Mixtape Primer: Conceptions of the American Dream in Music

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Monday is the 4th of July, and among all the parades and flag-waving, it’s a chance to maybe think about what this country is and what its ideals represent. The American Dream — both the great shining vision and its dark underbelly — has been a powerful motif in literature over the years, dissected and discussed in works like The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, The Grapes of Wrath, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and many more. It’s also been a recurrent subject for songwriters, both as an ideal to which to aspire and a myth to be debunked. Here’s a mixtape that looks at both ends of the spectrum, and everywhere in between.

50 Cent — “Gotta Make It to Heaven”

Curiously, if any genre buys into the American Dream these days, it’s hip hop — and “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” is as neat a summation of the ideal as anyone’s come up with over the last few years. Actually, there’s probably a PhD thesis waiting to be written about the recurrent idea of “the ghetto” in hip hop functioning as a modern day Wild West — but for now, we’ll make do with Fiddy’s manifesto from his debut album, which contains the key chorus line: “Gotta make it to heaven/ For going through hell”. (See also: The Notorious BIG’s classic “Juicy” and Travie McCoy’s “I Wanna Be a Billionaire,” among many others.)

James Brown — “Living in America”

You might expect similarly gritty realism from James Brown, a man abandoned in the woods at age four, who spent most of his childhood living in a brothel and at one point ate garbage to survive. But his ode to the American dream is ultimately an optimistic one, cataloging the country’s virtues and noting that “You might have to walk the fine line/ You might take the hard line/ But everybody’s working overtime.” They didn’t call him the Hardest Working Man in Show Business for nothing, y’know.

U2 — “The Refugee”

One of the forgotten songs of U2’s white flag-waving period, the opener to the second side of War casts America as a distant promised land, the place to which the young girl from whose perspective the song is written aspires to flee: “Her mama say one day/ She’s gonna live in America.” The fact that America may well have started the war that’s rending the refugee’s country is implied but never stated — and in fact, the whole of Side B functions as an exploration of the war-driven US immigrant experience, from the defiant idealism of “The Refugee” to the urban high-rise reality of “Red Light” and “Surrender.”

Bruce Springsteen — “Across the Border”

Another take on the immigrant experience, this time apparently from the perspective of a Mexican trying to cross the desert into Arizona or Texas. The lyric is one of Springsteen’s best because it eschews bombasticism for subtlety — the sense of genuine optimism is palpable, although there’s also an implicit sense of fatalism about it. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that the narrator is crossing the border between life and death: “Where pain and memory/ Pain and memory have been stilled/ There across the border.” If it’s the latter interpretation, this song certainly isn’t the first to draw a comparison between the idea of an elusive physical promised land and Judeo-Christian conceptions of the spiritual one that’s only reached after death — many old spirituals, like “That Lucky Old Sun” and “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”, for instance, were written around this forlorn lyrical conceit.

Lucinda Williams — “American Dream”

Williams has made a career out of hard-bitten, bruised balladry, and the world-weariness of her depiction of the American dream is unsurprisingly bleak. But curiously, for all the harrowing subject matter — heroin addiction, poverty, an abandoned Vietnam veteran, disenfranchised Native Americans, homelessness — there’s still a sense of belief here, a hope that things can still get better. As the last verse says: “My American dream almost came true/ But the things they promised me never came through/ I believe in the American dream/ But things are never quite what they seem.” Ain’t it the truth.

Dolly Parton — “Appalachian Memories”

At the other end of the country music spectrum, Dolly Parton pretty much is the American dream — born to an impoverished and illiterate Appalachian family, now sitting on untold riches and a theme park named after her. Her Jesus-lovin’ back catalog is full of songs about her rise from penury to success — most notably “Chasing Rainbows,” which strangely isn’t anywhere on YouTube, and also this more reflective song about contemporaries who weren’t lucky enough to find their own personal promised land. Its declarations about keeping faith in the face of a grim reality are either inspiring or frustratingly sentimental, depending on your point of view, but either way, they’re quintessentially American.

John Lennon — “Working Class Hero”

This brutal deconstruction of Western society is one of the best lyrics that Lennon ever wrote, deftly undermining the idea that social mobility and meritocracy is a hallmark of a capitalist society. Lennon paints a vision of a stratified society where breaking out of your own echelon requires first fighting off the oppression of the people above you, who are determined to keep you exactly where you are — and then becoming just as vicious as they are: “There’s room at the top they are telling you still/ But first you must learn how to smile as you kill/ If you want to be like the folks on the hill.” Nice guys finish last, eh?

David Bowie — “Young Americans”

Bowie might have been in a hell of a state when he recorded this, but it remains one of his finest and most serious lyrics, the tale of a girl who marries the titular young American to get a green card and then finds out her ideals of America don’t quite live up to the reality. The fact that the lyrics are set to an exuberant, soul-influenced musical backing that’s as distinctly American as anything Bowie ever recorded — Luther Vandross even sings backing vocals — lends the whole thing an extra layer of poignancy.

Animal Collective — “My Girls”

A modest dream, perhaps — “I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls” — but Panda Bear’s simple declaration about what he wants out of life is an American dream for the 21st century, a statement of desire to opt out of the rat race and find a place to live in peace. And in its own way, it harks back to a simpler age, an era when you really could just strike out West and stake your claim to a plot of land build a “proper house” for you and your family.

Woody Guthrie — “This Land Is Your Land”

It might seem strange to end an American dream mixtape with what’s essentially a socialist anthem, but “This Land Is Your Land” functions in its own curious way as a declaration of faith in America. The song was apparently written as a response to Irving Berlin’s chest-beating “God Bless America,” and while it’s not afraid to throw light on the shortcomings of American society (particularly the verse about seeing the hungry masses huddled outside the relief office), it ultimately asserts a belief that altruism and humanity will overcome selfishness and mean-spiritedness: “Nobody living can ever stop me/ As I go walking that freedom highway/ Nobody living can ever make me turn back/ This land was made for you and me.”