By Clarkston Doman (‘23) and Emily Braun (‘23)
In creating an album cover and Spotify playlist for our final project, we hope to draw attention to the problematic nature of the dominant narratives of the United States and the incongruence between these narratives and the reality of life for the majority of Americans. For decades now, Americans have embraced and proclaimed the misleading ideals that the United States is a meritocracy, a melting pot, and a place where upward mobility is not only possible, but commonplace. The United States has embraced the myth of the level playing field, the idea which states that everyone in our society has an equal chance of succeeding. Our illustrations and song choices are intended to illuminate the inaccuracy of these claims and open the eyes of Americans to the social inequality that inhibits the opportunities of a large percentage of the population, especially racial minorities. There seems to be a common misperception in the United States that acknowledging the problems of this nation makes one unpatriotic. We hope to nullify this claim by explicitly displaying the flaws of this country in a visually stimulating and musical way, thus increasing awareness of the many ways in which America can continue to grow and progress.
Our primary goal is to help listeners and viewers uncover the inherent falsehoods of many of America’s stories about itself artistically and engagingly. We want to discourage members of our audience from participating in the type of blind patriotism that leads to a refusal to acknowledge social ills. We believe that our project will be particularly effective because of its ability to appeal to a wide variety of people; the songs we have chosen come from different decades and diverse artists, while our imagery is motivated by artwork from various periods. Consequently, we hope that both older and younger generations will be interested in this work and will find it understandable, yet slightly discomforting. After all, social reform cannot occur without stepping on the toes of the privileged.
Our first song is “Tale of 2 Citiez” by J. Cole which we felt most clearly connected to the playlist’s name “The American Nightmare.” On this track, J. Cole raps about how the American Dream is not easily achievable for all Americans, especially those who are poor, racial minorities, and live in the inner city. In the first verse, Cole reveals that since he was young he “always dreamed of gettin’ rich” and “fantasized about a white picket fence” which is directly related to Cullen’s chapter 5 that discusses the “Dream of Home Ownership” (2, 3). Although Cole has dreams that are common in American culture, throughout the song he finds himself seemingly forced to choose violence and crime as a means to advance economically. When trying to rationalize robbing someone for their “nice watch,” Cole asks, “Can you blame a nigga that ain’t ever had things?” which produces sympathy from listeners for poor people who resort to crime to make money (2). Furthermore, in the bridge, Cole says, “I know that everything that glitters ain’t gold / … / But tell me till you get it how could you know” to showcase that because poor people do not know what it is like to have wealth, they are willing to go to extreme, even illegal and immoral, lengths to advance themselves (2). “Tale of 2 Citiez” is the perfect song to start our playlist because it immediately shows listeners that the American Dream is more of a nightmare than a dream for many Americans.
After that intense start, we slow down the pace with the reggae classic “Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley & The Wailers. This song provides listeners with a unique perspective on many themes we covered in class such as the maltreatment of Native Americans, the need for a western frontier, American imperialism, and the afterlife of slavery. The name of the song “Buffalo Soldier” is a nickname that refers to the racially segregated regiments of the US Army that were sent to fight Native Americans on the western frontier during the American Indian Wars in the late 1800s and early 1900s after the Civil War (4). In the chorus of the reggae tune, Marley sings that the Buffalo Soldiers were “Stolen from Africa, brought to America / Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival” (5). Here, Marley is referring to the Black Africans who were abducted from their homes, transported across the Atlantic, and sold into slavery in the United States. Marley claims that slaves have been fighting since they arrived through slave rebellions and continue fighting in the Indian Wars. The fight Marley sings about can also be connected to African-Americans’ pursuit of racial justice. Later on, Marley references “San Juan” which is a site of a major battle in the Spanish American War (a great example of American imperialism and the need for a western frontier) where the 10th Cavalry Unit, one of the original “Buffalo Soldier” units, played a major role (4).
Next up, we have “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday that discusses racial violence that was prominent in America, particularly in the South, throughout the Jim Crow Era. The “strange fruit” that Holiday sings about is not literal fruit, but rather “Black bodies” lynched by white mobs (6). The imagery Holiday uses here is gory but accurately represents the treatment of Black people in America during the early 1900s. Holiday discredits common narratives that convey the South as “gallant” and having sweet-smelling “magnolias” by providing listeners with the contradictions of “bulging eyes and the twisted mouth” along with “the sudden smell of burning flesh” that refer to the suffering of Black people in the South (6). Loewen similarly fights against popular culture’s dominant narrative that depicts the Antebellum South as pleasant and respectable in chapter 5 of Lies My Teacher Told Me, in which he discusses “the invisibility of racism in American history textbooks” (1). Through listening to “Strange Fruit,” our audience will feel the sorrow and pain Black Americans felt and still feel, which is a crucial point we want our playlist to convey.
Picking up the pace, “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival discusses the problems of American imperialism. As one of the most famous protest songs during the Vietnam War era, “Fortunate Son” embraced the anti-war sentiment that was prominent among the American youth in the 1960s and 70s. Over some classic 60s rock guitar and drums, John Fogerty highlights the inequality of American imperialism through singing about the fortunate sons of “senators” and “millionaires” who were supposedly less likely to be drafted to fight in Vietnam because of their high social status (7). Although most Americans now see the Vietnam War as a mistake, protesters were ridiculed for being un-American for not wanting to expand U.S. global influence and fight communism. “Fortunate Son” allows listeners to better understand the problems of the Vietnam War and American imperialism in general.
Next, Jay-Z and Alecia Keys collaborate on “Empire State of Mind,” an upbeat tune that provides insight into the common conceptions and the unfortunate reality of life for many Americans in New York City. Although Jay-Z boasts of his own economic success and conveys the love he has for his city, at multiple points repeatedly, he reveals his awareness of some of the societal problems in NYC. For example, he raps, “Welcome to the meltin’ pot, corners where we sellin’ rock,” which juxtaposes the Melting Pot Myth commonly associated with the large immigrant population of New York City with the widespread drug abuse common to the city’s poorer neighborhoods (8). Additionally, in the song’s third and final verse, Jay-Z talks about the multitude of Americans who come to New York City to pursue their dreams, but instead find themselves getting distracted by sex, alcohol, or drugs. Overall, the song, especially the chorus that claims NYC is “where dreams are made of,” celebrates New York and what it represents in American culture (8). However, the deeper meaning of the verses showsshow that NYC and America as a whole are not perfect places where everyone, including immigrants, can pursue their American Dream.
For the sixth song in the playlist, we included “‘Cause I’m a Man” by Tame Impala that focuses on pieces of masculinity that are common in America. In the song, the singer realizes that he has done something wrong and tries to explain his actions to a woman. Listeners assume that the singer has cheated on his partner and proceeds to blame his actions on his masculinity. In the chorus, Kevin James sings, “‘Cause I’m a man, woman / Don’t always think before I do,” and later on he sings, “My weakness is the source of all my pride” (9). These lines showcase a unique aspect of gender inequality: the idea that men can claim that their mistakes are caused by their masculinity even though gender norms are almost completely created by cultural, not biological, factors (10). While most of American gender relations focus on feminism and patriarchy, we felt that this song provides key insight into this interesting aspect of American masculinity.
For the final song of our playlist, we chose “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman which relates to the American Dream and consumerism. In the first few verses, the singer is desperate to escape her current situation defined by poverty and caring for a sick father, so she decides to run away with her love interest in pursuit of a happier life. Although she sings, “I know things will get better / … / Buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs,” she never really achieves her dream. Unfortunately, the man she runs away with never gets a job and becomes an alcoholic (11). The singer’s experience conveys the sad reality that many American Dreams go unfulfilled, and the dreamer is often not to blame. This song shows listeners that the American Dream is often more like a nightmare because it gives poor Americans false hope that they can move upward in society even though they will likely stay poor.
Clarkston Doman is an Economics and American Studies major at the University of Notre Dame, and he is interested in U.S.-China relations and economic policy. Emily Braun is American Studies and Sociology major at the University of Notre Dame, and she chose American Studies because she enjoys studying the history of social relations in the United States, particularly between different racial groups. Their project was originally created for Professor Jason Ruiz’s American Studies course “Introduction to American Studies.”
- Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me. Second ed., The New Press, 2018.
- J. Cole. Tale of 2 Citiez. 2014 Forest Hills Drive. ByStorm Entertainment, Columbia Records, Dreamville Records, Roc Nation, 2014.
- Cullen, Jim. The American Dream. Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Genius.com. “Bob Marley & The Wailers – Buffalo Soldier.” Genius, 23 May 1983, genius.com/Bob-marley-and-the-wailers-buffalo-soldier-lyrics.
- Bob Marley & The Wailers. Buffalo Soldier. Confrontation. 1983.
- Billie Holiday. Strange Fruit. Milt Gabler, 1937.
- Creedence Clearwater Revival. Fortunate Son. Willy and The Poor Boys. Fantasy Studios, 1969.
- Jay-Z, Alicia Keys. Empire State of Mind. The Blueprint 3. Al Shux, 2009.
- Tame Impala. ‘Cause I’m A Man. Currents. Kevin Parker, 2015.
- Harari, Yuval N. He and She. McClelland & Stewart, 2014.
- Tracy Chapman. Fast Car. Tracy Chapman. David Kershenbaum, 1988.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Good Day Columbus: Silences, Power and Public History. Public Culture, 1990.
Though we may be accessing this site from around the world, we acknowledge our affiliation with the University of Notre Dame and thus our presence on the traditional homelands of Native peoples (even if virtually) including the Haudenosauneega, Miami, Peoria, and particularly the Pokégnek Bodéwadmik, who have been using this land for education for thousands of years, and continue to do so.