On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau left the thriving metropolis of Concord, Massachusetts, and moved to a small cabin on the shores of Walden Pond for a two-year experiment in living “deliberately.” The result was Walden, or Life in the Woods, a preachy treatise on the benefits of solitary dude time off the grid, and required reading for high schoolers all across America.
One-hundred and seventy-two years later, Justin Timberlake would also pull a Thoreau: The ex-Mouseketeer turned pop star with frosted tips abandoned the bustle of Los Angeles for a multi-million dollar home in an exclusive residential community outside Big Sky, Montana. It’s in those wide-open spaces that he filmed the teaser video for Man of The Woods – his fourth studio album and his first in five years – released in February 2018. Timberlake was also exploring – or maybe just exploiting – the concept of Americana. Whatever that means in 2018.
The term “Americana” is typically associated with the music genre that bears its name, a kind of musical melting pot, incorporating elements of American folk, country, bluegrass, rock, R&B, and blues. Think Chris Stapleton, Lady Antebellum, Willie Nelson, Kacey Musgraves — artists who make you fantasize about hopping into a vintage Camaro and following Guy Fieri around his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives tour of America.
But just as we’re now living in a dual America — divided over politics, culture, and everything in between —a new version of Americana is emerging to compete with the old one, one that deals not in escapism, or looking back, but rather in creation. It’s looking forward, to what we could be, instead of putting what we were under a Mayfair Instagram filter.
It’s not just campy nostalgia — Americana is everywhere. It’s in Kanye West’s decision to celebrate the release of Ye, his latest album, with a launch party in the great outdoors of Wyoming (read: a luxury ranch outside Jackson Hole); in the quiet lower-middle-class suburban existence of Lady Bird; in the short-lived return of Roseanne; in the garish Disney-themed motels of The Florida Project; and in the difficult truths of Childish Gambino’s This Is America.
This reclaiming of traditional American symbols is playing out over a wide spectrum, but at its core, it’s a response to our growing self-doubt as a nation: Who are we? And what do we stand for? In their own ways, all of the works cited above are a response to this climate of change. But where some are seeking answers in the past, others are grounding themselves in the present, and carving out new ways to frame what it means to be American.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has thrown those questions into sharp relief. His supporters, alienated from years of being talked down to by what they perceive to be liberal elites, yearn for those times of yore when being a small-town white man epitomized, in simple terms, Americanness. The Trump administration has exposed an ugly underbelly of latent racism, class conflict, and sexism, yes. But also a large swath of citizens who are keen to find a place in a country they feel is slipping away from them, politically, culturally and economically. Their Americana is the old-school one.
They fear what is already a reality: an increasingly diverse America where being white is no longer the default or majority. Citing new census projections, the Brookings Institute declared in March that racial minorities will make up a majority of the U.S. population by 2045, with multiracial, Asian, and Hispanic Americans growing at the fastest rate, followed by Black Americans.
“There’s always a tendency, when things aren’t the way we want them to be, to look back to the old days, as though the old days were like that,” said Robert J. Thompson, professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. “Some of these people think back to what a wonderful time it was and forget that, ‘Oh right, women couldn’t vote. Jim Crow laws were still going at that time.’”
“Americana is partially this idea of looking back to a better past,” Thompson added. “But it’s a better past in our current past in our current perception of it, and may not often be a better past in terms of what was actually happening at the time.”
Thoreau’s decision to abandon civilization was a direct response to the pressures brought on by industrialization. Similarly, Timberlake’s recent push to the wilderness can be seen — as Anne Helen Petersen expertly broke down in her essay over at Buzzfeed — as a way to escape from difficult conversations about Timberlake’s history of exploiting of Black bodies and art forms for his own personal gain. Unfortunately for him, this isn’t 1845, and those questions resurfaced the second he stepped out of the mountains and onstage at the Super Bowl, despite his Herculean effort to keep things bland.
This idealization of “a better” America in popular culture is nothing new. If you turned on your TV in the late 1960s, amid the turmoil of the counterculture, you’d find a depiction of America that had absolutely nothing to do with Woodstock or the civil rights movement. Shows with a retro,pastoral vibe like Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Petticoat Junction dominated the airwaves far more than hippies and free love ever did.
“Right up until the end of the decade, including the most turbulent year, 1968, some of the highest-rated shows in the country [were] what we would call ‘deep Americana,’” Thompson said. “One of the biggest hits of the 1960s was The Andy Griffith Show. It took place in Mayberry, NC, a small town [that] had no railroad. It had a phone line that the entire town used.”
Timberlake’s album definitely falls into that category of an “aw-shucks,” folksy look back into the past, and perhaps that’s why it was so ill-received. Because as Thompson points out, there’s a major difference between that kind of escapist response and the way Americana is being wielded today. He points to the Ronald Reagan’s now-iconic 1984 re-election commercial, “Morning in America,” as the the last gasp of that kind earnest use of Americana to sell a narrative.
“After that, to do that would just seem so completely, ridiculously naive,” he said. (Sorry, JT.)
Which brings us to the more modern use of Americana — more skeptical, more questioning, and often used to highlight the problems within the traditional, glossy version of the story. It’s an America that confronts the very realities the traditional one shied away from.
There are signs of the trend as far back as 2015, when singer-songwriter Halsey released “New Americana” on her debut album, Badlands. The song, dubbed a “would-be generational anthem” by the New York Times, was intended as a reclaiming of American identity. But unlike Timberlake’s version, it used classic scenes of Americana, like the desert mountains on display in the song’s music video introduction as a way to carve out new meaning, rather than as a return to old values.
Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album, Lemonade is an example of a very regional take on the American Black experience. “Formation,” the first video released to tease the album, showed the singer in an abandoned plantation and lounging in a sinking car meant to evoke New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. It’s an ode to Southern Black culture, with specific references to Beyoncé’s Alabama and Louisiana roots, but it’s also piece of social commentary, using American imagery to talk about the Black experience, from the legacy of slavery to the Black Lives Matters movement
As Justin Simien, creator of Netflix’s Dear White People, noted on Twitter, the pose the rapper adopts while pulling the trigger strikes of Jim Crow imagery, a darker part of Americana that is usually glossed over when seeking nostalgic comfort in the past. And indeed, the four-minute video sparked a fierce backlash from some who viewed it as exploitative of Black pain for commercial purposes — but isn’t that the very point Childish Gambino was trying to make? That America only includes Black citizens in its story when it serves some tangible purpose?
“It’s a challenge and a series of questions. Like art should be,” he adds.
Kanye West’s big flashy Wyoming party for the release of Ye also fits this mold, especially in light of his recent comments regarding his political affiliations and support for Trump. As a Black man from Chicago, he’s no Timberlake, trying to claim lumberjack status. He’s making a statement about who gets to live that narrative. While the lyrics of the album’s seven tracks make no explicit statement about Trump, they dig deep into West’s inner psyche, his struggle with mental illness, and his pessimistic view of human nature. The statement “I hate being bipolar it’s awesome” superimposed on the sweeping mountain views of his album cover feels like an attempt to reclaim a space that has traditionally not been his to inhabit.
Even ABC’s Roseanne reboot couldn’t unambiguously endorse the America it was created to portray. The show was ABC’s push to capture the eyeballs of Trump-supporters, as evidenced by its trailer, which showed only white members of the blue-collar Connor family alongside the slogan: “The family that looks like us.” From a ratings perspective, it worked. Audiences were clearly hungry for that kind of middle ground, and sentimental about a past show that had meant to so much to so many. And to the show’s credit, the episodes that did air clearly attempted (albeit clumsily in some cases) to deal with issues of race, gender identity, and the gaping political divide.
Still, all that was short-lived, as Roseanne Barr’s continued barrage of racist and controversial tweets turned out to be impossible for the network to ignore. In fact, it’s almost as if Barr’s real-life actions were more in line with Trumpian values than the show itself.
On the other side of the political spectrum, shows like Netflix’s One Day At A Time reboot are also attempting to reclaim symbols of working class Americana, this time by giving the show a revamp rather than doubling down on its roots.
The original One Day At A Time, set in Indianapolis, centered around Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin), a single mom trying to raise her two daughters in the 1970s. At the time, a show that highlighted women’s issues in that way was revolutionary. But the reboot, now in its second season, takes that concept and updates it for a modern audience, moving the setting to Los Angeles, and changing the family’s ethnicity from Italian-American to Latinx. The main character, Penelope Alvarez (Justine Machado), is a second-generation Cuban American and former Army veteran. Her daughter Elena (Isabella Gómez) identifies as LGBTQ+. And the addition of another generation, Penelope’s mother Lydia (portrayed by a larger-than-life Rita Moreno) allows the show to portray a counterpoint perspective on issues like sexism, gender identity, racism, immigration, and mental health, while keeping a decidedly liberal bent within the other characters.
“[One Day At A Time] has done a really sophisticated, funny, repackaging of this idea of ‘Americana,’ but doing it in that really old-fashioned way,” Thompson said. “Its content is something very different than what we saw back then.”
A show like This Is Us, which takes a very traditional format of working class family drama, and elevates it with discussions about body positivity, race, and class, is kind of a middle ground between the two. On the surface, the Pearsons are the quintessential American family, in the most 1950s, white picket fence sense of the term. But what the show ultimately proves is that that kind of family doesn’t really exist, at least not anymore.
And then there’s the many dystopias cropping up in pop culture, whether it’s Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, or HBO’s Westworld, both of which use potent American symbols (Puritan dress and ideology, and the Wild West, respectively) and twist them into something bleak. “In an American notion of a good old-fashioned western, you think back to the simple days of cowboys,” Thompson said. “Westworld shows that if you actually pay attention to your little Americana fantasy, and simply scratch the surface, there’s an evil robot under there.”
That’s the crux of this issue: 2018 may have seen a re-emergence of Americana in the pop culture space, but it’s almost universally suspicious in its attitude towards the traditional aspects of it. We’re clearly in the midst of a cultural shift that’s mirroring our political one, and part of that means a re-shuffling of the elements that make up our identity. Just as Thoreau’s Walden became required reading to understand a certain vision of America, it’s likely that 2018’s pop culture will become the prism through which future generations understand our own current moment. (Lucky for them, it’s a lot less boring.) But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — the definition of Americana has always been fluid. After all, pizza was once considered an ethnic food.
So far, the arbiters of the term have been white men of privilege, but so what? Apple’s iOS changes every month (or so it seems) — why shouldn’t America get an update?