Add This To Your Playlist: Week Twenty-Seven- All-American

This past week, America celebrated its independence with the Fourth of July: a time where everyone hosts cook-outs and sets off impressive fireworks displays. Even if you’re someone who feels like the patriotism during this time is overzealous to say the least, it’s nice to be able to spend some time with family and be reminded that as a country, we are lucky to have the freedoms that we do, even if we still have a long way to go. Here are some of my favorite songs from artists who were inspired by America. 

  1. 1. "All-American Boy" by Steve Grand

    Straight out of Chicago, Steve Grand made his mark on the music industry when his music video for “All-American Boy” went viral on YouTube in 2013. This attention granted Grand a space to share his story with Good Morning America where he discussed his difficulties coming out as a gay man to his family. Since his rise in popularity, he has become an active member of the LGBTQ+ movement and was able to release his first full-length album titled All American Boy after he was funded by a Kickstarter project. Grand realized his love for music from a young age and began song-writing when he was just eleven. His true inspiration was his father who always told him the significance of each song he listened to and how it applied to his life, teaching Grand the power of storytelling through music. In 2018, Grand released his second album, Not the End of Me

     

    This song follows a sad story of unrequited love whilst peppering in lyricism that connotes to all things American. Grand begins the song by describing his love interest, singing, “Ripped jeans, only drinks whiskey.” He’s describing your stereotypical masculine guy, evoking a sense of longing as he mentions the fact that he has a pretty girl on his arm. Even though he knows he doesn’t have a chance, the man’s eyes are “holdin’ [him] just a captive to his wonder.” In the chorus, he pleads for this man to “be [his] All-American boy tonight” so that for just this once, his fantasy can become a reality. For once, Grand just wants to be noticed.

     

  2. 2. "This is America" by Childish Gambino

    Childish Gambino is the stage name of the actor, comedian, producer, writer, musician, director and DJ, Donald Glover. The multi-talented artist began his career when he got the attention of Tina Fey who hired him for a role in 30 Rock. Recently, he has starred in the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story and will be the voice of Simba for the upcoming remake of The Lion King. Glover started his career as a musician in 2011 when he signed to Glassnote Records and released his debut studio album, Camp. In 2016, Glover’s single “Redbone” peaked at number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and earned him a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance. His 2018 single “This is America” won four Grammy Awards and debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. 

     

    In this gripping song, Glover combines an upbeat chorus with hard-hitting verses to expertly depict the black experience living in America. Glover chose to open his song with the voices of a gospel choir, connoting to the relationship between the church and the black community as well as the relationship that black people have had with music throughout time. The song begins rather unassumingly in regards to its lyrics as Gambino and Young Thug sing about how they “just want to party;” however, things take a darker turn as they launch into the chorus in which they remind black youth that “This is America” and that they can’t be “[caught] slippin’.” As it transitions into the first verse, Glover references gun violence and police brutality as he sings, “Guns in my area. I got the strap. I gotta carry ‘em.” While gun violence has specifically targeted the black community, he also speaks to the fact that it has become a necessity to carry in areas where this is prevalent in order to protect oneself. In the second verse, Gambino says his piece about materialism and how these ideas of getting money and wearing fineries have distracted many artists from raising their voices against more serious problems. Songs like this are incredibly relevant and important because they remind those of us who don’t live it to take a step back and observe how hatred, racism and violence are still prevalent in today’s culture.

  3. 3. "American Girl" by Tom Petty

    Tom Petty is an iconic American singer and songwriter of the 70s, best known as the frontman of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Later in his career, he also performed as a part of the Travelling Willburys. Petty earns himself a spot among the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold over 80 million copies of his albums. In 2002, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their achievements. Petty started his life in Gainesville, Florida and began to fall in love with rock and roll at age ten when he met Elvis Presley. Petty drew a lot of inspiration from artists such as The Rolling Stones and was actually taught to play guitar by Don Felder, a member of the rock band Eagles. Sadly, the former rock star and legend died at age 66 of an accidental prescription drug overdose, but even though his life ended too soon, he has still managed to make an incredible mark on music history. 

     

    “American Girl” is inspired by a character Petty uses in many of his narratives: a small-town kid who dreams for more, but ends up facing difficulties along the way. He introduces this character by identifying her as an “American Girl” who was “raised on promises.” What he’s trying to evoke in these lines is that this girl was told her life would be meaningful and exciting, but so far, she hasn’t experienced all of the things she’s wanted to. In the song’s second verse, her narrative continues as she looks wistfully out over her balcony at the cars below, comparing their sound to “waves crashin’ on the beach.” As she reminisces, she thinks about a former love and how he’s now “so far out of reach,” much like the rest of her dreams appear to be. This is a song that is all too relatable in which you realize that you thought your life would have provided you with many more opportunities at that point in time. We all just want to be able to get out of our own lives sometimes.

  4. 4. "New Americana" by Halsey

    Halsey is an American artist that has skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years. In 2014, she first signed to Astralwerks record company and released her EP Room 93. After touring with bigger artists to get her name out there, she released her debut album Badlands in 2015 which debuted in the number two spot on the Billboard 200 album chart. Perhaps her breakout into the mainstream was the result of her feature in the single “Closer” by The Chainsmokers which became a hit in 2016 and would not leave the radio airwaves. Born Ashley Frangipane, Halsey chose her stage name as an anagram of her first name as well as for the location Halsey Street in Brooklyn where a man she was romantically involved with when she was seventeen lived. This was the same age she began to write music, first getting her name out on platforms like Tumblr and Soundcloud. After releasing “Ghost” onto Soundcloud, the song gained traction and launched her career with record label offers. Her latest release is her 2019 single titled “Nightmare.” 

     

    Halsey’s “New Americana” is a satirical take on pop culture commentary as she explores the America she knew growing up and the changing social climate of today’s youth. She begins her track by describing young and rich girls of her generation who are getting their hands on drugs and wearing the latest fashions, including “Balenciaga” handbags. She describes the girl as a “viral mess” who “turned dreams into an empire,” likely making a comment on the newfound culture of YouTube and how those caught in messy drama attract more viewers and can make a living on the scandals of their lives (this could also be a reference to Kim Kardashian and how she turned her sex-tape scandals into an obsession with her life and eventually a career). In the chorus of the song, Halsey gets to the point in saying that the new generation is now more open-minded through their use of “legal marijuana” and by listening to music from two very different cultures like that of “Biggie and Nirvana.” Later in the song, she starts a new narrative about a young heartthrob who apparently looks like “James Dean,” but ends up coming to terms with his sexual identity in the context of a hypermasculine sport, football. “New Americana” defies American stereotypes and showcases a new path in youth culture.

  5. 5. "American Woman" by Lenny Kravitz

    American singer, songwriter, producer, actor and instrumentalist Lenny Kravitz is known for how he bends the expectations of genres. Deemed “retro” by many, Kravitz incorporates elements of rock, soul, blues, R&B, pop, funk, jazz, folk and psychedelic music into his personal style. For four years in a row spanning from 1999 to 2002, Kravitz won the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. If you don’t know him from his music, you may recognize him for his role as Cinna in the movie adaptations of The Hunger Games series. Kravitz knew he wanted to be a musician since he was five years old when he was banging on pots and pans in the kitchen of his Manhattan home. He began to form his musical style after being exposed to Motown artists like James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. At the start of his career, Kravitz was constantly told by record labels that he was either not white enough or not black enough and decided to produce his first album on his own with the help of recording artist friend Henry Hirsch. Kravitz is still releasing music now and in 2018 released his 11th studio album, Raise Vibration.

     

    “American Woman” was originally released by the Canadian band The Guess Who that improvised the lyrics on stage at a concert when guitarist Randy Bachman started playing a riff that he didn’t want to forget. Though there are many speculations about what the lyrics mean, Burton Cummings, lead singer of the band, has stated that the lyrics are really just about him preferring Canadian women to American women as American women “seemed to get older quicker” and resulted in them being dangerous. Bachman later stated that the song acted as an anti-war protest song given the climate of the 60s during which they toured. While the song may seem anti-American, that was never the true intention. However, if we take a look at the lyrics, it can be easy to see why people would read deeper political themes into them. The song begins with the words “American woman, stay away from me.” This line has often been interpreted to reference the American government as they tried to draft the members of The Guess Who into the Vietnam War as they were crossing between Canada and the United States. Some still have interpreted the “American woman” in question to be the Statue of Liberty, symbolizing a lack of affiliation with what was once the signifier of immigration into the United States. However you choose to take the lyrics of this song, it’s clear that you’re going to have to “sparkle someone else’s eyes,” because neither Kravitz nor The Guess Who is buying what America is selling.

  6. 6. "American Girls" by ONE OK ROCK

    This 2005 rock band was formed in Tokyo, Japan and consists of members Takahiro Moriuchi (vocalist), Toru Yamashita (guitarist and frontman), Ryota Kohama (bassist) and Tomoya Kanki (drummer). Though they are a Japanese band, they signed with Fueled By Ramen, an American record label (also the record label for Panic! At The Disco, twenty øne piløts and Fall Out Boy) and sing their songs with both Japanese and English lyrics. Their band name was originally “One O’Clock,” but upon noticing that in the Japanese language, there are no distinctions between “l”s and “r”s, the name slowly morphed into its current version. In 2007, the group released their first album, Zeitakubyō, which was then followed by their first tour. In recent years, they have continued to release music, their most recent album being Eye of the Storm, which was released in February of 2019. 

     

    This song acts as perhaps the exact opposite of “American Woman” as it describes the fascination and infatuation that the speaker has with American girls. He describes these girls as being “neon lights” that he “can’t resist.” It seems as though the girls from Tokyo can’t compare to the mystique and intrigue of the girls from America. The speaker then pleads for the American girls to break his heart and asks, “How’d you get that reputation for taking over the world?”, seemingly putting American girls on a pedestal for being ambitious and driven to fight against patriarchal gender roles. Ultimately, this song just boils down to a fascination with another culture and what is unknown to the speaker. He believes his life would be more exciting with an American girl because he’d be experiencing a completely different perspective.

  7. 7. "LAND OF THE FREE" by Joey Bada$$

    Brooklyn-born hip-hop legend Joey Bada$$ (real name Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott) debuted in 2012 with the release of his mixtape 1999. In 2005, he moved onto creating his own debut studio album titled B4.Da.$$. Alongside his music career, Scott dabbles in acting, also having been featured in the hit t.v. show Mr. Robot. Though he is of Carribean descent, Scott grew up in New York and studied at Edward R. Murrow High School where he began concentrating on acting and music. Scott began writing songs and poetry at eleven, initially rapping under the name JayOhVee, but preferred Joey Bada$$ as it spoke to the cynical rappers he grew up listening to. He began his career by free-style rapping on YouTube where he caught the attention of Jonny Shipes, his future manager. In 2017, Scott released his second studio album titled ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, a political statement on the climate of America in regards to the treatment of the black community. 

     

    “LAND OF THE FREE” is a sobering track about wanting to be understood and about explaining the reality of navigating one’s black identity in America. Throughout the song, Bada$$ uses clever imagery and lyricism to convey grander ideas. Perhaps one of the most notable lines is “Full house on my hands, the cards I was dealt. Three K’s, two A’s in AmeriKKKa.” While the “three K’s” clearly stands for the abbreviation of the Klu Klux Klan, a group known for their hate crimes and protest against people of color, Bada$$ also slips in the dual meaning by placing it in the context of a larger Poker metaphor in which the “K’s” represent Kings and the “A’s” represent Aces in a deck of cards. In his verses, Scott discusses how difficult it is to try to find his place within the ongoing movement for black equality as he is constantly influenced by his knowledge of the history of his community, but also struggles to find a way of doing justice to raising his voice on behalf of the experiences of his ancestors. He then moves on to talk about how black people are targeted and incarcerated for less severe crimes or when there is less evidence that would warrant a conviction. He sings, “All our history hidden, ain’t no liberty given. We all fit the description of what the documents written.” This seems to be commenting on racial profiling within law enforcement and the justice system. When speaking to such an expansive, layered and intersectional issue, Joey Bada$$ not only speaks from the heart and from personal experience, but he also writes his lyrics to be both deep and clever, yet accessible for the younger audiences listening to his work. With such a nuanced political critique, this song is certainly an important one. 

While a lot of these songs are not the stereotypical patriotic anthems that we tend to think of when we consider holidays like the Fourth of July, I think it’s important that we consider the multi-faceted aspects of our history and realize that the freedom that this country prides itself on is relative when we look at those who come from marginalized backgrounds as opposed to more privileged ones. There is still so much change we need to see. Let’s hope people keep raising their voices and changing the world. 

 

Listen to the full playlist here!