In the original stage version, Anita – the most important female character after Maria and the girlfriend of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks – praises America while a fellow Puerto Rican immigrant, Rosalia, supports Puerto Rico. This version of the song deprecates the island and highlights the positive qualities of American life ("I'll drive a Buick through San Juan/If there's a road you can drive on"). The irony of this supposedly pro-American number, however, is its vibrantly Hispanic musical style, with Latin percussion, complex cross-rhythm and Spanish guitar.
In the 1961 film version, Anita, played by Rita Moreno, still sings in favor of the United States while Bernardo, played by George Chakiris, replies with corresponding criticisms of America and American anti-immigrant prejudice, especially against Puerto Ricans ("Life is all right in America/If you're all white in America"). Some of the original song's disparagement was removed.
In 2004, this version finished at No. 35 in AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema.
The song employs a mixed meter:
The alternating bars of 6
8 (six eighth-notes in two groups of three) with 3
4 (three quarter-notes) (similar to a guajira) is a distinctive characteristic of the song. This rhythm has been called both a hemiola and a habanera but is not really either. The two bar-types alternate and are not superposed, as in a hemiola. The alternation is comparable with the "Habanera" from "Carmen", but "America" lacks the distinctive characteristic underlying rhythm of the habanera form.
The composer's tempo instruction is "Tempo di Huapango".
An instrumental version, with the signature rhythm reduced to a uniform 4
4, was released in 1963 by Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass on their album Volume 2.
In 1968, The Nice, featuring Keith Emerson, covered an instrumental version of "America" as the band's second single. This version had the main theme playing against a straight 4
4 beat, also including pieces of Dvo?ák's New World Symphony, then changing in the middle to 6
8 for improvised guitar and organ solos. At a July 7, 1968, concert at the Royal Albert Hall, the band controversially burned an American flag after performing the song. Emerson later folded the melody into a great many of his jams including the finale medley on Emerson, Lake & Palmer's 1992-1993 tours, which also used musical themes from "Blue Rondo à la Turk", a jazz standard composed by Dave Brubeck. An example of this medley can be found on the album Live at the Royal Albert Hall.
The English psychobilly band King Kurt covered this song on an EP called America, released in 1986.
The heavy-metal band Metallica incorporated a few bars from the song in the opening riff from their song, "Don't Tread on Me". The "America" melody again featured prominently in a 1986 jam with Paul Shaffer on Late Night with David Letterman.
A version of this song was performed by the in-house band and singers to introduce a 2012 episode of the Polish version of Name That Tune, Jaka to Melodia?, complete with a set of dancers.
This song was also used in an episode of Glee (season 3 episode 5: "The First Time"), and sung by Naya Rivera (aka Santana Lopez) in the role of Anita, and Mark Salling (aka Noah "Puck" Puckerman) in the role of Bernardo.
In 2011, the song was covered by the cast of musical comedy television series Glee in the fifth episode of the third season, "The First Time" (aired on November 8), with character Santana Lopez (portrayed by Naya Rivera) on the lead. A minor controversy was caused over using the film version of the song, while a high school would normally use the stage version.
In 2003, the song was used in advertisements for Admiral Insurance though with different lyrics.
In 1994, the song was also the unofficial anthem at the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States and was sung by the 3 Tenors (Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti) at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles to an estimated global TV audience of 1.3 billion viewers.
A version of the song with modified lyrics is used in the end credits of the 2018 film Vice.