On August 9th, 2018, Noisey writer Paul Thompson published an article titled “Straight Outta Compton Is The Most American Album Of The 20th Century.” (https://noisey.vice.com/en_au/article/43pbyq/straight-outta-compton-is-the-most-american-album-of-the-20th-century) The piece was an interesting look into how N.W.A. influenced hip hop and Los Angeles, but failed to support the assertion it’s title boasted. It did not connect N.W.A.’s lyrics and music to the greater American experience between 1900 and 1999. Thus, I would like to write a response piece more adequately addressing the question “what is the most American album of the 20th century.”
Well, first we must answer a prerequisite question, what does it mean to be American? I would say, for this context, it has to reflect the social and political philosophy of America, and that I would define as based in what W.E.B. Du Bois described as “the American assumption,” the essential belief that, if they work hard enough, anyone can become successful. The shift from the near caste system of the 18th century towards this belief was the social journey of the 19th century. Beginning with Andrew Jackson’s campaign for socioeconomic mobility, followed by the rise of capitalism and fall of mercantilism in the north, and lastly the emancipation of and suffrage for African Americans. But in the 20th century, this assumption began to be challenged. Beginning with the rise of the International Workers of the World, continuing into Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, and climaxing in the Johnson-era Great Society reforms (with an epilogue of Jessie Jackson’s political success), America over the course of this time questioned if the American assumption was possible without assistance from the State.
With this criteria, I assert that Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 LP Nebraska was the most American album of the 20th century. It’s musical roots are deep in American tradition, it’s lyrics address distinctly American motifs, and it’s attitude towards them reflects the conscious of America in the 1900s. It shares a certain distrust for authority (“State Trooper,” “Highway Patrolman”) and sympathy with the criminal element of society (“Nebraska,” “Johnny 99”) with Straight Outta Compton but expresses it with a more distinctly 20th century American musical arrangement and outlook than the N.W.A. album.
I want to start with that musical element, as I feel it is key. While Straight Outta Compton is no doubt more influential over American music than Nebraska, it is also definitely not as representative of American culture in that century as Nebraska. Rap is conventionally thought of to only go back to 1979 with Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (tho I would argue for Gil Scott Heron’s 1970 “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” as an alternative start point for rap, and some scholars point to Pigmeat Markam’s 1968 novelty record “Here Comes The Judge” was the first rap record). Beyond that, the style of sampling N.W.A. uses is largely a post-Run DMC style, so really it’s roots are mostly traced back to 1985, representing only the last 15 years of the century. Springsteen, on the other hand, is rooted in the deep American tradition of one person with a guitar. Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Memphis Minnie. The list could go on forever but this article needs to end eventually. This style and aesthetic defined American music for the bulk of the 20th century. Jimmy Rodgers, grandfather of country music, which sits alongside it’s brother the blues as the first truly American genre of music, played this way.
Lyrical analysis of Nebraska reveals a few patterns in motifs. There’s a lot of themes of criminals in Nebraska. Starting with the title track, about the real life murder spree by Charles Starkweather, told from the perspective of Starkweather waiting on death row, but also including “Johnny 99,” a sympathetic portrait of a man who kills a bank teller after he loses his job, and “State Trooper,” a look inside the mind of someone deeply afraid of law enforcement for some unspecified reason (as an aside, I think it would be a beautiful change in meaning of the song for a black artist to cover this song). Considering the 20th century saw a rise in the incarceration rate in America starting in the 1970s, representing criminals and depicting the justice system is an essential part of the most American album, one recently neglected outside the black dominated genres. More on the justice system comes in the song “Highway Patrolman,” a depiction of a corrupt police officer whose brother murders a man but simply shrugs it off because “when it’s your brother you look the other way.” This is a good representation of the loss in faith in law enforcement that came to prevalence in the 1960s.
Nebraska also deals with poverty and desperation. “Atlantic City,” which would also become a hit for The Band, is a portrait of a man given no more options but to turn to less than legitimate work. Opening with a description of gang violence, blowing up the chicken man in Philly and stress for the District Attorney, it continues into a chorus of optimism making for a powerful juxtaposition as he sings that “everything that dies some day comes back.” The narrator flees town, taking out his meager savings and running away from his debts, only to find that he can’t find a job in the new town and has to work for the mob. Another depiction of desperation comes in “Open All Night,” a song deeply influenced by Chuck Berry about racing through the Garden State in the late night. While it is perhaps the most upbeat song on the album, it includes exploitation of labor in a small way (“the boss don’t dig me so he put me on the night shift”) and evasion of law enforcement again (“underneath the overpass trooper hits a light switch/good night good luck 1, 2, power shift”). A last depiction of poverty can be heard in” Used Cars,” as a poor boy reminisces about the difficulty it takes for his family to get even just a used car, with his only hope of anything better being the lottery. These depict the very real poverty and struggle of most of America, especially in the Great Depression and in the years preceding Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. These have little hope, existing in a world where late capitalism doesn’t give a lot of breaks (“down here it’s just winners and losers don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line”) and I think that ties things back to that American assumption. These men work hard and still get nowhere. They’re beginning to challenge that belief that hard work will always reward that American culture pushed so hard for all of the 19th century, and which lingers today.
But Nebraska isn’t all downers. It ends with a uniquely American note of hope. “Reason To Believe” is a powerful meditation on the resilience of the American ability to believe that, like Sam Cooke told us, a change is gonna come. Touching on theology, both with its refrain and with the verse about baptism, Springsteen wisely never directly states what it is people find a reason to believe in, but it seemingly always does. Perhaps it’s the fact that, unlike most other nations, America considers its moment of conception as a nation as being one of revolution. Perhaps it is because we have pretty much only witnessed the 19th and 20th centuries, which were the most rapidly progressing centuries in human history, and perhaps I’m just off the mark and haven’t lived anywhere else, but somehow it seems America is most resilient in its ability to find some reason to believe.
Dr Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E, et al did not set out to make “the most American album of the 20th century,” which is why they didn’t. They made a game changing album, capturing the soul of black America in the 1980s, perhaps doing so better than Springsteen captures America as a whole across the 20th century on Nebraska. However, the narrowness of that vision makes it difficult to name Straight Outta Compton “the most American album of the 20th century.” Springsteen’s Nebraska captures the broader spirit of America more successfully, and lives more deeply in that questioning of the American assumption that defined our nation in the 20th century.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.