America (West Side Story song)
In the original stage version, Anita — the most important female character after Maria and the girlfriend of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks — praises America while a fellow Puerto Rican immigrant, Rosalia, supports Puerto Rico. This version of the song deprecates the island and highlights the positive qualities of American life (“I’ll drive a Buick through San Juan/If there’s a road you can drive on”). The irony of this supposedly pro-American number, however, is its vibrantly Hispanic musical style, with Latin percussion, complex cross-rhythm and Spanish guitar.
In the 1961 film version, Anita, played by Rita Moreno, still sings in favor of the United States while Bernardo, played by George Chakiris, replies with corresponding criticisms of America and American anti-immigrant prejudice, especially against Puerto Ricans (“Life is all right in America/If you're all white in America”). Some of the original song’s disparagement was removed.
In 2004, this version finished at No. 35 in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema.
The song employs a mixed meter:
27 second sample from the original Broadway casting of "West Side Story".
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The alternating bars of 6
8 (six eighth-notes in two groups of three) with 3
4 (three quarter-notes), while the value of the eight-note remains constant[clarification needed], is a distinctive characteristic of the song. This rhythm has been called both a hemiola and a habanera but is not really either. The two bar-types alternate and are not superposed, as in a hemiola. The alternation is comparable with the “Habanera” from “Carmen”, but “America” lacks the distinctive characteristic underlying rhythm of the habanera form.
The composer’s tempo instruction is “Tempo di Huapango”.
An instrumental version, with the signature rhythm reduced to a uniform 4
4, was released in 1963 on Volume 2 (Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass album).
In 1968, Keith Emerson, then in The Nice, covered this song as their second single. This version featured the main theme playing against a straight 4
4 beat, also including pieces of Dvořák's New World Symphony, then changing in the middle to 6
8 for improvised guitar and organ solos. Emerson later folded the melody into a great many of his jams including the 14-minute "Finale (Medley)" on the 1993 Emerson, Lake & Palmer release Live at the Royal Albert Hall which also featured musical themes from "Blue Rondo à la Turk", a jazz standard composed by Dave Brubeck. The band Metallica also incorporated a few bars from the song in the opening riff from their song, "Don't Tread on Me." The "America" melody again featured prominently in a 1986 jam with Paul Shaffer on Late Night with David Letterman.
Usage in popular culture
In 2011, the song was covered by the cast of musical comedy TV series Glee in the fifth episode of the third season, "The First Time" (aired on November 8), with character Santana Lopez (portrayed by Naya Rivera) on the lead.
In 2003, the song was used in advertisements for Admiral Insurance though with different lyrics.
Conservative talk radio host Howie Carr plays a snippet of the song, "Everything free in America!" when the subject of welfare for illegal aliens comes up.