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.
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