By Jonathan Bradley
In 1976, the Florida pop singer Tom Petty recorded a rollicking tune with a chorus that was unilluminating but, in that way pop music sometimes manages, insistently meaningful. First the doggerel: "Oh yeah. Alright. Take it easy, baby. Make it last all night," and now the conclusion: "She was an American girl."
Not to extract too much anthropological import from a tune that's more about chiming guitars and a Bo Diddley beat than a considered expression of cultural sentiment, but Petty's conversational phrases accumulate as if working toward a thesis statement: a qualitative study of the American girl. Not only is she a type raised on promises, she's one who "can't help but thinking that there's a little more to life." But a listener gets the feeling lines are merely supporting evidence. For Tom Petty and for all the classic rock radio stations that still pump the song into summer nights from Key West, Florida to Kitsap County, Washington, for Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who last year used the tune at campaign events, the thesis is proposed and proven with one line — or one adjective even. She was an American girl.
No other nationality buries such suggestion in its adjectival form. No Australian singer would use "She was an Australian girl" as a capper the way Petty does. No one would make a radio hook out of an averral for the romantic attentions of any other nationality in the way Canadians The Guess Who did from "American woman, stay away from me." Richard Gere starred in American Gigolo, not Korean. Bret Easton Ellis penned American Psycho, not Bolivian. Grant Wood painted American Gothic, not Estonian. American Beauty. American Pie. American History X. American Pastoral. American Horror Story. American Gangster. American Dad! American Gods. American Idiot. This American Life. The American way. The American dream.
"American" is an adjective that's wriggled free from the plain descriptive function of the everyday demonym and grown into something wilder and more evocative, though not actually definitive. American Gothic is a portrait of a stoic Midwestern couple; American Psycho is an explicit, psychological thriller; American Gangster is an operatic '00s crime drama. Yet each claims to speak of some distinctive quality of Americanness.
That this quality of Americanness is actually contradictory and incoherent isn't remarkable; the American story over the 236 years of the nation's existence has in many ways revolved around the failure of the states to be united — not just in the violent rupture of the Civil War, but in political and civic battles, in quarrels over the country's ideals and virtues, between its classes, its races, its genders, and its creeds. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, but equally meaningful in defining the American experiment are words spoken by Abraham Lincoln: "The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing."
It's the unenunciated fear running through American public life: that there can never be an agreed upon definition of Americanness: that the American people will not be united. That the new nation's 4th of July promise of freedom, equality, and cohesion is too lofty a goal. Witness the ever-present quavering in the contemporary press over the rancorous, partisan nature of the country's political discourse, which at times approaches the suspsicion of party politics in its essence possessed by the nation's founders. America is a nation that loves democracy and hates politics, that longs for unity and can't live with itself, that strides boldly toward a gleaming future, paranoid that its best days are behind it.
So what does it mean to be American? For Tom Petty's "Girl" it means optimism, innocence, and a life of restless pursuit, which are certainly qualities not infrequently associated with Americanness. But compare, say, to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway describing the titular character of the Great Gatsby:
He was balancing himself on the dashboard of his car with that resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American — that comes, I suppose, with the absence of lifting work or rigid sitting in youth and, even more, with the formless grace of our nervous, sporadic games. This quality was continually breaking through his punctilious manner in the shape of restlessness.
Here, Americanness is characterised by a spry physique and a life shaped by plenty. The restlessness recurs, but that surely can't be that singular American quality; after all, many Americans bemoan their nation's indolence and complacency.
Can Americanness only be a shifting quality dependent on the specific preferences of the individual beholder. Are the qualities celebrated by the United States today a set incohesive and incoherent touchstones that don't make sense except when dressed up with fireworks and red, white, and blue bunting? If Americanness is a spirit of democracy and equality, opportunity and restlessness, youth and optimism, innocence and prosperity, all malleable enough to mean something to anyone, does Americanness still have meaning?
Perhaps it is enough. The alchemical quality that makes "American" an adjective fitting for the titles of songs and movies and novels might not be the concepts it suggests but the grandeur of them. From before its birth, America was never a nation built for modest ambition or irrelevence. As Tom Petty put it, they can't help thinking there's a little more.
4 July 2012