What Is America #415

Every time I'm in the States, I look for words to describe what I'm seeing – living in sleepy Germany all this time, I feel like a stranger when I return, and I see my country through the eyes of a stranger, and what I see is a picture of wild consumerism, rampant desires and chaotic craziness. It is fearful and fascinating at the same time, and it fills me with pride and excitement. I can’t find the right words to describe it.

Ah, but that's what art is there for.

I load my iTunes with a simple rock tune song by an otherwise nondescript band named Nickelback: "Rock Star." I am addicted. Whenever I'm in the States, I can't stop listening to it. It transports me. I think: Ah, this is America. This is the ur-American. This song describes the American I always was, but never had the guts to admit it. Pure, unadulterated, 100% frustrating… desire.

In case you don’t know the song (it's a hit in the US but not in Europe) – or haven’t paid attention to the lyrics – here's a simple, written by lead singer Chad Kroeger:

I'm through with standin' in line
at clubs I'll never get in…

…this life hasn't turned out
quite the way I want it to be

I'm gonna sing those songs
that offend the censors
Gonna pop my pills
from a Pez dispenser

'Cause we all just wanna be big rockstars and
Live in hilltop houses driving fifteen cars
The girls come easy and the drugs come cheap
We'll all stay skinny 'cause we just won't eat
And we'll hang out in the coolest bars
in the VIP with the movie stars
Every good gold digger's
Gonna wind up there
Every Playboy bunny
With her bleach blonde hair
What Nickelback describes is ugly, graceless, uncultivated and decadent… but don’t kid yourself, you want too. It is the American dream at its very heart: To have everything, to be able to do anything. To belong the very to, where no one can touch you, where no law applies to you.

We always knew it: Hollywood is America's Olympus. Today's Hollywood and rock stars are the equivalent of the gods and demi-gods of ancient Greece and the heroes of early medieval Europe: the privileged ones, the ones kissed by the gods. There's no explanation for why one girl is born plain and another beautiful and blond; why one talented guy labors all his life on little stages while Brad Pitt rockets to stardom. They were kissed by the gods. The difference is: Europeans ask permission before desiring. In a post-aristocratic society – where you are by God's grace either born into privilege or not and don't question it one way or the other – you don't believe they are actually entitled to the godlike Hollywood life. We Americans with our anyone-can-be-a-star philosophy on the other hand believe that we all deserve Godhood in Hollywood. Any of us could be discovered at any time, any of us cold land the hit, any of us could make it. And when we don't… there we sit, alone, struggling to deal with desires and longings that are overpowering and unsatisfiable – the longings and desires of Gods, but injected forever into the hearts of mere mortals.

As a wanna-be intellectual, all my life these desires disgusted me – superficial, false, embarrassing, everything that is wrong about America today, I would think. Now I know that this, as well as most everything else I dreamt up as a teenager, was self-deception. If the devil came to me now and offered me a Faustian bargain, I would probably take it – or not take it, and regret it later. We all want it, even the intellectual, even the Europeans, admit it, baby.

If you ever asked yourself this question: "Hm, I wonder what the tragedy and beauty of America really is," this is it, all wrapped up in a three-minute rock song by a Canadian band.


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