This week’s question came out of our weekly staff meeting, looking ahead to July 4th: “What part of pop-culture makes you proudest to be an American?”
My heart swells with patriotic pride—retroactive and historical patriotic pride, in any case—when I read Little Orphan Annie. The comic strip is one of the great American contributions to culture, and there’s no more American strip than Annie. As collected in IDW Publishing’s indulgent volumes, the strip reveals Harold Gray’s wonderfully conflicted yet deeply felt version of a distinctly American ethos. Many poor people think all rich people are bad, but that isn’t true; some—even those who got rich off the war—are dedicated to justice. Many rich people think all poor people are bad, but that isn’t true; some—even orphans who’ve had to make their way through the world with fists and street-smarts—want to do what’s right more than they want to get ahead. Gray interrupts Annie’s Depression-era adventures with Daddy Warbucks’ rants against progressive taxation, tariffs, and regulation, the constant bogeymen of American conservatism, but in the mouths of his characters, they come off as charming attempts to find a middle way between celebrating individual initiative and keeping a lid on hereditary privilege. And then there’s Annie, a feminist icon in disguise, the kind of can-do girl who brings home the bacon and fries it up in a pan, probably for some immigrant family that isn’t getting a fair shake and needs a little help locating its bootstraps. I can’t think of a better time capsule for the peculiarly American conversation about free enterprise and personal moral responsibility—nor a more entertaining one.
I generally don’t take pride in being an American. Like Bill Hicks said, my parents fucked here—I didn’t have much say in the matter. But every once in a while, something will get to me, and I’ll feel… Well, not patriotic, exactly, but grateful. I just watched the complete DVD set of The Sopranos for the first time recently (full disclosure: I’m holding off on the last few episodes, just to stretch out the experience as long as I can), and, I know it seems weird, but it’s a show that makes me happy to be living where I am. Tony is a monster, but he’s a recognizable one, and often creepily sympathetic. His family, both immediate and extended, represents everything I think about this country; the reliance on sentimentality to overlook the rough spots, the way that sentimentalism can easily pour over into childish rage, the ignorant prejudices, the consumerist obsessions, the spoiled demand that everything work out the way you want it to, and underneath it all, that awful yearning for the world, and your place in it, to make some kind of sense. To belong somewhere, even if belonging means having to do horrible things. Being an American, if you’re lucky, means you have all these options about what kind of life you want to lead, and I think The Sopranos is an expression of how baffling those options can be, and the ways our past reverts endlessly back onto us whatever choices we’re able to make. That a show like this could last as long as it did, that it could be as successful as it was, and still be so uncompromisingly dark; that it could dare suggest that, even with all that soul-searching, it’s still possible to wind up a pretty evil fuck… That’s awesome. And it makes me proud that I live in a place where that kind of honesty is (sometimes) embraced.
My cynicism and general distrust of groupthink and large organizations that demand adherence to a narrow set of ideals—churches, political parties, condo associations, etc.—puts me in about the same place as Zack when it comes to patriotism, which I too often see as a beard for a ruthless quashing of namby-pamby intellectuals who might dare to question our beloved leaders, or even dare consider the consequences and rightness of any of their actions. (’Merica: love it or leave it, hippie scum.) So I struggled with this question for the better part of a week before realizing that there’s one American organization I support with unquestioning fervor and full-on homeland pride: Netflix, the little DVD-by-mail company that for me embodies the American Dream. As all-American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet are, there’s something that trumps them all in Americany-ness: the capitalist freedom to come up with a good, original idea and make tons of money by bringing it to the public marketplace. Founded in 1997, just after DVDs hit the market, Netflix was a forward-looking company from the start, and its backers have been tireless about embracing new services and new technologies, and streamlining the company’s business model to stay competitive as other, similar companies entered the market. It’s also been phenomenally well-run so far as its consumer experience goes, at least for those of us in a major city, who get next-day service to go with the company’s vast collection of films, from the mainstream to the painfully obscure. From the start, I’ve seen Netflix as a scrappy Little Engine That Could, offering a far superior service but still trying to find its feet in the market, fighting its way past imitators and competitors, and proving that an awful lot of Americas really do value the depth and breadth of their film library over the instant gratification of renting whatever the corner video store carries 50 copies of at the moment. I’ve taken the Netflix/Blockbuster/Wal-Mart competition as seriously and personally as fanatics take the adventures of their local sports team, and I feel a massive surge of pleasure whenever I read about how well the company is doing, and realize that it is possible to make quality and creativity pay off in this country. (Maybe this is a slightly cheaty answer, but America is all about freedom of expression and the pursuit of happiness, and Netflix makes me giddily happy. So there.)
As three Jewish kids in love with punk and hip-hop, the Beastie Boys embody the “melting pot” quality of America about as well as any act in popular music. (And the “cultural theft” aspect as well, but let’s not dwell on that so much.) For me, though, the Beastie Boys are inspiring for their wide-ranging enthusiasm: for sports, for spirituality, for political engagement, for cartoons, for cheesy ’70s cop shows, and on and on. Listening to a Beastie Boys album is like spending an hour with a funny, big-hearted friend who’s eager to share all the new music and movies and books he’s been digging since the last time you got together. The Beasties are embracers, and so is the America I love.
At the risk of ripping off Noel, I’d like to nominate another artist who epitomizes our country’s rich musical melting pot: Bob Wills, the leader of the Texas Playboys, the father of Western Swing, and a towering figure who brought together various mutant strains of American roots music into a joyous celebration of music, dance, rhythm, and being alive. At a time when our country was divided by race, Wills’ music provided a safe place where black and white sounds intermingled joyously. There’s something quintessentially American about Wills himself. He’s a true Horatio Alger success story whose energy, enthusiasm, and playfulness never waned. He even sounds like Mickey Mouse, that preeminent American icon.
I’m afraid I’ll have to echo Noel and Nathan with my choice. When I hear Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” I’m pretty proud to be an American. Like everything released by the Stax label in the ’60s (though this was technically from the Stax sister label, Volt), it was a product of black and white musicians coming together in the midst of a lot of forces determined to keep them apart, and preferably to keep the black half down in the process. Here, Stax house guitarist Steve Cropper and the incomparable Redding tried to create something new by melding Southern soul with some of the folk sounds they’d heard out on the West Coast. They succeed beautifully, evoking a restlessness and dissatisfaction with the way things are and a hope for the way they ought to be—two things hardwired into the American spirit. Redding, who recorded it shortly before his death in a plane crash, sounds disappointed but undefeated, which feels quintessentially American, too.
I’m going to say what I should’ve said for the AVQ&A about the pop culture our parents exposed us to: the great American treasure Richard Pryor. I distinctly remember listening to Richard Pryor: Wanted in the car with my dad, and laughing hysterically at the story of Pryor’s father, who apparently died while having sex with an 18-year-old girl. (“He came and went at the same time.”) Pryor was able to seamlessly blend funny, raunchy stories with fully political sentiment, probably because it was all part of one big American story—his own. Raised in a brothel in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor worked his way up as an offense-free nightclub comic, and he could’ve had a successful career with vanilla observations. An artistic awakening in 1967 sent him down a different road, though, as Pryor realized his true calling was truth itself—his truth, delivered in such a wickedly funny manner that he melted racial boundaries by exposing their stupidity. He was that rare personality who was both purely entertaining and vitally important.
I don’t know if the Founding Fathers enjoyed a jolly good ribbing (“You simply must hear the one about that delightful powdered wig!”), but their first amendment certainly gave rise to one of my favorite art forms of all time: stand-up comedy. Over the years, wonderfully inventive comics like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Louis C.K., and Doug Stanhope have been saying whatever they wanted—painful personal stories, jabs at society—without fear of imprisonment or censorship. Thanks to the freedoms we enjoy, there’s a jester for every sense of humor, even the really disgusting ones. (And thanks to those freedoms, no one takes Stanhope seriously when he takes potshots at the government, or talks about running for office on the Libertarian ticket.) Of course, The Daily Show wouldn’t exist without that first amendment either, so every Monday through Thursday is like the Fourth Of-freakin’-July in my apartment.
There are two things I’ve always said made me feel strangely proud to be an American: Playboy magazine and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Playboy, however, is going out with a whimper, whereas Al is still creating and still enjoying commercial success, so I’ll give him the gold medal. To me, the nerd is an American creature: I think that up until the last few decades or so, a nerd in any other country was just an outcast, weirdo, or loser. In Al’s case, however, with his family’s encouragement, he was able to fuse his unusual musical abilities, intelligence, and obsession with offbeat comedy and create a successful, seemingly fulfilling career. How cool is that? Something about Al’s brain, the sheer silliness of his work, and the fact that he apparently is a nice, decent guy just fills me with glee and makes me happy that we can claim him as one of our own.
This question reminds of something Steven Van Zandt once told Noel Murray in an A.V. Club interview three years ago. Noel asked how Van Zandt picked the songs for his Little Steven’s Underground Garage radio show, and he said, “The Ramones are the fulcrum. I play the Ramones, I play everyone who influenced the Ramones, and I play everyone the Ramones influenced.” For me, whenever I try to make sense of my country, Bob Dylan is the fulcrum. He was influenced by an appropriately wide and disparate range of American artists, from Woody Guthrie to Elvis Presley, Hank Williams to Allen Ginsberg, Mark Twain to Jimmy Reed, Charlie Chaplin to James Arness from Gunsmoke, and countless others. From these fertile sources, Dylan envisioned an America where grand myths and hard realities existed side-by-side, almost matter-of-factly; Greil Marcus called it the “old, weird America,” implying that it no longer exists, if it ever truly did. But given that the list of American artists Dylan himself shaped is far too long to rattle off here, it’s safe to say that a little of what he loved about this strange, eternally conflicted place we call home has rubbed off on the rest of us.
Though my love of country is only rivaled by Glenn Beck at his weepiest, I’ve never been much for anthems or pledges: The National Anthem only gets more ponderous as singers find new ways to squeeze the life out of it (save for Leslie Nielsen’s version in The Naked Gun, of course), and even “God Bless America,” a soaring tribute if there ever was one, was ruined once the Dodgers and Yankees decided to trot it out during the seventh-inning stretch. But my heart swelled on January 18, 2009, when Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and a host of others came together in front of the Lincoln Memorial to bring Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” back to its grass roots. Here was a country that had just elected a black President, something many never believed they would see in their lifetimes; the joy behind that rendition—felt by the hundreds of thousands in attendance, the millions more on television, and by the performers themselves—was of a land reclaimed for all Americans, from California to the New York Island, and from the redwood forest to the Gulf-stream waters.
Like most of my liberal, elitist, possibly sleeper-cell-terrorist colleagues, I’m flatly against any sort of jingoism or excessive American pride, particularly when it seems like that’s so often our fatal flaw. That’s probably why the artists who make me proudest to be an American—the ones I will gladly stand up next to and defend her still today (as long as it doesn’t require killing anyone, or going where it’s really hot and there are lots of hills)—are those who take a cockeyed view of what it really means to be an American, approaching our national identity with honesty and even brave pessimism. So, yes, that encompasses certain comedians and creators of television shows I won’t name because their exaltation has become a running gag around here, but I’m also talking about writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver, both of whom capture the peculiar emptiness resulting from when you achieve “the American dream” and find yourself bored and vaguely unsatisfied all the same. Even though the French coined the term “ennui,” I think the feeling that both of those writers evoked in their respective eras—Fitzgerald in his portraits of Jazz Age aristocrats who have everything they could possibly want save happiness; Carver in his blunt snapshots of middle-class sad-sacks dying slowly in the suburbs—is a uniquely American version, and as true a commentary on the human condition as anything that has been or ever will be written. (It also must be said that Europeans can’t rap for shit—sorry, Dizzee Rascal, but you know it’s true—so American hip-hop will always be number one. U.S.A., U.S.A.)
As a rule, I tend to be attracted to art that, if it makes any explicit reference to America at all, does so in a critical way, or at least in a profoundly conflicted way. Satisfaction, as it’s been endlessly pointed out, is nothing in art; those with nothing but praise and pride for their country tend to produce pretty dull work. But if I take a minute to think about it, I’d have to admit that almost all the pop culture I love should make me proud to be an American. Pretty much every manifestation of culture that’s given me a lifetime of joy has its roots here in the U.S. of A.: baseball, comic books, jazz, hip-hop, rock ’n’ roll. The French had their part in motion pictures, but we made them into a way of life; the French gave film noir its name, but we gave it its spirit. Even aspects of our culture that instill decidedly mixed feelings in me—car culture, for example, or the consumer culture that makes all my other obsessions possible—are uniquely American. I’m a knee-jerk globalist, but if I’m honest, this country’s done pretty damn well in the cultural arena.
Still, I can’t shake that attraction to culture that casts a critical, if not entirely negative, eye on the land where I was born, and that’s why I have to say that few things make me prouder to be an American than John Ford’s 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. It’s a bit of an odd choice for me, since I’m not a big fan of Steinbeck’s work; and it was considered an odd choice for producer Darryl Zanuck and Ford as well. Zanuck thought the book’s flagrantly leftist content was too controversial, until he’d seen for himself the living conditions of some of the real-life Okie farmers upon whose stories it was based. (If there’s one thing that doesn’t make me proud to be an American, it’s revisionist conservative historians who lately have attempted to minimize the devastation caused by the Depression and FDR’s role in alleviating it; a few of them have found it necessary to claim Grapes as part of a Big Lie in order to advance their economic agendas.)
While the movie changed the scope of the book (reducing its thematic grandeur by making it about the survival of a family instead of the eternal symbiosis of man and nature) and de-emphasized its socialist leanings, it’s no less powerful for it, and no less sympathetic to the poor. Ford and his cinematographer, the great Gregg Toland, deliberately aped the visual tone of Walker Evans and other WPA photographers; they steadfastly held on to the portrayals of big farmers and bankers as heartless swindlers, and of government and union attempts to aid the Okies as humane and desperately needed. While Zanuck, Ford, and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson gave the story a more hopeful ending than the novel, it was a time when the country desperately needed happy endings.
The Grapes Of Wrath’s portrayal of people struggling to do right by one another, of people maintaining a quiet, ragged dignity even in the worst circumstances imaginable, could not be more moving, and could not be more American. And the film’s politics should satisfy all but the most dogmatic of viewers: Its collectivism is there for all to see, in its commitment to the idea that people banding together in the common interest can make life better for everyone. But it never loses its individuality, in the person of Henry Fonda’s striking Tom Joad, who strikes out alone and friendless, giving up everything he has just to do what he thinks is right. That’s another way of calling someone a hero, and Tom Joad is a hero any American can be proud of.