American culture is forever changing and music is the best way to explore this. This is evident through the works of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, and many others making music that speaks out against the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam war, to more recently Kendrick Lamar, Lizzo, Post Malone, and many others speaking about modern problems like being successful and not finding happiness. Artists and the songs that they make can help us see many sides of American culture and what it means to be an American. People in rural Michigan and the Southside of Chicago live incredibly different lives, but through music they can understand each others’ experiences and hardships. Thanks to music, we have a complete and whole history of American culture, how it’s changed over time and how it’s used in different ways. To define what American culture is you need look no further then music. Through this essay music will be used to answer what it means to be an American.

One of the first  major hit songs to take a stance in modern American culture was “Strange Fruit” by the late great Billie Holiday. Coming out in 1939 and containing haunting lyrics such as, “blood on the leaves and blood at the roots, black bodies swinging in the summer breeze” this song was in response to lynchings going on in the south describing their gruesome nature in grave detail. This song was in the midst of the Jim Crow era, and it was made to show people who were ignoring the racist atrocities that were happening in the south what was happening. It told Americans to wake up and look at what was happening. This song was so influential to American culture that in 1999 it was named “song of the Century” by Time Magazine. Through this song we can see what American culture was to Billie Holiday and many other black americans, it was deep racism and gruesome expressions of that racism.

Fast forward twenty-six years and America was in the middle of the Vietnam war. Many Americans did not understand why we were at war and they voiced their dismay about it through music. For those who didn’t know the degree of what was going on in Vietnam, this music was conveying the gravity of what was happening. Among the many singers protesting the war the most prolific voices in the crowd belonged to Phil Ochs. With songs like ”Talking Vietnam” (1964), “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” (1965), “If You Love Your Uncle Sam, Bring ‘Em Home” (1966), Phil Ochs toured around the country singing these songs of protest and expressing his concern to bring American kids home. These protest songs gave way to one of the largest festivals in American history, Woodstock. Which was in and of itself a protest for peace and love. One of the stand out moments of the festival was Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Performed on an electric guitar, it gave it a distorted feel and was meant “as a reflection of the violence done in the name of the flag”  (Anne Meisenzahl and Roger Peace). To Americans across the country at this time, American culture was kids no older than eighteen or nineteen getting drafted to die for clashing political beliefs in a country thousands of miles away. 

Now we move to 1985, you’re a suburban white mom and from your daughter’s bedroom you hear the lyrics, “I knew a girl named Nikki I guess you could say she was a sex fiend, I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine,” (Prince). You’re horrified and ask your daughter where she got this filth, when she tells you, you realize you bought it for her. This was a reality for Tipper Gore who after hearing “Darling Nikki” (1984) by Prince, “created the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and launched a campaign to use ‘Parental Advisory’ labels to warn parents against music with explicit, or ‘obscene’ content,” (Crabtree). Soon after the group formed there was a congressional hearing where they invited musicians to come and testify. Frank Zappa was one of those musicians and argued that the PMRC was censorship he said, ”The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years, dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design”. Frank Zappa was not happy and many other artists weren’t either, because as soon as the parental advisory sticker went on your album Walmart who was the largest distributor of music at the time wouldn’t carry your record. This encouraged record labels  to force their artists tio make clean music, oppressing their artistic integrity. However on the other hand the PMRC thought they were doing a good deed to the youth of America by informing them when an Album was explicit. During this time to artist American culture was censorship and oppression, to concerned parents it was pornographic, satanic, and violent songs being broadcasted to their kids.   

238 million users, 175 million users, 60 million users, these are the numbers put up by the top streaming apps Spotify, Soundcloud, and Apple music respectively according to the most recent numbers put out by ExpandedRamblings.com and Forbes.com. The music industry is at its largest point ever and the mecca for that is the United States. Nine out of the top ten songs on the Billboard Hot one hundred belong to Americans, including the number one spot held by Lizzo for her song “Truth Hurts” (2019). A song about female empowerment, it is “an anti-commitment song, in which Lizzo speaks about how romantic commitment could hold her and her career down” (Gardenia24). This song has spent six weeks at the number one spot on the Billboard hot one hundred chart and twenty-two weeks all time on the chart qualifying it to be an American classic. To Lizzo American culture is having the freedom to pursue a career without a man holding her back.

Through modern American history music has played an integral role in popular culture  and reflecting America as a whole. Being American has no one static definition, it’s not just if you were born here or not. Being American is experiencing a shared culture. The best way to do that is through music.  Through music we are able to understand what it means to be American to different people during different times. It gives insight to what it meant to be American to people of color in the 1930’s. What it meant to be American to the families and friends of the young men who fought and died for their country in Vietnam. We know what it means to be American to concerned parents in the 1980’s and the artists of the time. And we know what it means to be American to the top artist in the world right now. Being American is being able to share a slice of yourself and having people understand your experiences and values through music. 

Atkins, Jamie. “Say It Loud: How Music Changes Society.” UDiscover Music, 1 Nov. 2018, https://www.udiscovermusic.com/in-depth-features/how-music-changes-society/.

Crabtree, Chloe-Rose. “The Dirty History of Parental Advisory Labels.” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip, 7 Aug. 2018, https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/the-dirty-history-of-parental-advisory-labels/.

Kondrat, Matthew. “Does Culture Affect Music or Does Music Affect Culture?” Prezi.com, 16 June 2014, https://prezi.com/_ofmyns8lnua/does-culture-affect-music-or-does-music-affect-culture/.

McIntyre, Hugh. “The Top 10 Streaming Music Services By Number Of Users.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 29 May 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/hughmcintyre/2018/05/25/the-top-10-streaming-music-services-by-number-of-users/#6f53baf55178.

“Online Master of Music in Music Education.” Go to Kent State Online Master of Music in Music Education., 2019, https://musicedmasters.kent.edu/americas-pop-music-history/.

“Protest Music of the Vietnam War.” Peace History, http://peacehistory-usfp.org/protest-music-vietnam-war/.

Smith, Craig. “72 Interesting Spotify Statistics.” DMR, 23 Sept. 2019, https://expandedramblings.com/index.php/spotify-statistics/#targetText=Number of Spotify ad-supported users:&targetText=2018: 116 million,2016: 78 million.

“Top 200 Albums: Billboard 200 Chart.” Billboard, https://www.billboard.com/charts/billboard-200.

Zappa, Frank. “Frank Zappa: Statement To Congress, September 19, 1985.” Frank Zappa: Statement To Congress September 19, 1985, https://urbigenous.net/library/zappa.html.


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CC BY-SA 4.0 How Music Helps Us Define What it Means to be American by Aidan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

6 Comments
  1. Mudit 1 month ago

    Hi Aidan,
    I really like how you pointed out how the use of music has changed over time but it has always been used to address issues that people are facing. From Billie Holiday talking about lynchings and such activities being ignored in the south to Phil Ohcs voicing his dismay in Vietnam, music has been and always will be used as a way to express feelings and voice opinions. While reading this I realized how prevalent it still was for musicians and artists to voice their concerns and beliefs through music. An artist I listen to often Polo G uses his music to voice concerns about the violence in Southside Chicago. “He decries the racial inequities and gentrification in Chicago, and, in the next verse bares the psychological effects of the constant violence spilling out into neighborhood streets like those near the Marshall Field Garden Apartments where he grew up.” (chicago.suntimes.com). I feel like this is a way that music is used nowadays, people talking about violence and poverty in places they grew up in. I think that music will only grow to be more popular and will always be used to voice opinions and concerns about society.

    https://chicago.suntimes.com/2019/8/23/20825767/polo-g-chicago-success-finer-things-rap

    • Author
      Aidan 1 month ago

      Hello, Mudit thank you for bringing up Polo G and southside Chicago, I think that him and many others are very important to showing the world what Chicago is really like. Chicago has been named Chiraq by many because more Americans have been killed there then in Iraq. See Young Pappy’s “Chiraq” (2014) where he says, “Boy, I’m from the real Chiraq, where we catch more bodies than the real Iraq
      Know a real n***** that still shot back, caught one to his neck and he still got whacked”. Young Pappy isn’t glorifying violence here, rather he is showing what his real life is like. Young Pappy was unfortunately killed in 2015 from a gunshot wound. His brother TaySav said this in “PBG Story” (2017) “Thinking ’bout the end Nah, I can’t get no sleep Pappy talking to me, saying: “Bro, let it go!” And I told him, “I can’t ’cause this shit too deep”. He’s talking about wanting to kill the man who killed his brother although he knows his brother wouldn’t want that. It’s a vicious cycle in chicago and without music I don’t think we would know about it.

  2. Mitchell 1 month ago

    Aidan, I love the way you approached the idea of American values. Focusing on music is unique and you tied it together very well. Since music plays such a big role in our society today I can imagine a lot of people can relate to this. I like the way you connected it to the Vietnam war, whether you know it or not this connected to other American values like freedom and community. The people didn’t like what was going on with their government and the war, so they spoke out against it in a very influential way using music. This expresses freedom and community because the musicians used freedom of speech to bring their community together, with the subtle form of protest, music. In the paragraph about censorship and how artists were being oppressed, I think this is a another great example of how music reflects the current happenings of the time. On that same note, I also saw another connection between the current events and music in the paragraph about Lizzo’s song on anti-commitment. The section about censorship and oppression of musicians is relating the American value of freedom and the section about anti-commitment ties in with freedom and important topics of today about empowering women. The way you connected pop culture from the past and present to connect to American values was very clever. How much do you think music influenced today’s culture? What do you think America would be like if music wasn’t as important as it was and currently is today?

    • Author
      Aidan 1 month ago

      Mitchell I love you, thank you for the beautiful comment. The way you understood my argument was exactly the way I wanted it to be perceived. And to answer your question I think that without music America would be nowhere near as developed as we are now. Music is in our DNA it is primal, without it we are starving ourselves of a need. That need is of pleasure through way of sounds. Without music America would be a third world country.

  3. Taylor 1 month ago

    I never thought about using music to describe Americans. This gave me a different insight on Americans and America as a whole. Music is a way to express the artist’s feelings and I didn’t realize how many would write music about their country. Whether they were mad or happy or just expressing their life, I feel now that most artists write about their homes, or where they come from. When you said “238 million users, 175 million users, 60 million users, these are the numbers put up by the top streaming apps Spotify, Soundcloud, and Apple music ” I was shocked. I know lots of people listen to music for many different reasons but I truly didn’t think about how many did. 238 million people is a lot! Americans use music for many different reasons, which is important in our culture. Now more than ever I do believe music helps us understand whats going on in the world and sometimes even to forget what’s happening.

    • Author
      Aidan 1 month ago

      Thank you for commenting Taylor I like to know what works with my writings and what doesn’t. I thought my stats weren’t the strongest but thanks for letting me know they are.

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