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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Written November 14, 2016

The average American listens to four hours of music per day (Stutz). Assuming the average American gets eight hours of sleep per night, they spend 25 percent of the time they are awake listening to music. What message is conveyed in the lyrics? Today’s media is overflowing with materialistic ideas that arguably border on nonsense. Gossip magazines cover which celebrities are cheating on their spouses, or what products are endorsed by the rich and famous. Sports magazines talk about the hottest brand of basketball shoes that will make you “the freshest player on the court.” American culture is being consumed by materialism. Society has led the average American to believe that materials are the key to fulfillment. How deep does this reach into our culture? Stated in the Declaration of Independence is the American Dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even this core American ideal has been warped by modern materialism. The current, and most prominent, interpretation of the American Dream that is conveyed through today’s pop culture, specifically music, is the pursuit of happiness through monetary gain, social elitism, and extravagance. Sadly, this version of the American Dream is materialistic; it can only lead to short term gratification and, ultimately, the decay of the quality of life within society as a whole. The true path to gaining personal growth and fulfillment in life is thinking beyond oneself by contributing to global issues to make a positive change and raising others up.

Psychologist, Tim Kasser, and Richard M Ryan, Professor of Psychology at University of Rochester, conducted a study that was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1993, titled “A Dark Side of the American Dream: Correlates of Financial Success as a Central Life Aspiration.” The study was based on the notion that “financial success has long been a core component of the American Dream” and that the values of modern society “suggest that success and happiness depend on procuring monetary wealth” (Kasser and Ryan 410). However, based on the self-determination theory of motivation, as well as other humanistic and behavioral theories, Kasser and Ryan hypothesized that people who pursue and value financial success over self-growth or community centered goals are more likely to be less psychologically well (Kasser and Ryan 411). Three studies were conducted overall; the first two were questionnaires, and the third was an interview in which the interviewer rated the subjects well-being. The results confirmed the hypothesis, leading Kasser and Ryan to suggest that “individuals aspiring for wealth may be more likely to focus on contingent, external goals and fleeting, superficial satisfactions unrelated to inherent needs” (Kasser and Ryan 420). Although this study is more than two decades old, there have not been significant economic or societal changes that would likely change the outcome of the data and there have been further studies in the meantime that have confirmed their results. “Finally, the data suggest that… the desire for money does not necessarily bring happiness; instead, too much emphasis on this aspect of the American Dream may be an organismic nightmare” (Kasser and Ryan 421).

Music is a large part of culture, with its influence shaping language, behavior, and overall outlook on life. Dr. Veda Brown, a part-time Psychology professor at Prairie View A&M University, conducted research on the effect of hip-hop music on middle school children. Her research was published in 2006 in The Negro Educational Review, the article titled “Guiding the Influence of Hip-Hop Music on Middle-School Students' Feelings, Thinking, and Behaving.” In the introduction to her study, Brown states, “adolescents' attitudes about school, material success, appreciation of themselves and others seem to be shaped to a large extent by the music they listen to. Similarly youths' behavior, as reflected in their clothing styles, language usage, desire for jewelry, and automobile preferences, have been attributed to lyrics and videos from the hip-hop industry.” Although Brown uses her research to design techniques for parents to address and discuss the effects of this specific genre of music with their kids, the results are important when considering all music genres, and ultimately, the American Dream. Music appeals to the listener on a psychological and emotional level, giving it the ability to “create an inviting escape to an abstract paradise” (Brown 50). When a thematic pattern emerges in the lyrics of popular music, the message is reiterated every time the song is listened to. When a message is repeated so many times, it slowly becomes ingrained in one’s mind. A very prominent theme in modern pop music is the glorification of wealth and encourages partying and almost reckless behavior.

The Billboard Top 100 Songs for the week of October 16 to October 22, 2016 featured many songs with lyrics that romanticize an extravagant lifestyle. One example is “24K Magic” by Bruno Mars, the fifth song on the list (Billboard). Mars opens “24K Magic” with the lines: “Tonight / I just want to take you higher / Throw your hands up in the sky / Let's set this party off right… 24 karat magic in the air”. “Magic” has a number of connotations, but in this context, it connotes a certain type of intangible glamor; “24 karat” does the same. Gold’s purity is measured in karats, and more karats means it’s more pure (and more expensive). 24 karat gold is completely pure, and is therefore the highest number of karats. The “24K Magic” Mars says is “in the air” is an extremely exclusive, lavish, and extravagant atmosphere at this party. Mars’ use of “you” and “let’s” includes the audience in the festivities surrounding him, which allows the audience to imagine that they are taking part in this party. As mentioned in Dr. Brown’s study, music allows for an escape to a false reality, or dream, which is why the inclusion is very important. The audience hears Mars including them in a grand, over-the-top party, which takes them away from their real life. This suggests that to be happy is to be rich and to be included in this opulent lifestyle. “I'm a dangerous man with some money in my pocket / So many pretty girls around me and they waking up the rocket” (Bruno Mars, 24K magic). “Waking up the rocket” is a metaphor for Mars’ sexual arousal due to all of the “pretty girls” around him. This lyric suggests that women are flocking to him because of the appeal of his mysterious aura and money. Finishing the line by mentioning his arousal, he alludes to the fact that he will receive sexual gratification. Although this is not explicitly part of the American Dream, it can be considered to be a manifestation of happiness. When he describes his clothes, Mars creates an image of himself dressed in such a way that conspicuously showcases his wealth. “I bet they know soon as we walk in (showin' up) / Wearing Cuban links (ya) / Designer minks (ya) / Inglewood's finest shoes” (Bruno Mars, 24K Magic). “Cuban links” are a very popular type of gold chain that can sell for many thousands of dollars. Both “mink” and “finest” have connotations of wealth and nice things, which further emphasizes Mars’ message.

Another song that embodies the current American Dream is “Here in Manhattan,” by Tim Hosman, inspired by the 1920s. The first verse reads: “Got to flaunt your debutante wearin’ satin / Dine with that aristocrat in Manhattan / ‘Jazzy Joe’s you’ll find your toes will be tappin’ / Dance and play your blues away in Manhattan” (Tim Hosman, Here in Manhattan). The first line mentions a “debutante,” which is a young, aristocratic woman who has reached an age of maturity or adulthood and is being introduced into the society at her “debut.” Supported by the lines that follow, it can be inferred that this girl’s debut is a fancy party. Satin is a type of fabric typically reserved for nicer pieces of clothing, so given the meaning of “debutante,” it alludes to the wealth of the girl and the party-goers. The word “dine” also implies wealth because it has the connotation of eating in a sophisticated manner. As well, “flaunt” is a choice word because it has a connotation of “showing off” and “subtly bragging” to inspire envy. Essentially, the first verse sets the scene. “Feeling like a Rockefeller sippin’ Bordeaux / Uptown is the only town you know / Even down in Hooverville they’re popping the cork / Reeling in the feelin’ of New York” (Tim Hosman, Here in Manhattan). The second verse maintains the connection between wealth and lavish living. The Rockefeller's were a very affluent family due to John D Rockefeller’s domination of the oil industry during the Progressive Era. So, to “feel like a Rockefeller” is to feel rich. “Bordeaux” is an expensive French wine, which supports the tone of the lyrics. In the 1920s, “uptown” was generally considered to be more upscale. Therefore, to only know “uptown” is to only know wealth. “Hooverville” is the juxtaposition of “uptown”; it was where the poorest of the poor resided. In other words, the third line says that even the poor are celebrating. The line “reeling in the feelin’ of New York” combined with the third line can be interpreted as “even the poor are celebrating because that’s the way of New York.” Although this song is somewhat obscure, it proves that the materialistic version of the American Dream is so deeply ingrained in American culture that it can be found both in little known songs and songs that make the Top Five.

This theme of the broken American Dream has not only been limited to music, but also to literature through the years. The classic great American novel, The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, is based on the idea that even the most wealthy, powerful and enviable characters can end up with nothing more than a lonely death and unrealized dreams. Throughout the novel, Gatsby was a seemingly God-like character. It seemed that the whole universe revolved around Gatsby. He threw parties that were the envy of all; he had just about every material thing which inspired everyone to want to be like him. However on the inside, he was a sad and lonely person. “...perhaps he didn’t care. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world,” Nick concluded about Gatsby, “He paid a high price for living too long with a single dream,” (Fitzgerald 161). Gatsby had it all: wealth and therefore all things material. Yet, Gatsby was unfulfilled, unhappy. The one thing that he desperately craved could not be bought; he could not buy his happiness. All he wanted was the woman he loved; All he wanted was Daisy. “Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor” (Fitzgerald 150). Daisy symbolized Gatsby’s dream; the dream of eternal youth, and parties, and extravagance; the dream of a world where laws can be broken for the thrill of it; the dream of a world where wealth is everything. Daisy’s wealth “imprisoned and preserved” her youth within her. In terms of the American Dream, Daisy is wealth to Gatsby. Those who live by the American Dream are running towards an illusion, an unattainable happiness. Gatsby is running through a desert of loneliness towards Daisy, his oasis, yet he will never reach her; she is a mirage.

All too often Americans today make this same mistake, and the consumer of our society has driven us to overlook the truly transformational hopes of feeding the poor, stopping global conflict, caring for the environment, preserving the planet for future generations, basically helping others. There have been a number of instances when music has been used to help others and spark interest in a large cause. Namely, “We Are The World,” “Sun City”, Concert for Bangladesh, Gift of Song, “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” "Live Aid," "Farm Aid," "A Conspiracy of Hope," "Human Rights Now," and "One Billion Rising," among others (Ramirez, 10 Music Collaborations That Changed The World). 

If the overall message in pop culture can be altered to one that promotes giving and helping others, kindness, and thinking beyond one’s self interest, the American Dream can be steered onto the correct path and begin to grow. The ultimate goal of the American Dream has always been the pursuit of happiness; how to achieve it is the part that’s changed. If the current message can be mended, it is possible that the American Dream can spread worldwide, assisting all who are willing to face the challenge of traveling down the path to true happiness.


Works Consulted:

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Brown, Veda. "Guiding The Influence Of Hip-Hop Music On Middle-School Students' Feelings, Thinking, And Behaving." Negro Educational Review, The 57.1-2 (2006): 49-68. ERIC. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

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Ash Welsh
Ash Welsh

Born in 2000, Ash is a female to male transgender student studying at UVU. An avid writer since he was 13, Ash has always wanted to share his words with the world. A proud Wiccan, one of his favorite topics is religion, as well as politics.

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