Thursday, February 24, 2011


I never intended for this to be a political blog (God knows there are enough of those), and I don't consider myself an especially political person. But when I stumbled upon a song about Arizona--probably the only one I'll find-- it happened to address a topic that has been the source of intense political debate in the past few months. Arizona is a border state, so of course I'm talking about the immigration debates that have garnered a lot of CNN face time. We arrive at this topic through the lyrics of unlikely political commentator Brandon Flowers and the song 'Magdalena.'

For a song about the woes of illegal immigration, 'Magdalena' has a fairly upbeat sound. Flamingo sees Flowers experimenting with an array of sounds that move away from the Killers aesthetic, from old-timey country ('On the Floor') to the mariachi tint in 'Magdalena.' The 'plot' of the song, such as it is, revolves around the journey from the Arizona border town of Nogales to Magdalena, in Sonora, Mexico. It's a trip of about 60 miles through the desert, and the first thing you'll notice about the song is that its protagonist isn't going the direction you'd think. In light of the recent immigration debates in Arizona, we think of surreptitious midnight border crossings from Mexico to the US, but the travelers here are returning to Magdalena. As explained in this article, the trip from Nogales to Magdalena is an annual pilgrimage taken by hundreds of Mexicans every October. They make the journey on foot over two or three days, carrying "mandas" with them. As Flowers phrases it in the song, I assumed a manda was a type of talisman or religious reminder, but actually it's described as "penance, miracles, promises and pay it forwards." Like pilgrims throughout history, those traveling to Magdalena are seeking spiritual fulfillment or redemption.

Through its connection to redemption, the Nogales to Magdalena pilgrimage parallels dozens of other writings and songs about journeys in America. We've discussed Raleigh's redemptive journey after falling into disfavor with Queen Elizabeth, and it's also a theme that Springsteen returns to over and over. Images of the desert or other spacious locations are most often associated with these redemptive journeys, and 'Magdalena' follows this trend with its cleansing trip through the desert.

If this journey was from Magdalena to Nogales, this post would be about the search for the American dream that millions of immigrants have undertaken since the first settlers arrived in the sixteenth century. But what's interesting about 'Magdalena' is that the journey takes place in reverse. The travelers in 'Magdalena' are not seeking progress and success in America, but a return to the traditions of their homeland. It's an unusual twist on the narrative of the American dream, a rejection of all that that the nation represents. "Please don't offer me your modern methods/I'm fixin' to carve this out of wood," Flowers proclaims at the beginning of the track. Putting aside the obvious problem of imagining Brandon Flowers handcrafting anything from wood, the image suggests a desire for tradition above success.

'Magdalena' is a song about the failure to find the bounty or happiness that America promises, and as such it's a remarkably thoughtful and modern look at the state of affairs on our southern border. The song's bridge makes it clear that Flowers has the political issues surrounding immigration in mind. He describes "a bullet in the night/a Federale's light" before imploring San Francisco for aid. As a resident of the southwest, Flowers has certainly seen the issues that arise with immigration, but he's unusual in taking the viewpoint of the thousands of immigrants who don't succeed in their new lives. He describes them as "prodigal sons and wayward daughters," implying that their return to their homeland is inevitable once they discover the hardship that awaits them. The song also suggests that there is something corrupt in seeking success in America, that its wealth is a siren's call away from tradition and home. The song's final lines are: "If I should fall to temptation when I return to the evil throes/ From Nogales to Magdalena as a two-time beggar I will go/ Where I know I can be forgiven/ The broken heart of Mexico." As chaotic and dangerous as Mexico is, it is the homeland, preferred to the loss of culture and tradition that accompany a transplant to America. In fact, there's a shame in abandoning your culture that requires a redemptive journey, and perhaps more than one if you fall prey to the temptation of Americanization more than once.

In 'Magdalena,' Flowers finds some of his strongest parallels with his musical idol, Bruce Springsteen. As songwriters, both return over and over to the importance of religion in the American consciousness. Springsteen seeks "the promised land" just as Flowers takes the pilgrimage to Magdalena. Also, each meshes the idea of a redemptive journey with a mixture of disdain and longing for home. Flowers' pilgrims value the traditional lifestyle of Mexico-- complete with its religious practices and beliefs-- over the foreign success of life in America. In parallel narratives, Springsteen's protagonists seek better lives outside New Jersey even as they express nostalgia for their home state. Relationships of tension define much of the American experience-- tension between tradition and progress, between religion and superstition and modernity, and between home and the potential for a better life elsewhere. These themes become especially meaningful when considering our border states and our relationship with other nations. For a Vegas showman who's usually more interested in rhinestones than politics, Flowers creates a nuanced consideration of cultural conflict and the power of tradition.


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