America the Not-So-Beautiful?

The Coca Cola Super Bowl ad "controversy"

Posted Feb 03, 2014

The 2014 Coca Cola commercial that aired during last night's Super Bowl stood out to me for its beauty and simplicity. The images, the angelic tones of the voices—it was one of the few commercials that caused me to pause, listen, and enjoy. A contemplative moment. 

Apparently others had different reactions. Others were outraged that the words were sung in multiple languages, not just English. Fox news host Todd Starnes tweeted "So was Coca Cola saying America is beautiful because new immigrants don't learn to speak English?" Earlier, former Representative Allen B. West wrote "If we cannot be proud enough as a country to sing “American the Beautiful” in English in a commercial during the Super Bowl, by a company as American as they come—doggone we are on the road to perdition. This was a truly disturbing commercial for me, what say you?"

It seemed the Coca Cola struck a nerve with certain groups who were offended that the song was not sung entirely in English.

This reaction intrigued me, in part because it reminded me of how influential music is in informing our cultural identityAmerica the Beautiful is regularly sung and performed at July 4th ceremonies and other patriotic events. Americans who hear this song might feel a sense of pride, perhaps reflecting on what it means to be an American or thinking about the majesticness of our vast country. It is this sense of pride that seemed to have been hurt for those who spoke out against the Coca Cola commercial.

But perhaps this pride is misinformed? If anything, the connection between "America the Beautiful" and our growing diversity may be well matched. The lyricist, Katharine Lee Bates, wrote the words while visiting Pike's Peak in Colorado in the late 1800s. The state of Colorado is named after the Spanish river Rio Colorado, which in turn is from the Spanish word "colorado" meaning "ruddish red."

Bates herself was not your typical 19th century woman. She was an academic, a teacher of English at Wellesly College in Massachusetts. She also never married, but was in a long-term intimate relationship with a fellow female academic, Katharine Coman.

Then consider some of the words Bates composed:

…and crown thy good with brotherhood…

O beautiful for pilgrim feet…

…a thoroughfare for freedom beat…

O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years…

Words like "brotherhood," "pilgrim," "freedom," and "patriot" invoke in me a sense of belonging and openness. It is as if Bates is calling for a united front among and between all Americans, not a divisive one. To me, Coca Cola reflected this openness and togetherness when they invited other languages into their rendition of the ballad.

And based on the little I know about the poet Katharine Lee Bates, it would not surprise me if she, too, held the same spirit of openness to diversity and would herself support the Coca Cola commerical.

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