? Or maybe it’s a mix of both.
I don’t think there’s a correct interpretation here which is part of why “America’s Boy” has endured. The title is one I still mentally apply to any number of privileged old white guys in this country. Keenan’s vagueness and her puzzle-like approach may have made this song less visceral when it was released compared to more in-your-face protest music, but now it still sounds fresh because it wasn’t purely about her opinions and feelings. Instead, she gave autonomy to the listener, who is allowed to try to connect the clues and find the possible answers.