New American Heroes: The budding stars who reflected the values of a progressive youth
2017 in America, as much as any other year, was filled to the brim with anxiety. Echo chambers reverberated with complaints of economic misgivings that sounded more like circuitous racism, fears of nuclear war, and tensions as a growing right wing attacked the ‘snowflake’ liberal left. None of these refrains are altogether new in American culture. That they would coincide this year, under this president, is damning – suggesting American identity is tied up in the same stomach-churning violence as it always has been.
But luckily, American identity isn’t simply a political concern to be duked out on online message boards and social media. A handful of US musicians presented a resistance (whether aware or otherwise) to the uglier aspects of Americanness that seeped through the media in 2017, through both reifying and remixing musical representations of Americanhood.
Cardi B is the quintessential American Dream story, and she is keen on the narrative. With her crude and magnetic wit, Cardi joyously retells her come-up from stripping, to reality TV, to rap stardom. Bodak Yellow’s line: “I don’t gotta dance, I make money moves” is not just a testament to the hustle and guts of this girl from the Bronx, but a refrain for women making their own personal and professional waves across the board. Not to mention, the song bumps – convincing even the stiffest among us to pop that ass back in celebration of your damn self. It’s one of the few records this year that allowed women to be brash and forced men to listen all the way through. The fact that Bodak Yellow dethroned Taylor Swift’s single Look What You Made Me Do from the top spot of the Billboard Chart, later becoming the longest-reigning #1 song by a rapping woman of all time, felt appropriate and deserved.
The large gap sitting between Cardi B and Taylor Swift is not just one of genre or style, it’s one of ethnicity and authenticity – two words loaded with meaning when it comes to defining what an American is. When Cardi B’s Dominican accent streams out of club speakers, audiences across the country are made privy to, at the very least on the subconscious level, a lived-experience that simply hasn’t had the opportunity to enjoy its moment in the spotlight. Bodak Yellow dropped as the country’s politics towards Latinx folks skewed xenophobic – when brown people are increasingly discriminated against on the streets, on Capitol Hill, as well as corporate offices all over the US. Cardi B’s talent and her audience’s reception of her sound could, perhaps, signal a new appreciation for politically othered voices.
As a woman looking to introduce a forceful vision of millennial love, anxiety, and resilience, SZA took the world by storm with her debut album, Ctrl. The LP lays bare the wins and woes of her budding career, with pressing conversations with the two most influential black women in her life – her mother and grandmother – as its engine. Her song The Weekend went platinum without even being released as a single. While some may interpret the song as a kind of play toward polyamory (“My man is my man is your man/ Her, this her man too”), SZA herself asserts that the song is much more about women understanding and helping to fulfil one another’s desires. If those desires happen to involve gettin’ a guy to “drop dem drawers,” SZA looks to do so by relinquishing claims of complete ownership; instead she’ll carve out her time on the weekend.
These woman-centred visions of owning oneself and loosening the grips of the male gaze are supremely important in our (or really any) modern sociopolitical moment. The popularity of these records blazing up Billboard charts could imply a bubbling progression toward an American identity that sees women and minorities notably freer in a country led by sexually deviant demagogues trying to keep them quiet. Young people are louder, still, and a young American consciousness is being shaped by young artists questioning the socialised norms of gender, race, and sexuality engulfing our time.
“A young American consciousness is being shaped by young artists questioning the socialised norms of gender, race, and sexuality”
Legacies in the USA – especially the ones that tap into what it truly means to be American – are usually established after an artist has put out consistent work for a number of years. But in 2017 liberal-leaning young artists released albums which seemed to claim the stars and stripes with a sense of pride. 19-year-old Texas singer Khalid reached the top 10 with his debut album American Dream, which blended RnB, pop and soul together for a sound that’s as wholesomely American as his military upbringing; with singles like Location and Young, Dumb and Broke making fun, sometimes anxious, teen dramas that resonate with men, women, and non-binary folks alike. 22-year-old New York rapper Joey Bada$$, on the other hand, attempted to invoke a shared, candidly anti-Trump American consciousness with his album All Amerikkkan Bada$$.
There is no evidence that the likes of Cardi B, SZA or Khalid necessarily want to be considered American heroes. But, this year, those artists spoke directly to our changing mainstream American values and identities in ways that others simply haven’t. Whether they name it or proclaim it, the youngins lay to rest the moot aspects of identity and set the table for how we’ll discuss it into the future. It’s about time we say, grace.