Expressing American Creed

How does music express the thoughts of diverse Americans on what it means to be American?

By Lauren W. from Royal Oak High School in Michigan

It seems that lately, many people question what being an American is. So, what does it mean to be American? To me, being American is having the freedom to express myself however I chose to, but not everyone thinks this way. How do we know what other people think it means? Let’s look at music as a genre, for instance. Although some music doesn’t have a deep meaning or central idea, many songs are about the artists viewpoints, explicitly. For example, the song, “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood is about how he is proud to be American and he sings about values such as freedom and defending the nation. Greenwood sings, “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Through this song, he was able to communicate what he values and what it means to be American to him. Other songs express the artists views on America and what it means to be American but it might not be as direct as the example above. For instance, artists who belong to more marginalized groups in America, such as people of color, women, etc., may sing about society or conflict in the country, for instance, and may express these ideas from a much different perspective than non-marginalized groups. Music can effectively communicate the viewpoints of diverse Americans in terms of controversial issues.

Gun control is a very controversial issue right now in the United States. Whether you’re for or against gun control, even talking about the idea can lead to intense discussion and sometimes arguments. In the article “How Americans Really Feel About Gun Control” on Business Insider, Michelle Mark states the following, “Fewer than half of gun owners favor banning assault-style weapons, compared to 77% of non-gun owners.” Many music artists have engaged in the issue of gun control in many ways. A good example is the song "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster The People. "Pumped Up Kicks" is a song about a boy who is planning a school shooting. Music artists have entered the arena of gun control in order to help change policies regarding gun control. "That song was written from a place of wanting us to do something about gun violence, wanting legislation to be passed that can limit our resources because it feels like these mass shootings are becoming common now," said Mark Foster in the article, "Foster the People's Mark Foster talks 'Pumped Up Kicks' and Gun Violence," by Deena Zaru of CNN. Because Foster the People wanted to send a message about this topic, they were able to communicate their views to the world where people can comprehend it through music. Some might think that the song wasn’t impactful because it sounds like a song you would dance to at homecoming. I would argue that that helped it’s message because it reached a large audience so more and more people could have the lyrics in their mind. This showcases the idea of how the American identity is shaped because to Foster the People, guns aren’t a necessity in what it means to be American.

Another issue in America is racism. Although a poll in 2018 showed that the majority of Americans, roughly 64 percent, believed that racism is still a problem (NBC News), the F.B.I. reported that the amount of hate crimes increased that same year. Using music, we can understand the perspectives of people that see racism as a problem and people who don’t. In the music video for the song “I’m Not Racist,” by Joyner Lucas, two actors are used to portray the two perspectives of a caucasian and african american on racism. The caucasian man talks about how african americans don’t have their priorities straight and they’re putting the blame on everyone else for their problems while the african american talks about the appropriation of black culture and systematic racism. “But there's two sides to every story, I wish that I knew yours.” At the end of the video they both hug in understanding of each other’s opinions and it depicts how the American identity is shaped by fostering understanding and communication between diverse individuals. To Joyner Lucas, without communication, we wouldn’t be able to understand opposing viewpoints and try to begin to understand how we differ and what we have in common.

Whether it’s about racism, gun violence or more, artists give their perspectives on many different issues. As popular opinion leaders in some respects and literally having an audience, they have an open forum for expression that many do not. Their opinions often stem from their own views on what being an American truly means to them including their own beliefs, values, culture and maybe even their own journey to becoming an American. One thing is for certain, communication and understanding different viewpoints is key to keeping the conversation open. 

Royal Oak High School

AP Lang 2019

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