HAMILTON! and the American myth of the self-made man

Last week I discovered my Amazon Prime membership gave me access to a yotaton of “free” music.  This was quite an exciting discovery because I started listening to random stuff that I’d never pay for on my own, listen to off of youtube, nor take the time to properly pirate.  One of the things I stumbled upon was the soundtrack to the Broadway musical that, apparently, everybody is listening to: Hamilton.

It’s based on Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography from about 12 years or so back, and, as a friend who visited NYC recently told me, it’s extremely prohibitively expensive to go see.  I haven’t read the book nor seen the play.  But I have had the first track on repeat for a while.  Take some time to go listen to it.

It’s pretty clear that not only is this a catchy track, but the lyrics just ooze with the whole myth of the self-made man.  Americans, we love this shit.  We eat it up.  We slop around in it and let it seep into our groinal-region crevices with no intention of washing it out, only of scratching said regions and then smelling our fingers when we think nobody is looking.

It’s a pretty powerful myth for Americans.  We’ve been conditioned to view anyone who builds himself up from nothing, goes rags-to-riches, as someone who is, in some way, exceptional–more exceptional than his fellow American.  And, the flip side of this is that we also view anyone who is destitute or impoverished in some way as suffering more from some inherent moral and character failure rather than someone who’s had the unfortunate luck to be born into an unfair system that seeks to oppress them at every turn.  To quote John Swansburg’s essay, The Self-Made Man:

But here, too, the self-made ideal proved useful: It functioned in this period as an explanation for success and for failure. If success was a function of a man’s good character, then failure must be evidence that his character was weak. Champions of the self-made man, therefore, could at once celebrate America’s equality of opportunity and explain away the inequitable results.

Now, I don’t want to go into this any more than I have to.  Read Swansburg’s essays or the myriad posts we’ve already got on this site about racial, social, and economic inequality in American society.  But I do want to say that, as we consume our popular culture and entertainment, we always have to be aware of what the message is underneath, because there always is a message.  (I mean, we all know this, right?)  Even here, in a Broadway musical about the guy on the $10 bill, there’s a cultural agenda–a “selfish gene” of American culture–that continues to propagate and reinforce itself.  Despite what DFW might insist in Infinite Jest, there is no such thing as mindless entertainment.


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