In “This Is America”: Race, Gender, and Politics in America’s Musical Landscape, Katie Rios argues that prominent American artists and musicians build encoded gestures of resistance into their works and challenge the status quo. These artists offer both an interpretation and a critique of what “This Is America” means. Using Childish Gambino’s video for “This Is America” as a starting point, Rios considers how elements including clothing, hairstyles, body movements, gaze, lighting effects, distortion, and word play symbolize American dissonance. From Laurie Anderson’s presence in challenging authority and playing with traditional gender roles in her works, to the Black female feminism and social activism of Beyoncé, Rhiannon Giddens, and Janelle Monáe, to hip hop as resistance in the age of Trump, to sonic and visual variety in the musical Hamilton, the subjects are as powerful as they are topical. Rios explores the ways in which artists relate to and represent underrepresented groups, especially groups that are not traditionally perceived as having a majority voice. The encoded resistances recur across performances and video recordings so that they begin to become recognizable as repeated acts of resistance directed at injustices based on a number of categories, including race, gender, class, religion, and politics.
Katie Rios is associate professor of music history at the Townsend School of Music at Mercer University.
Chapter 1: “We’re Drowning in Our Own Stories”: Laurie Anderson’s Call to Artists and Her Performance Art as a Commentary on Current American Democracy
Chapter 2: “At the Intersection’ of Racism and Sexism”: The Encoded Resistance and Social Activism of Beyoncé, Rhiannon Giddens, and Janelle Monáe
Chapter 3: “We the People”? Hip Hop As Resistance in the Trump Era
Chapter 4: ‘“Look Around”, “History Is Happening”: Heterogenous Topics in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton
Borrowing her title from Childish Gambino’s music video “This Is America"—and using that video as a starting point—Rios discusses the fight for social justice in the US as conveyed through work by contemporary musicians and artists. Repeated symbols and gestures used to convey the underlying meaning of music, and other art works, serve as encoded elements of resistance and amplify the meaning of each featured artist’s words…. Relying extensively on rap, as well as blue notes, Caribbean rhythms, and call-and-response, Miranda uses familiar Black music traditions, sarcasm, and humor to energize Ron Chernow’s eponymous biography of Hamilton. Hamilton and the other works Rios features serve as calls to action, urging modern listeners to “look around” and “rise up” to address social injustices. Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals; general readers.
Rios’s insightful, nuanced, and accessible book is a must-read for anyone interested in social justice and the arts. Drawing on multidisciplinary scholarship, personal interviews, and original analysis of well-chosen case studies, Rios shows how performers’ musical, visual, and textual gestures demonstrate resistance in this timely study.
“This is America”: Race, Gender, and Politics in America’s Musical Landscape is an insightful and substantial consideration of our tumultuous recent history. Rios’ cutting analyses prompted me to reconsider the methods by which music helps us process trauma, seek justice, and articulate identity. As the author reminds us, music is not just something heard, but rather something communal and embodied, even in our digital era.
Katie Rios paints a vivid picture of politicized popular music in the Trump years. She asks readers to see and hear how mass-mediated performances serve as sites of cultural resistance.
5/31/22, Choice: This book was included in a roundup of the “Top 75 Community College Titles.”