Friday Fun: Boss Top Ten, #5--"American Skin (41 Shots)"

"American Skin (41 Shots)" (first released on Live in New York City (2001), version shown off of High Hopes (2014))
Concert Footage: Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio (U.S.A.), 2014

On February 4, 1999, Amadou Diallo was killed by New York City police officers in front of his apartment in the Bronx.  He was unarmed--the officers claimed that he was pulling a gun on them, when it fact he was reaching into his pocket to get his wallet.  The officers shot 41 times in total, hitting him 19 times.  The officers were tried on 2nd degree murder charges, and acquitted by a jury in Albany, New York.

"American Skin (41 Shots)" was originally inspired by the Diallo killing, and debuted on 2000's E Street Ban Reunion Tour.  During the tour, which had ten shows in New York's Madison Square Garden, NYPD officers working security turned their backs to the band during the song, and a police association called for a boycott of the tour.  It faded away for a while, but was returned to the rotation after the Trayvon Martin killing in 2013.

"American Skin (41 Shots)" can be seen as a protest song.  But it also represents an insight into a slice of life very few people (maybe no one) who are white experience in America.  I grew up in a circumstance where I didn't think about the police at all.  They were simply not part of my life--I understood they existed, but I had no thoughts or opinions about them at all.  But that is not the reality for African-Americans in particular, and other minority groups as well.  "American Skin" presents the police as a presence that is always there in the background, a source of inchoate, but nevertheless real, fear.

This can be seen in the most haunting part of the song, the middle verse:

41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says, "now on these streets Charles
You got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you, promise me you'll always be polite
And that you'll never ever run away and promise mama you'll keep your hands in sight."

My parents never told me anything like this, because they were not afraid I would be shot by a police officer.  But Lena is afraid her son would be shot for some misunderstanding.  And that's the true tragedy here--you don't need the police officer to be some sort of racist crusader, just someone who has been acculturated to shooting first and makes a mistake.  Those are "the rules."  And Diallo and Martin and Tamir Rice and hundreds of other we don't hear shows what happens when the rules aren't followed.

You might say, very reasonably, "what the hell does a 60+ year old white guy from suburban New Jersey know about any of this?"  I think there are two responses to this.  For the first, take a look at this video.

It's pretty clear that "American Skin" is resonating with the members of Living Color.  I have no sense of the background of the members of the band, but you suspect that at least some of them have lived this first hand.  If what Springsteen was saying rang hollow, I don't think you would get a performance like that.

Second, what "American Skin" is trying to do, I think, is to bring people who haven't experienced this reality into that world.   It is an invitation to solidarity with Lena and Charles and Amadou.  The song makes a point of using the pronoun "we" throughout the song.  This is not, I think, to suggest that this is a universal experience (it is not), but to say that it affects all of us.  "We're baptized in these waters, and in each other's blood."  This is not something that just impacts Those People Over There, or at least it shouldn't.

It would be very easy to make a bad or easy or exploitative song about this topic.  "American Skin" avoids all those traps, and instead makes a moving and thoughtful song.  One that, unfortunately, continues to be relevant.


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