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Breakfast in America

Forty years ago this month, the British band Supertramp released Breakfast in America. I use the descriptor “British band” because by that date it had pushed any louche-glam connotation dangerously close to middlebrow. By 1979, it wasn’t just the four primary hair compositions of these bands to emerge from the black-lit mist; the risers supported supplemental musicians galore. Identifying the principals posed a challenge for the uninitiated.

Though it was Los Angeles to which Supertramp had emigrated two years before, the mythic America depicted on the album jacket is the island of Manhattan. The Jane Withers-looking waitress holds a glass of near-pornographic-hued orange juice in front of the ghost-white Twin Towers. It’s tempting to think that 1979 marked the end of the heyday of expats satirizing Hotel California bacchanalia—biting the hand that feeds you, so to speak. But that era managed to proceed along quite nicely for at least another decade thanks to Genesis and Phil Collins.

All ten songs on Breakfast in America were good and melodic. There’s something especially sly about the oompah-band-meets-snake-charmer title track: “Take a look at my girlfriend (girlfriend) she’s the only one I got” (boom-boom-boom) . Breakfast in America was the only rock sheet music I bought outside two volumes of Beatlemania. I had wisely steered clear of Elton John because I could picture my young self at the piano hammering out a few songs over and over in maudlin reverie. I succumbed to Supertramp because I wanted to play “Take the Long Way Home”—a song about a bored guy screwing around on his wife. It was the tone of bourgeois desperation in both that and “The Logical Song” that resonated in my teenage mind. Pink Floyd’s The Wall didn’t come out until November. And it was a full 12 months before the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” from Remain in Life took the message beyond the sand trap of sex.

It’s a bit odd what made me recently think about Breakfast in America: rereading the “malaise” speech that Jimmy Carter delivered in July of 1979. I paid little attention to things presidential as a teenager, but I do remember they were playing Supertramp everywhere you went that summer (“Goodbye, stranger, it’s been nice”).

Carter’s speech, as all American poly-sci students at one time learned, doomed him to cyclic epic drubbing. He achieved the special designation as the standing joke of boomer political consciousness. (See, for instance, The Blue Note bar scene from The Naked Gun.) In recent months, however, people have been rustling their programs in regard to the inevitable reappraisal. Younger people especially love these podcast-inspired turnings of the tables. But the ascent of Donald Trump is a prominent reason for Carter reevaluation.

What Carter did in 1979 that was considered so colossally bad was broach the truth about breakfast, lunch, and dinner in America: “First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course.” The president basically tells the people that a cookie is a sometime thing when that cookie is oil. If speeches are meant for uplift, this one is abysmal. Carter the Christian is obviously appalled by what he sees—and for that reason he should probably not have been president.

But in bemoaning our lack of trust in government, he presciently called out behaviors that were only just beginning to get greased up: “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption” and “every extreme position [in Congress is] defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another.”

Like many Americans today, few back then wanted the truth. What they wanted was more and more of that big-balled, “take a jumbo / ’cross the water” Breakfast in America America. Instead, they got a preacher man nudging them toward grownup choices: “We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose.”

Jimmy Carter was certainly right about that. In the prelude year to Ronald Reagan, no one wanted to shine a flashlight on our deteriorating system of everything. It was much easier to cry “bad leadership” than confront the end of a postwar economic surge that was later shown to be a statistical anomaly. Carter’s words did nothing more than provide American Government 101 fodder for campuses of every size: Whoever thinks corporate America will save us, raise your hand.

Back in 1979, that short-fingered hand belonged to a 32-year-old con man named Donald Trump (“I’m a winner / I’m a sinner / Do you want my autograph [on a Bible]?”). Using inherited money, Trump purchased the flagship building of the ailing Bonwit Teller department store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and proceeded to build his 68-story Tower of Babylon. During construction, he committed one cultural crime—destroying Art Deco relief sculptures that had been promised to the Met—and various actual crimes by financially exploiting and endangering the health of undocumented Polish workers. It’s especially telling that the two limestone sculptures Trump chose to destroy (he deemed saving them not worth the expense) depicted barely clad women.

It’s also telling that when Trump Tower opened in October 1983, its doormen were dressed like Buckingham Palace guards—an image straight out of “Breakfast in America”:

Can we have crumpets for breakfast, mummy dear, mummy dear.
Gotta have ’em in Texas, cause everyone’s a millionaire.

Carter was a million percent wrong when he tried to feign optimism in 1979: “We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” Au contraire! Donald Trump was only just starting to pile up his material goods (“Take a look at my girlfriend”).

Whatever witches’ brew we began stirring in 1979, it’s given us the ailments we suffer with today. In 1979, Carter was unaware of his role as acoustic warmup for years of what Arthur Miller called “the Reagan trance,” which somehow lasted throughout the Clinton administration. America finally started to realize the price being paid after the election of George W. Bush—after 9/11, the bogus Iraq War, the disastrous response to Katrina, and the Great Recession. Finally, Snidely Whiplash came calling for America in 2016. Though Americans no longer trusted government (as Hillary Clinton was believed to represent), they were happy to turn over the deed to a swindling serial bankruptcy machine.

When Supertramp put out those ten songs four decades ago, America was on the cusp of moving from a mere spectacle of glitz to a land where glitz is an enshrined value. At that time, there was still a retaining wall between glitz and, say, the Lincoln Memorial. Forty years on, there are no more retaining walls, just like there are no more towers behind that pornographic glass of orange juice. §

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