Current Obsession: A.A. Bondy, An American Mind

A.A. Bondy courtesy of Fat Possum Records.

In 1927, Mark Sullivan wrote a book titled Our Times: The United States, 1900-1925. Part II of this work is called America Finding Herself, the first chapter of which is “The American Mind.” Here Sullivan defines a nation’s culture as consisting of, among other things, “the points of view every one has about individual conduct and social relations…his standards of taste and morals, his store of accepted wisdom which he expresses in proverbs and aphorisms; his venerations and loyalties, his prejudices and biases, his canons of conventionality; the whole group of ideas held in common by most of the people.” He goes onto explain that we learn these things from our parents and our system of education.

Webster’s definition of education is as such: “2. The knowledge or skill obtained or developed by such a process : LEARNING.” I note this to emphasize that the classroom need not necessarily apply to education. In fact, I would argue much educating, the kind that sticks and supports integrally, is found outside of a walled room. Learning is to be had in bars and underneath bras; on trains and in shallow waters; in movies and meadows; at the bottom of a bottle and the end of a race. And all the things I know can be found in song because music is the slate upon which Americans write their lessons–present but chalky, a mere swipe away from irrelevance.

With his 2007 album American Hearts, A.A. Bondy takes it upon himself to quietly draw us a roadmap to American history. Bondy’s songs so masterfully incorporate American imagery that the listener fails to know he/she are learning. This is the best form of education.  American Exceptionalism, in particular, is on display from the battle cry of Don’t Tread on Me repeated in “American Hearts” to the reckless wanderer as outlined in “Killed Myself When I Was Young.” The track that filets the American mind best is “Rapture (Sweet Rapture)” for we are nothing if not descended from a group of miscreant Christians looking for the Rapture on their own terms in a City on a Hill. Even all these generations later, most of us are still looking for that City, for some sign, for a voice that brings us home. That’s the essence of an American heart: belief abutting doubt atop a bed of impudence in the lonely drive West.

What an education.

Current Obsession: Lana Del Rey

I’m the worst at staying current with Pop Music. Some have chalked this up to my being a “hipster,” one close friend even blaming my Fella for being a “popular culture shield.” While the truth of these statements has yet to reveal itself, my learning curve is most definitely steep and slow. For instance, it took me two years to put a face to the name of Lady Gaga, a connection that was made only because I went to the Castro bar Toad Hall which plays music videos.

This is a long way of saying: I just jumped aboard the Lana Del Rey Train! While I knew about her (I don’t live underneath a rock), I paid her no mind until her track “Young and Beautiful” from The Great Gatsby soundtrack incited an addiction. The underpinning of my obsession is two-fold: firstly, she looks like a mash-up of every vintage movie starlet that ever existed–a fact she plays up well in her video for “National Anthem;” secondly, she covered a song by Leonard Cohen (“Chelsea Hotel No. 2”) which instantly endears me to an artist.

But this goes deeper than a historically-nuanced video and a cover song. I find her fascinating as an American Studies specimen with the way she uses a sexualized approach to denude classic American imagery and tropes such as “Blue Jeans,” the “National Anthem,” “Cola” and “Summer Sadness” which call to mind movies like Grease and American Graffiti, if both of these films featured more adult content. While my snobbery precluded me from wanting to like songs with titles such as “Diet Mountain Dew,” I was seduced by her pairing of that clarion call voice with commentary on a scenario familiar to any red-blooded heterosexual female: loving the bad boy. Lana continually repeats this potent combination on her album Paradise and, god help me, I sure as hell relate to her motivations in songs like “Gods & Monsters.” Additionally, her song “American” is enchanting in its adolescent framework–a phrase that can easily be applied to American culture at large. The teenage linguistics of “American” are delivered in atop a fairydust hail of accompanying music that, for some odd reason, reminds me of instrumental tracks from the 1995 movie Casper, as does the song “Bel Air.” 

All intellectual persuasions asides, Lana Del Rey’s music is catchy and allows us the opportunity for role-play. I’m not a Las Vegas club kid. My nether-regions do not taste of pepsi cola. I don’t date rich older men who like to party. However, when I’m folding laundry and singing my heart out to “Video Games,” suddenly I’m a coquette in a sundress instead of an archivist in leggings and an oversized Santa Anita Racetrack sweatshirt–a little naughtier, a little less up in my own head where I over-think everything. This last only a moment until my Fella or roommate come home, but in that moment I have released an entire week’s worth of stress simply by being outside myself.

Lana Del Rey is neither the pantheon of feminist empowerment nor the mascot of the new Americanism, but she is damn addictive. Her music and her personae make me question both of the aforementioned: what it means to be a woman in a woman’s skin, and what it means to be an American in an American’s skin. Not bad for a pop star, if you think about it.

Portugal. The Man is “So American”

To further illustrate the everlasting impacts of historic events on popular culture is this Portugal. The Man Take Away Show recorded in Paris, France. Aside from the latent choice of performing a song titled “So American” in a foreign country (such an American thing to do), this is a legacy song that synthesizes decades of U.S. history. In deconstructing the song critically, we see specifically American tropes and challenges highlighted in under four minutes.

Jesus Christ enters the song first and points to the country’s foundation as a Christian escape from religious persecution; to this day, the country that emblazons its currency with “In God We Trust” while bestowing religious institutions with tax-exempt status struggles to separate Church and State. This is immediately followed by a shout-out to rock and roll, the instantly identifiable American genre and possibly one the greatest American contributions to music. Music, in and of itself, is no stranger to religion and is used heavily in church to reinforce the gospel. Gospel and Blues, when viewed as secular genres both rooted in slavery, beget Rock and Roll, and although Jesus didn’t know no rock and roll it’s interesting that this type of music has been exalted by many to religious status as a supplement for religions that had alienated them. Take, for example, Rockabilly teenagers who craft their entire existence around a movement that had its moment in the 1950s. That type of immersion takes a religious devotion, and offers the same sense of belonging as that of a worshipping community within traditional brick and mortar churches. This sense of community, I believe, is the essential lure of religion today.

Next up is the Vietnam War, the watermark of American shame. During this conflict, American G.I.s were sent into foreign jungles to quash a civil war so as to prevent the spread of communism into the American sphere of influence. Sound like the logic of a deranged lunatic? That’s because it was; it was the result of many men infected by Red Fever enacting the Domino Theory in which they had been politically raised and would dominate American politics throughout the Cold War. And what did those GIs bring with them to Vietnam? Rock and roll. The domestic impact of the Vietnam War, fueled by anti-war songs, occurred in tandem with the general unrest of the 1960s that included, among other events too numerous to list, the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of not one but two Kennedys.

In retrospect we must ask ourselves that which Portugal. The Man implores: is there madness in us all? Did we inherit this chaos as vegetables soak up chemicals from the soil? The entirety of the 1960s and 1970s seems anathema to American values, as does the institution of slavery (ironically, perpetuated by direct descendants of persecuted Christians) when viewed with the perspective afforded 21st-century citizens. We were raised to revere the American flag because it stood for liberty, equality and justice for all, but once we grew into our critical thinking skills we were left to wonder: who broke the rules, and where are we supposed to turn when the policemen don’t even understand?

So, you see, this Portugal. The Man song truly IS so American. It’s a conscious rebuttal to the past that ends with the nullifying “There’s two eyes for every one of us, but somebody got there first and took them all.” Americans are aware of their sins, but unable to atone for them because they cannot see through the haze of the past. This isn’t our fault, either, because the ability to see, our crucial sense of sight has literally been taken away from us by those who broke the rules, obfuscated the truth, and smiled while they did it.

No wonder we’ve all gone mad.