Bono on America

On September 20, 2002, one year after 9/11, global megastar Bono of the Irish rock group U2 visited The Oprah Winfrey Show to tell the American public (and in extension the global audience) about famine, poverty, and AIDS in Africa. How, Oprah asks, does this relate to the average American woman at home, who worries about her own family? "What does this have to do with her life?" "Wow," Bono answers: "See, there's the country of America, that you have to defend, but there's also the ideal of America. America is more than just a country. It's an ideal, okay ... an ideal that's supposed to be contagious." "I love that," Oprah responds, " I wanna cry right now. I do, I love that." Although unmentioned by Bono, he is paraphrasing his good friend Wim Wenders, the German filmmaker, who once wrote: "AMERICA, always means two things: a country, geographically, the USA, and a concept of this country, its ideal." That it takes an Irish rock star echoing the words of a German filmmaker on a talk show hosted by America's most popular television personality to make such a distinction explicit reinforces the notion that America as imagined community transcends the geographical boundaries of the nation-state USA.

(from my book Fabricating the Absolute Fake, p. 67)

Born in the USA

Whether Bruce Springsteen's embodiment of a nostalgic America should be perceived as a sign of patriotism or instead as a criticism of the nation-state USA has been a topic of heated debate among fans, rock journalists, and academic scholars, revealing the ambiguity of his star image. Particularly his album Born in the USA could be misinterpreted as a tribute to the nation-state USA. Although most lyrics of the album's songs are critical of the social, economic, and political situation in 1980s America, Born in the USA presents Springsteen as a relic of Americana, using the red-white-and-blue signs of the American flag, blue jeans, baseball, and the hometown to evoke a nostalgic image of those "glory days" in small-town America. The album's promotional photographs show him posing in front of an enormous American flag, wearing the "uniform" of the white working-class male: tight-fitting blue jeans and white T-shirt, showing off his muscular biceps. The Born in the USA album cover features a close-up of his backside in blue jeans, with a red baseball cap nonchalantly dangling from his right pocket. The album's title song contains a similar ambiguity. While the song's verses tell the grim story of an unemployed Vietnam veteran, the chorus consists of a patriotic chant of the song's title, raising the question of how the song should be interpreted. As Jefferson Cowie and Lauren Boehm wonder: "Was the song part of a patriotic revival or a tale of working-class betrayal? A symptom of Reagan's America or antidote to it? Protest song or national anthem?" As is often the case with up-tempo rock songs, the music tends to overpower the lyrics. That many youngster (including myself as a teenager back in 1984) perceived "Born in the USA" as a celebration of America rather than a critical commentary is therefore not surprising.

(from my book Fabricating the Absolute Fake, pp. 32-33)

In the Dutch Ghetto

That Ali B can be perceived as the African-American rapper he never was becomes clear with the song "Ghetto" which he recorded with the African-American rapper Akon. Peculiarly subtitled "the international remix" (the song was only released in the Netherlands), this verison consists of Akon's original American one with overdubs by Ali B in Dutch. In the original version, Akon raps about the hard life in American ghettos. Akon's original music video makes a connection between ghetto life in a black inner city in New Jersey, a white trash trailer park in New Mexico, and the Native American Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona, thereby explicitly suggesting that the hardship of ghetto life is not an African-American experience, but rather a social-economic condition shared by a diverse group of underpriviliged Americans. The Dutch version of the music video adds images of ghetto life in the Amsterdam Bijlmer. Recognizing that such a comparison may seem a bit farfetched, Ali B raps (in Dutch): "Look, I don't want to say that the Bijlmer is like New York / but a lot of people treat it as if it were a village / where nothing ever happens while the apartment buildings are occupied by junks on crack." By translating Akon's ghetto to the Dutch situation, Ali B suggests that there is an international similarity and potential solidarity not only among the underpriviliged in the USA and the Netherlands, but also among the different ethnic groups living in the Amsterdam Bijlmer. Tellingly, it is the image of ghetto life as represented by American pop culture, in African-American 'hood films and hip-hop music videos, through which such solidarity is expressed; thus rooted in an imagined America, rather than the USA.

(from my book Fabricating the Absolute Fake, p. 116)