What Drives The American Dream?

Unpicking the world’s most famous national ethos…
USA USA USA USA

Issue 96 of Clash magazine is focused on the highs and lows, the splendour and tragedy of the American Dream. Introducing the theme, in print, is this essay by our own Joe Zadeh

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The American Dream is an academic scrapheap of interpretation, and you could say there is a different version of it for every American citizen ever to exist.

As immigrants flooded America during the rapid economic growth of The Gilded Age for the prospect of higher working-class wages, the few that truly succeeded – like the Scottish steel industry innovator Andrew Carnegie – were celebrated as prototype characters of the American Dream. That Dream was about rags to riches: that anyone could become someone in the Land of Liberty. All you had to do was work within the system. Yet, as America rose – after the Roaring Twenties, two World Wars and a Great Depression – into the post-war mood of the 1950s, the Dream started to morph.

“Let ’em see you, son!” advised Milton Berle to a young Elvis Presley before he came to perform on his 1956 television show. The truck-driver-turned-musician – a genuine rags to riches – usually performed with guitar in hand, but he took the advice and began ‘Hound Dog’ with his hands free.

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Elvis on The Milton Berle Show, 1956

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Halfway through the song, as his band suddenly switched to half-speed, Elvis began to grapple rather sensually with the extendable mic stand, move his hips ecstatically, and unleash a hypnotic pelvic swing that joyously sodomised the imaginations of America. Elvis was like Andrew Carnegie: he was an icon – and it is the icons that drive the Dream. They dangle the carrot of happiness from the end of a stick named ‘Pursuit’. Elvis proved the Dream is alive, that the system works. And he wasn’t the only one.

While TV shows fought over The King’s counter-culture craziness, a bigger screen was portraying the Dream through the Promethean machismo of John Wayne. Wayne’s role in American society was epitomised by General Douglas MacArthur, telling Wayne: “You represent the American servicemen better than the American servicemen themselves.”

Then there was Marilyn Monroe: widely associated with sexual appeal, femme fatale roles and the chauvinistic adoration of the troops, her foster-home-to-film-noir story inspired millions too, and a nude appearance in Playboy broke traditional conceptions of female behaviour for American society.

Mickey Mouse was teaching kids how to be “clean living, fun loving, bashful around girls, polite and clever” little American boys, and Barbie – despite her anorexic and materialistic controversy – was actually intended as an aspirational female character. After all, despite Ken’s confusingly camp attempts to bomb the scene with his flocked hair and bold beachwear, Barbie lived a relatively independent existence, free of that era’s biggest gender stereotypes: children and housewife duties. Even after Wedding Barbie walked up the aisle, the cars, houses, camper vans and garages that appeared were specifically stated as hers, not Ken’s, and not Barbie and Ken’s.

Through these mediums of film, radio, television, advertising and print, the American Dream would change depending on the images its dreamers were fed. The Dream became financial security and a Brady Bunch family life, with white picket fences, warm apple pie, a Chevy on the drive and a dog called Rex. Nevada spawned a nightmarish glitter gulch in Las Vegas, where the ‘rags to riches’ archetype was reduced to a moneymaking scheme that swaps hard work for instant chance.

In California, the Dream favoured those 15 minutes of fame. They remembered the Gold Rush of the 19th century, and they knew how quickly things could turn. If only that was their white ivory cocktail dress flailing in the subway breeze as it blew from the sidewalk grate: “It sorta cools the ankles, doesn’t it?” If only that was them riding horseback to rescue Debbie from the Comanche Indians. After all, “Down on the West Coast,” explains our issue 96 cover star Lana Del Rey in the lyrics of her recent single, “I get this feeling like it could all happen.”

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“It sorta cools the ankles, doesn’t it?” (The Seven Year Itch, 1955)

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As the years rolled by, the wheels started to fall off the Dream’s systemic and idealistic prairie schooner. First, its leading lady died, analysed perfectly in the words of biographer Graham McCann: “The legend of Marilyn Monroe leads one into the bourgeois truisms of Western culture: that fame does not bring happiness; that sexuality is destructive; that Hollywood destroys its own children.”

A year later, in 1963, Martin Luther King tugged on the very fabric of the Dream by pointing out that the American Civil Rights Movement relied on it changing. He had a dream, and it didn’t look like Gregory Peck holding an Academy Award. In the ’70s, films like The Godfather and Taxi Driver twisted things by glorifying anti-heroes, and shedding light on the reality of criminals forced to bend the rules to achieve their Dream. Like George Foreman on that dark 1974 morning in Kinshasa, the Dream was on the ropes and Vietnam, Watergate, the Arab oil embargo, a rise in crime, and the righteous roar of minorities who wanted their voices heard landed heavy blows. Suddenly, America didn’t seem so Cherry Cola. The Dream was losing its fizz.

Years have passed since then, and all the names paved into the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard will tell you that the Dream found a way to survive. But what about right now, in 2014, with America showing ever-increasing evidence of declining social mobility and structural inequality? Where “the rich get richer” has become a slogan of daily rhetoric. In this America, does the Dream still exist? And if so, who is driving it?

“The idea that anyone can, through hard work and talent, rise in the world is so deeply rooted in US culture that it will probably never go away,” Andrew Hoberek tells Clash. “It’s central to the nation’s very idea of itself.” Hoberek is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he has garnered notable attention for teaching a class that explores how the rise of Kanye West and Jay Z to both celebrity and corporate power alters what we understand as the American Dream.

Kanye’s relationship with The Dream is a turbulent one, and since ‘The College Dropout’ he has been highlighting the farce of how “The prettiest people do the ugliest things / For the road to riches and diamond rings”. But in 2013, the video for ‘Bound 2’ found Kanye at his most vitriolic towards the Dream.

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Kanye West, ‘Bound 2’

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In American culture, the open road traditionally represents freedom, escape, friendship and romance; four things the Dream never originally intended for young black males. Satirising that traditional scene, Kanye proudly cruises down this road, under the flight of a bald eagle, on – of course – a Harley Davidson motorcycle. He embraces his wife Kim Kardashian (West), a third-generation Armenian-American who’s far from the image cast by Marilyn Monroe.

In fact, some of Kardashian’s ancestors died in the Armenian genocide of 1915, an event that American presidents including Obama have ignored to commemorate in loyalty to US allies and perpetrators Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire) despite the pleas of voting American-Armenians for their President to recognise the atrocity. Needless to say, Obama does not approve of the couple, dismissing Kanye publicly as a “jackass”. Hoberek thinks it goes slightly further:

“I think we have to look elsewhere for the core of Obama’s longstanding critique of Kanye, part of which I think lies in Kanye’s willingness to keep protesting aspects of the system – not always, it’s true, in a coherent way –  despite having achieved so many measures of mainstream success.”

The popularity of hip-hop culture in America positions rap at the forefront of influence. The emergence of Kanye West and Jay Z places them not only as hip-hop tastemakers, but also as icons with the ability to affect other areas of art and everyday living. They are today’s Dream weavers.

“Jay Z, Beyoncé, and (the couple’s daughter) Blue Ivy are the unofficial royal family of the United States,” explains Hoberek, “universally beloved because they offer evidence that the American Dream is still alive, and that it’s been extended to people who were previously barred from such outsized success. There’s nothing wrong with this sentiment per se, although the celebration of individuals covers over structural inequalities that are in fact becoming more and more fixed.”

That said, the typically white upper-middle class setting of Cadillac’s latest television advert suggests that in some areas of America, hip-hop has no hold on the Dream. The narrator – played by Boomtown and Band Of Brothers actor Neal McDonough – asks himself why everyday Americans work so hard when other countries are taking August off?

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Cadillac wants you to buy their cars

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“Because we’re crazy, driven, hardworking believers, that’s why! Those other countries think we’re nuts. Whatever! Were the Wright brothers insane? Bill Gates? Les Paul?” And, before the advert gets just a little too white to even stare at directly: “Muhammad Ali?” It’s interesting to note that Cadillac’s owners General Motors – the second biggest car manufacturer in the world – are clearly still utilising the traditional Dream on a level that they feel still communicates with everyday car-owning Americans. After all, “You work hard, you create your own luck, and you just gotta believe that anything is possible!”

So, is the American Dream still alive? In a word, yes. But in more ways than you could ever imagine, and throughout issue 96 of Clash, pieces on music, film, and fashion explore the various shades of red, white and blue that colour this everlasting fantasy.

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Words: Joe Zadeh

Full references – not to mention all of those articles – can be found in issue 96 of Clash magazine. Buy a copy here

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