The End of the American Dream

Image: Kushnir


The American dream is nothing more than a mirage that, historically, has the stature of just a few decades.

On a sunny morning in 1958, whether in California or in the suburbs of Gastonia, North Carolina, an American from a certain affluent middle class could be riding in a fishtail Cadillac of the year while listening to the radio sweet hits of the Platters or the rasping swan song by saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey, and life would indeed seem all sunny. The sun seemed within everyone's reach. Just work hard. The Cadillac 58 was perhaps the most imposing mass-produced monument of all time to automobile civilization. And a place like Gastonia had overcome the hard years of the first decades of the century, around the textile factories (cotton mills), which culminated in the historic and tragic Loray Mill strike in 1929, to live the tree middle-class suburban real estate.

ten years before fly to the moon, the United States had already reached its golden age, and promised the world that it would remain there forever, despite the dark (and dark) clouds which would soon follow. It was, for better or worse, the American dream at its peak.

Another six decades passed, and now the full news did not come out in an explicit way, as Caetano Veloso already suspected about those things that may have been hidden when they were not much more than the obvious. But it came pronounced in a visceral way. Many are taking it as a call to action, but the more realistic ones already know that it is too late, and that what strikes is just the evident strength of its rawness and vertigo, watered with melancholy. Postponed as long as possible, the news of the end of the American dream gained all the letters and words it needed this past week, and it is resonating intensely in this vicious contemporary agora that is the digital world.

As was to be expected to happen since the last century in the West consecrated its paradigmatic languages ​​of expression, such news would come either from popular music or from the cinema. Probably because of its much less domesticated character, it came from music. On Wednesday, August 10th, the RadioWV, a fairly new channel, present in several social media, dedicated to recording and disseminating music country on solo recordings, outside the studio and with the most economical arrangements possible, but with high quality sound recordings and few camera cuts, which gives the presentation of the themes an almost documentary character, but aesthetically clean and sophisticated, posted two themes by an unknown young composer from rural Virginia, Oliver Anthony. In the five days that followed, one of the themes, “Rich Men North Of Richmond” (“The rich men north of Richmond”) has been viewed more than nine million times on YouTube, bringing its composer and performer instant fame.

Despite being a genre usually recognized by the mark of a specific and circumscribed audience, almost a musical village with very pronounced tics (and therefore easily caricatured), those of the North American redneck world, some combined elements seem to have contributed to a public reception that far surpassed its original circumstances, manifesting far-reaching musical and expressive virtues: Oliver Anthony's voice, at once incisive, jaunty and raspy, unusually deft and rustic; the characteristic diction of this genre of music, which is traditionally based on telling an exemplary story well, in order to share it; the stripped-down character of the record (only voice and a “double guitar” – guitar with metal resonator –, filmed in a bush with dogs), which imprints an image of purity and “authenticity”; and, above all, the direct, explicit and impactful message of its lyrics, which welcomed the massive complicity of an enormous number of people left on the sidelines of the American dream.

Behind the phenomenon, an observation: these people now know who they are and express themselves as the majority. Thus, to the surprise effect was added the solidarity effect. Here is the record:

The lyrics of the song can be translated, in condensed form, in the following verses:

“I've been selling my soul, working all day
Overtime for shitty pay
Then I can sit here and spend my life
Drag me back home and drown my troubles
It's a fucking shame how far the world has come
For people like me, for people like you
I just wish I could wake up and it wasn't true
But is. Oh! And yes
Living in a new world
With an old soul
Those rich men north of Richmond
God knows they all just want total control
'I want to know what you think, I want to know what you do'
And they don't think you know, but I know you know
'Cause the money you earn ain't shit
And still pay taxes to not be able to anymore
Because of the rich men north of Richmond
I wish politicians would pay attention to the little ones
And not just minors on an island out there
Sir, we have people on the street. They have nothing to eat.
While obese milk well-being
My good God! If you are six feet tall and weigh 140 kilos
Taxes shouldn't pay for your bags of donuts
Young people are burying themselves six feet underground
'Cause all this goddamn country does is keep kicking them down
Lord, it's a fucking shame how far the world has come
For people like me, for people like you
I just wish I could wake up and it wasn't true
But is. Oh! And yes
Living in a new world
With an old soul

Some clarifications deserve to be made. What is “north of Richmond” is Washington DC This sinuous geography, arranged indirectly by a route, is a common resource in lyrics country, who cherish for emphasizing (when not, almost absolutizing) the personal and close practical experience and, therefore, of a “how to get there”, in a typically provincial way. As a bonus, the geographic recipe here also serves to create a poetic paronomasia among the “rich men” (“rich men”) and the capital of the United States (“North of Richmond”). The reference to “younger children on an island out there” (“minors on an island somewhere”) is an allusion to the islands Great St.-James and Little St.-James, in the Caribbean archipelago of the US Virgin Islands, which were owned by billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, and where he offered the sexual pleasures of underage nymphs to great figures in the political and business world.

This last allusion (like the film “sound of freedom”, which has not yet arrived in Brazil) could be justified only by humanitarian or even moralistic reasons, if the puritanism of the American political discourse of the most radical right (the alt-right) had not invested heavily in the caricature of the “sexual disorder” of a world elite, especially hyperbolized in the image of “pedophilia”. A caricature intended to stigmatize what they call the American “left”, represented, in fact, by progressive liberalism, it produced a few years ago the narrative of the pizza gate, strictly speaking as scalaphobetic as its ingenious counterpart on the other side of the political spectrum, the Russiagate.

In this way, as a song with a strong anti-establishment flavor, evoking tropes of ultraconservative discourse (also against taxes) and a departure from a social environment notably marked by the presence of white supremacy[1] and a blind libertarianism, the phenomenon Oliver Anthony was received in a somewhat snobbish way by the magazine Rolling Stone as new inspiration for influencers right (It doesn't hurt to remember that, with similar disdain, former candidate Hillary Clinton called voters insensitive to politically correct truths “deplorable”).

Those influencers on the right, in turn, strive (even in a curiously orchestrated way) to elevate Anthony to the position of spokesperson for the workers blue collar. Anthony himself, when manifesting himself (including musically) as opposed to all political parties (“Republicans, Democrats... Lord, I swear they're all just full of crap”: “Republicans, Democrats… Lord, I swear they are all full of shit” – from theme “DoggonIt”), ends up emphasizing an anti-system position, a place – more relative than substantive – that is today the great symbolic asset of the world right.

However – and there seems to be the biggest unknown (or indexical power) of the phenomenon –, the strength and reach of its message, even if Oliver Anthony eventually lends himself to being a useful innocent (or aware) of the alt-right, reveal a deep and extensive malaise. Something seems to have definitely broken in the American social imaginary, leaving the liberal certainties that cradle both the right and the “left” in that country in an irremediably dead end. But neither of the two will leave that place for any other place, because what was broken, if we take Anthony's sensitivity seriously, was, in reality, the American dream, that of promise for all, but strictly individual, of opulence and “felicidade".

Nonconformist social realism in the lyrics of folk e country has been present since the hard times of the cotton industries (cotton mills) at the beginning of the XNUMXth century. The world of cotton attended the folk of poor whites (more urban) and the blues of equally poor (but more rural) blacks. Despite sharing the same poverty and often singing similar songs ― even though the whites wanted to have their own blues: hillbillies —, lived segregated; and, if it's up to the Appalachian rednecks, they'll stay that way, because Almighty God willed it that way. In a society like the North American one, nonconformity always has an absolute limit of conformity... and almost always violent.

The “rich man” trope in the title of Oliver Anthony’s theme is relatively trivial in the imagination. folk going back at least to Dave McCarn's classic 1931 composition "Poor Man, Rich Man", which, like Oliver Anthony, began by stating: "When you work in the mill I'll tell you what you have to do/ You're up in the morning before daylight/ You work all day until it gets night” (“When you go to work in the [cotton] factory, I will tell you what you will do / You wake up in the morning, before daybreak / And work all day, until nightfall”). Around the same time, but from an opposite perspective and in a disconcertingly more oblique way, Noel Rosa also sang the three whistles of a fabric factory (arts of malandragem? or crafts of another society, this one, that of privilege?).

In Oliver Anthony's song, what is expressed is the revolt against the torn and deceived social contract; something that, historically, the North Americans always did, since the settlers used “treaties of friendship and commerce” to deceive and rob the Indians, later passing, exemplarily, through the US banking history and finally arriving at international agreements that were never fulfilled. Deceiving and stealing are atavistic traits of the sociocultural makeup of the United States.

When these traits become more excruciating, the presumably sacred mirage of the social contract takes on the guise of arbitrary tyranny. And here she finds another trope of the North American popular imagination, which only goes well and feeds the mirage of contractual legitimacy when everything goes well: taxes. When a society has nothing more than a contract between individuals as the foundation of its relational cement, making dispossession too visible makes the figure of the citizen who pays his taxes an anachronism analogous to the condition of loose.

The truth is that no liberal (that is, no individualist) will ever recognize that taxes are the necessary and unavoidable price paid for civilization; and that this is something that is based on the assumption of the common good as a logical precedent of social regulation, as opposed to strict individual gain or benefit. Ordinary Americans (and liberals generally) are culturally/ideologically conditioned to be logical cripples, unable to grasp that a society is something bigger than them. It is there where traditions are enshrined, reside and reproduced, and not in “blood” lineages that trace their raison d'être to a brand of origin.

In the case of rednecks from Appalachia, they even need a blues let it be yours alone, because this business of recognizing shares is definitely not for them. By the way, it is not with almost any North American. “Mestizaje” and transculturation are Latin American things, those different guys who need to be contained at the borders, so as not to compromise the budget of social programs, as if eight trillion dollars spent on wars, just in the last twenty years, were not enough. As in any society that, in fact, does not have the cultural mechanism of inclusion, the foundation of hatred of immigrants has never been economic.

Thus, Oliver Anthony's poignant message is not, strictly speaking, addressed to a collective spirit, to an entire country, but only, as his song says, to people like him, who are still many and, surely, are now the majority. But there is no invocation of general justice, only individual objects of contractual justice, of compensation. For North Americans, that's just how things work (and for all identitarians, followers of the same gospel, too).

And this means that Oliver Anthony's message can be very convincing, touch hearts, eventually move voters from here to there, but it will not inspire greater social regulation sensibilities that dare to consider something like the common good. The “class struggle”, resolved in the American way, only redoubles the bet on individualism. After all, classes should not be bigger than individuals either.

It is, however, in terms of substantive comparison, that Oliver Anthony's message sounds most anachronistic. In fact, it does not express anything new, but only the same things - updated and expanded, it is true - as the old songs of the times of cotton mills. If today this is astonishing to the point of becoming an instantaneous visceral scandal for the masses, it can only be because, over the course of little more than a century, the shared recognition of “social” well-being in the United States has shaped the movement of a parabola concave downwards, whose apex may well be found in that sunny year of 1958. That is now the end of the American dream. Not a dream, but a mirage that, historically, has the stature of no more than a few decades.

And that, on the other hand, could suggest that a song like “Rich Men North of Richmond”, even if interpreted in the lancinating timbre of Oliver Anthony, it wouldn’t be much more than the narcissistic, sullen and self-absorbed lament of eternal, spoiled and clueless teenagers, to whom it would be up to ask: “seriously, you never realized that the Has your society always moved by exactly this logic? Seriously, do you really have no idea how much damage she did to everyone else in the world?” It seems that only now some pain has come to them. But now it would surely be necessary for them to realize many other things, so that eventually they could be, in fact, the object of someone else's empathy; something they most assuredly don't have for anyone else. In the end, oh lord, have never been able to question their intransigent truths.

While the American Empire was stuffed with wealth, the logic that had always driven its society remained cunningly obscured. And even today, social scientists and cultural scholars natives there, especially think tankers of the most varied liberal plumages, dedicate themselves to that intellectual delight that Octavio Paz once attributed to the Latin American lordly elites: “that asphyxiating rhetoric at a time nauseabunda and sugary from people satisfied and aletargada by the much to eat”. The only difference is that now its strident counterpoint emerges in the voice of a Virginia hillbilly. And that's the big news in that strange American world.

*Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel Professor of Anthropology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS).


[1] It should be noted that, in one of his very few compositions that comes close to being a romantic song, Oliver Anthony refers to himself in a socially and “racially” quite derogatory way: “I'm poor white trash” (“I’m poor white trash”) (“90 Some Chevy").

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