why the americana aesthetic feels more urgent than ever

From 'American Honey' to Lady Gaga’s 'Joanne,' we reevaluate America's visual symbolism in the shadow of the presidential election.

by Anastasiia Fedorova
Nov 7 2016, 5:56pm

The global influence of the United States has been tremendous in the last hundred years — not only politically and economically, but also in terms of pop culture. The irresistible aesthetic of Americana — motels and diners, road trips through the desert — has come to symbolize an endlessly romantic free spirit and a world of opportunity. In 2016, in light of the approaching presidential election, Americana is more relevant and prevalent than ever.

On the cover of her latest album, Joanne, released this October, Lady Gaga is wearing a pink, wide-brimmed, ten gallon hat — a token of her new stage persona. Combined with crop tops, jeans, and aviator sunglasses, the hat is the key to her new, very American look. In the video for hit "Perfect Illusion" she also sports denim cutoffs, black combat boots, and a black t-shirt while driving the 4x4 through burnt out badlands. The image is familiar, and so is the sound of the album; both tap into the rich vocabulary of the great American myth. Gaga sings about Ferraris and John Wayne, stylistically borrowing from the heritage of country and American folk — these songs were sung so many times that it's hard to imagine they could still sound sincere, and yet they still do. Named after Gaga's aunt, who died before she was born, Joanne is a new kind of self-exposure for the singer. The forms we've seen and heard before are reborn through the new artistic message. This is a recurring pattern in American pop culture.

This year Gaga hasn't been the only one to prove that Americana doesn't age. American Honey, Andrea Arnold's feature on a door-to-door sales crew of young social outcasts hitting the road, won the Prix du Jury award at Cannes and the endless adoration of critics who've labelled it the movie of the generation. While making the film, Arnold and her cast (discovered at Walmart parking lots and on the beaches during spring break, many with no acting experience) traveled from Oklahoma to North Dakota and then back down to South Dakota — 10,000 miles altogether. The result is the raw artistic reflection of the space where the rough exploration of youth meets, in Arnold's words, "mythical America of westerns and road movies." The land of endless highways and Confederate flag bikinis links together the works of Larry Clark and Ryan McGinley, who also chased the freedom of wanderers with not much to lose.

Curiously, the rise of Americana aesthetics also spilled out from art into real life: in October one of American Honey's stars, Shia Labeouf, married his girlfriend Mia Goth in Las Vegas. It was a proper Vegas-style wedding, complete with Elvis Presley impersonator as a legal authority. Not far from the set of Labeouf's nuptials stands, in glistering gold, one of symbols of the upcoming elections and the overall US political crisis: Trump hotel. It stands at 64-stories high, has 1232 guest suites, and a spa. Las Vegas has long been a symbol of the American Dream, including American Dream staples like the dark underbelly, and the triumph of money over taste and reason. It sums up Donald Trump's empire so well. Only a step away from becoming president, Trump is an embodiment of nativism, discrimination, and authoritarianism dressed up in lies, false promises, and terrible hair. He poses as an incarnation of the American dream — a self-made man; a vague, non-existent idea of "real American" — while really he is the flip side of the coin, the dark lining of aspirational culture shaped by greed.

This darkness running through American culture is the main focus of Cali Thornhill Dewitt's project 29 Flags. The artist took some of the most horrific murders in US history and rewrote them into poetic phrases onto 29 American flags, with references to the Manson Family, John F. Kennedy, and OJ Simpson. In an interview with i-D Thornhill Dewitt recalled "being terrorized by the news" as a child, something that became an inspiration for the project — and is uncannily similar to what Donald Trump spits out during his campaign. Dewitt also tackled the imposed patriotism of American society — kids pledging allegiance to the flag every morning — which, fueled by hateful rhetoric, easily turns towards xenophobia.

French artist The Kid, one of the most talked about names on today's art scene, also explored the dark side of America its youth face. His incredibly life-like sculptures of American teenagers — a bruised skater with his arm around a roaring lion, a long-haired boy holding up a gun to his mouth in a prayer-like gesture — wouldn't look out of place in a dystopian future. But what The Kid is inspired by is far more mundane than that: the social reality American youth exists within today. "Through all of my work I want to question the audience about social determinism, the thin veil between innocence and corruption, the equality of chances, or the fading line between right and wrong in our modern societies", he said in an interview with Amuse. "And today's American society, symbolized in particular by the Stars and Stripes flag, is for me such a powerful symbol of duality, between ideal and reality, innocence and corruption."

The Americana aesthetic in 2016, after all, is not about the pretty picture but the desire to penetrate it, exposing to the world a millennial underclass almost certainly invisible to both presidential candidates.

Born in small towns with no industry, with no access to healthcare and sparse possibilities, exposed to social stigma and racism, the new generation is out there on its own. It is about them Lady Gaga sings on "Diamond Heart" — "Young, wild, American, Looking to be something, I might not be flawless, but you know I gotta diamond heart." It is about them American Honey's Star Sasha Lane said: "You can't really dream that high. You've not given that type of freedom. Star is naïve in the way that I'm naïve. It's not just like fantasy land, everything's beautiful. It's more like despite the shit that I've been given, my environment, people telling me you can't do this, I still try really hard to find beauty everywhere and in everyone."

Donald Trump is the worldwide symbol of the rise of the far right, and the face of political crisis we're in, of the powers of old and evil. Just like the Americana aesthetic, it's not just about the US, but about all of us. That's why, even if in other countries we can't vote, we stand with you in trying not to let Trump win — for the future of freedom and opportunity Americana came to symbolize. 


Text Anastasiia Fedorova 
Image via Flickr