Miley Cyrus and American Exceptionalism

Miley Cyrus proves that real Americans ride bikes.

Miley Cyrus proves that real Americans ride bikes.

There’s been a fair amount of attention lately to Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry’s absurd article on American exceptionalism. More enlightenment can probably be obtained by considering Miley Cyrus’ treatise on the matter, “Party in the U.S.A.”

The setting of the tune is the sense of disorientation experienced by a heartland girl as she arrives in Los Angeles (“Welcome to the land of fame, excess, whoa am I gonna fit in”) and her discovery of comfort in the form of popular culture:

Got my hands up they’re playing my song
And now I’m gonna be okay
Yeah! It’s a party in the USA!

The paradoxical element here is that the patriotic evocations of Americanness are consistently undermined by the basic backdrop of alienation. “It’s definitely not a Nashville party,” she observes “cause all I see are stilettos.” The United States, in short, is a massive, diverse, continent-sized country. It contains substantial differences in regional culture (at this point in the music video she gestures toward her cowboy boots) that insiders pick up on based on small clues of fashion and manners.

While hacks like Ponnuru & Lowry try to identify Americanness with a particular form of conservative politics, the fact of the matter is that America’s geographic and ethnic diversity entails political diversity. Their effort to identity the United States with opposition to mass transit, for example, founders on the fact that our largest and most important city is also one of the most transit-oriented city in the world.

“Party,” more plausibly, invokes popular music as a source of unity, capable of transcending both regional and racial (“And a Jay-Z song was on,” turned into “a Michael song” in her performance at the Teen Choice awards) divisions. The irony, however, is that American popular culture is famously global. The mere fact that a Jay-Z song is on does not, in fact, provide any particular reason to believe that a given party is taking place in the USA. Jay-Z will be playing in person in Germany, France, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom this summer. What’s more, the story of American popular culture is actually a story in which non-Americans play decisive roles. Rock and Roll is a quintessentially American cultural form, and yet arguably its most famous practitioners are from England. A Britney song was on, but was the song written by a Swedish guy?

This, however, is the sense in which America is truly exceptional in a normatively valorizable way, and not merely “different from other places” (as all places are). The construction of an idiom capable of recognizably creating parties in the USA all across this vast nation has produced a culture robust enough to conquer the world. What’s more, it’s a culture that’s accessible enough that is elements are practiced all over the world. When a director hits it big in his native country, what he wants to do is come to LA, look out the window of a cab and see the Hollywood sign and become a global sensation.