Today guest blogger Robert Loss writes about the multifaceted notion of “American-ness” and how it unfolds across genres of popular music.
Whether they mean to or not, every American artist tells his or her version of the American story. The “American” descriptor in the book’s subtitle (“Seeking the New in 21st-Century American Popular Music”) winds its way throughout the book as a constantly changing narrative, a set of beliefs, a place, a people, visions of the past, and visions of the future. Sometimes the American-ness is treated explicitly. In “Revivals Are Revisions,” for instance, I discuss the American story told by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on Time (the Revelator), a story of great optimism and now, post-millennium, tremendous disappointment and confusion. In the chapter “Spectaglam!” which centers on Katy Perry’s 2015 Super Bowl Halftime Show, America has fulfilled the promise of its own spectacle.
Elsewhere in the book, I’m not as explicit or detailed about the American stories told in various songs and albums. Below, I riff on some of these in a way that illustrates not only the diversity of their stories, but how they relate to the subject of the new.
Carolina Chocolate Drops, “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!)” from Genuine Negro Jig (2010)
The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ cover of Blu Cantrell’s 2001 hit is a remarkable recombination of the original performance’s pop language and defiant spirit with the rustic vigor and technicality of string band music. These two versions, each driven by powerful voices, account for more than a century’s worth of Black American musical newness: string band, blues, jazz, R&B, rap. If “Snowden’s Jig (Genuine Negro Jig)” is the story of America’s foundational and painful fascination with racialized love and theft, “Hit ‘Em Up Style” is the America where women are done taking shit from men, unless it’s the money from their cheating lovers’ wallets. Capitalism is all about competition, is it not?
Agalloch, Ashes Against the Grain (2006)
Black metal is, by now, a tradition. The temptation is to hear Agalloch’s dense distorted guitars, furious drums, and John Haughm’s growls and whispers as a nightmare. But that’s not the case at all. There’s something lush and even comforting about Ashes Against the Grain, though also conflicted, urgent, and primal. (That spread is covered in “Not Unlike the Waves” alone.) The pastoral inflections, mainly some fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and the lyrics sometimes recall folk ballads. You can’t ignore the epic quality of the chord structures, though—epic in the sense we’ve forgotten, i.e. the story a nation tells about itself. Recently I came across a scholarly paper* which suggested that grief and alienation in early American rhetoric were important qualities around which colonists could form a nation, and that’s as close as I can come here to describing the vision of America created in 2006 by a black-metal band from Portland, Oregon: a dream that a group of strangers could belong to one another based on a sense of absence, a loneliness in the wild.
Taylor Swift, “Shake It Off,” from 1989 (2014)
Swift’s overt performances of suffering never convince me, but the perseverance in “Shake It Off” is about the everyday slights experienced by not just Swift but so many women. The song, like nearly all of 1989, is an homage to what Swift sees as an innovative period of American music, but most of all it’s an homage to the stability of modern American competition and pettiness—playas gonna play, haters gonna hate—and the need for constant improvisation and movement, especially for women. It’s an anxious song, an American Wow affirmation of Douglas Rushkoff’s theory of the condition of “present shock” wherein we’re always “on,” always tuned in, distracted and restless. Everything about the music, though, from the beat to the melody to Swift’s chipper vocals, makes this social condition sound not only inevitable, but fun. Why would you want an alternative?
Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” from Unleashed (2002)
In his enormously helpful book Novelty: A History of the New, Michael North writes that “recurrence” is a major model of newness, one that offers “the return in all its pristine glory of some original newness.” I’ve been fascinated by the way that this cyclical version of the new (which has some obvious contradictions) has recently been utilized for the purposes of American nationalism, isolationism, war, and propaganda. But it’s going on for a while, of course. In this post-9/11 song by Toby Keith, recurrence relies heavily on icons, not history: “Old Glory,” “Fourth of July,” “Uncle Sam,” “Statue of Liberty,” and one you’re not likely to hear often, “Mother Freedom.” The stridency of the music, Keith’s stern baritone, the back and forth between acoustic and electric guitars—and the chimes! Jesus, the chimes!—depict an America that isn’t an actual place. Instead, it’s an innocent, forever “new” concept, an emotional ideology, a utopia that would stay a utopia if not for the rest of the world. The projects of war and imperialism then become unfortunate necessities required to restore an imagined “pristine glory,” no matter the very real cost.
Talib Kweli, “Listen!!!” from Eardrum (2007)
“Listen!!!” is largely concerned with, as Kweli puts it, the “real hip hop” that’s “missin’ from the shelf.” Here, America is cacophony of voices that speak but don’t listen, and within that culture of the American spectacle, Kweli raps to Black Americans who aren’t hearing the history, the wisdom, and the innovation of Black thought and music, including its revolutionary promise. But Kweli also says that “real hip hop” is “what you felt when you listened to yourself.” He adds: “Only a few is makin’ cuts that finish/So before you spend your hard-earned spinach…” In other words, before you go off to buy what someone else’s music, make your own. This flow between listening and speaking, between reception and self-production, is what real democracy sounds like. As in Keith’s song, this America is an idea, but it’s a much more pluralistic idea about what America could yet become, a new nation in the future that lives up to its promise for all people.
* Peter Coviello’s “Agonizing Affection: Affect and Nation in Early America,” by way of “John Winthrop’s ‘Model’ of American Affiliation” by Ivy Schweitzer, both in the journal Early American Literature.
For more about the book, including events and a complete discography, visit: www.nothinghasbeendonebefore.com