OPINION: Darkly-Scanning Rihanna’s “American Oxygen”

First coming across this music video on 17 April, this last release from Rihanna’s upcoming 8th album is on another level for her career as a recording artist. Numerous reviews of the song and video have noted the striking difference in the content of this material from her already-large library of music.

But a few of these reviews have noted the subtle reference of “Breathe out/breathe in” to the choking death of Eric Garner at NYPD hands and the resulting protest chant “I Can’t Breathe”, and have hence related the song to the topic of police abuse.

Some have related the lyrics of “young girl hustlin’ on the other side of the ocean/she can be anything at all in America, America” to Rihanna’s background as a recording artist born and raised in the island nation of Barbados, and have thus related the song to immigration as America’s lifeblood.

Some have related the lyrics “This is the New America/We Are the New America” to the growing ethnic diversity of the country, or “we sweat for a nickel and a dime/turn it into an empire” and “Young boy, hustlin’/Tryna get the wheels in motion” as a commentary on the struggles and painful hilarities of America’s capitalism. The irony of the “Man in the Mirror”-style music video being first posted to the paywalled Tidal streaming site before being released to the masses’ favorite video site, as well as the seemingly “tacky” move of featuring the artist alongside historic footage, have also been noted.

But the most telling lyrics, perhaps the ones which are most damning with faint praise, are these:

“Oh say, can’t see/Just close your eyes and breathe…”

Notice the pause at the end of this lyric. Plenty of time to inhale and exhale two breaths.

It calls us to close one sense – ignoring the reality surrounding us – and open another – “breathe in this feeling”. Even as we are horrified by what we see on the Internet or TV, or even physically feel when we are unfortunately targeted in the thick of violence, the “best” thing to do for our sense of optimism is to turn off the screen, retreat into the suburb, and breathe in the “normality” of life around us.

“Just close your eyes and breathe” is something which calms our nerves, relieves our despair, takes our mind off the issues which face us. Just put on this breathing mask and close your eyes. The world and its pulse fades out for two precious beats.

Preoxygenation_before_anesthetic_inductionThe “oxygen” in this song may as well be laughing gas.

These lyrics tie to a portion of the chorus “Every breath I breathe/Chasing this American dream“.

You don’t dream when you’re awake. You’re usually asleep or unconscious when you dream, and when you wake up, you only remember the parts of the dream which stood out most (if you remember any of it at all).

Out of all the dreams which we could possibly dream in all the American lifetimes which have existed, which one is the American dream? And how does it relate to the reality which we see around us?

If anything, dreams are sensory distortions which may offer us a completely different reality than that which faces us. Sometimes, our dreams can offer us an achievable vision of our society, one which we can flesh out into a reality, for better or worse, for inclusion or exclusion, for life or death.

But a dream, once fleshed out into a reality, varies in how that reality seeps into others’ longer-lived realities.

What compels us to dream? If we’re tired and wish to rest our senses, what tires us? And if we choose to act on our dreams, how will our dreams affect others?

The American dreams of many LGBT people include the potential to live, breathe, eat well, marry our true love, be single and content, define our genders, be protected from discrimination, have more access to power available to us, and advance ourselves in life. Our dreams may be newer and more progressive than what LGBT people or women of the past dreamed (let alone lived), but we live portions of those realities every time and every place when we live without harassment or prejudice, within regimes of respect.

Day_12_Occupy_Wall_Street_September_28_2011_Shankbone_33There are also those who have dreams of returning to an earlier era of severe sex discrimination against women, against same-sex-attracted people, against transgender people. Such dreams offer promises of “chivalry”, of “tradition”, of “decency”, of a time when “men were men” and everyone “knew their place”, of a time when the American dream was dreamt with a more restricted audience in mind. At least “things were simpler” and less “confused”. Our continued dreaming of such a status blinded us, until rather recent times, to how such “tradition” flexed a tragic deal on humans – even Americans – who fell outside of that straight-and-narrow.

We slept through much of the histories of slavery, lynching, genocide, mass deportation, mass incarceration, militarized police, disenfranchisement, wars on false pretenses, extrajudicial murders, domestic terrorism, racism, sexism, hetero- and cis-sexism, class bigotry against our homeless citizens and unionized workers, and so on. Such blindness has impaired many of us from looking to another side of ourselves.

In many American dreams, we “can be anything at all”, but are we free to be our true, self-defined, mutually-affirmative, intersectional selves?
In many American dreams, do we even allow ourselves to entertain the thought of being “anything at all” within our own choices? Do we free ourselves to make more than one choice? Do we free ourselves to make choices which adapt to the universe around us? Do we free ourselves to take responsibility for these choices or identities and adapt them?

Our choices, like our dreams, are formulated in our minds. We can dream any dream we want, but I argue that the best dreams are the dreams which help make our waking lives more fulfilling.

Similarly, the “oxygen” in the song may help us sleep, calm our nerves, and dream our American dreams, but at some point, we must wake up. Let not the oxygen dull our sense of urgency, justice or mercy. May our dreams inform our waking moments to a better humanity for all people.

Rise and shine, people.



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