So, this guy, Francis Dunnery, was initially the lead singer of the English band It Bites, which found moderate success with their single “Calling All the Heroes”. To be honest, I kind of wish I were writing about that song instead of this . It has a bit of a cool Genesis-like feel to it, and while I definitely didn’t love it, the best I can say is that the lyrics are somewhat more interesting than this. “American Life in the Summertime” is the introductory single to Dunnery’s second solo album after It Bites had broken up. His album prior to this one, Welcome to the Wild Country, was defined by the hedonistic lifestyle that had consumed him at that point, complete with copious drug and alcohol consumption. Nonetheless, he cleaned up and recorded the more commercial, pop-sounding Fearless, which features “American Life” and here we are.
The sound of this song could fit right in alongside music by Pulp and similar British pop-laden rock. It certainly has a catchy driving hook – “Oooh, da-da-da-da, da da'” – that may realistically be the strongest element of the whole song. Dunnery doesn’t really have a good singing voice, but with “Calling All the Heroes”, there was at least some attempt at a soaring, upbeat melody, and it was even rather successful in moments. Here, the vocal performance in the verses opt for a lower register talk-sing method which I find a bit dull. I get trying to reinvent oneself to make a solo career, but successful former frontmen like John Lennon, Iggy Pop, and Phil Collins emphasized their strongest elements instead of trying to alienate their fans. I’m definitely not a fan myself, but witnessing the discrepancy between about ten years of music-making is a tad frustration.
But what about the song’s content? Well, the initial idea of it – a small-town English fellow’s view of trying to make it in Hollywood – initially piqued my interest. Particularly because Dunnery himself is from a small town, so one could expect it to be at least somewhat genuine. Soon, it becomes clear that this is more a criticism of the lifestyle than actual praise or appreciation of it. The protagonist of the first verse, Johnny, moves to LA and struggles to make it in the music biz due to his lack of musical talent. Eventually, he plagiarizes another tune (“Ripped off an old tune, said it was his own”) and finds immediate success at that point. Dunnery later on emphasizes the point more clearly in the pre-finale bridge: “It breaks my heart, to see a nation cloned / By someone else’s poetry… I don’t wanna be like them / I just wanna be me”.
For me, what dampens the mood most of all is that second verse, where the story switches from Johnny to a woman named Susie, who is enamored with Johnny’s music on the radio and waits for him backstage after the show. The song inadvertently demonstrates the double-standard of how men can be successful rock stars, while women are often subordinated to fan or groupie status. I guess there can be an argument made of how Dunnery’s criticisms extend to this sexist culture, but I don’t think there was any intention to do so and there’s certainly no level of such self-awareness present in the words nor the tone.
The chorus of the song, where Dunnery makes a call to “drink until the beer runs dry”, feels like it was taken from an entirely different song. Tonally, it transitions from verse to chorus pretty seamlessly, but I think this fun-loving sentiment would be more suitable for a composition that is somewhat less bitter. Then again, I guess this was the atmosphere of 90s Britpop, so maybe it’s not worth the complaint. Essentially, though, this just feels like another throwaway radio pop single about California and the summertime. It’s abundantly clear that Dunnery isn’t nearly at his strongest when set apart from his former band.