Part 1 of America, the Facade: On American Honey
Agitprop is commonly used to describe art inciting political propaganda, but Arnold’s film does not make its own politics as clear as say, Godard’s La Chinoise. Moreover, the film’s use of music goes above and beyond agitprop to reflect something completely akin to this term, if not more telling of what agitprop has evolved into through contemporary cinema.
Enter agitpop, a term that can best describe pop music’s attunement with optimistic nihilism. The film’s propaganda in this case would be a matter of indifference towards living in a country that one would often be pessimistic about. After all, this rambunctious sales crew has, as the film’s tagline goes, nothing to lose — except themselves, in this moment of discovery and experience.
And this film’s soundtrack explicitly oozes agitpop right from the moment the sales van rolls into the K-Mart parking lot. Each song isn’t merely thrown in as background music, nor does it serve as a typically expositional and emotional narrator. Instead, it becomes the literal embodiment of the film’s spirit; a diffusion of pop music’s varied ideologies of excess to emphasize living in the present, and holding onto it as such despite only being slightly aware of the impossibility that is pursuing the American dream.
(A quick note that American Honey is not the forebearer of agitpop, as films like Nocturama and Spring Breakers are exemplary of the same term and carry [as well as enable] a similar mentality within its characters. While one can note that both films exude a hedonistic and devil-may-care attitude, the latter is also a film about disenfranchised America.)
For one, pop music compensates for the lack of diegesis presented by this film. Moreover, this is justified by the soundtrack’s literal presence as an all-encompassing and semi-omniscient storyteller, embodying the ephemerality of feeling, and the everlasting profundity of self-discovery. It is also important to note that the film’s soundtrack covers the vast landscape of American pop, as well as its most common audience.
The soundtrack’s presence also presents an oxymoronic rarity in pop music’s audience through the reckless abandon of disenfranchised youth working under the same system as the artists whose work unknowingly advocates for their materialistic mindset. After all, not all disenfranchised youth can say that they have the thinly veiled privilege of travelling the country and roaming free to the beat of pop trash’s fever dream.
One can experience pop music for the three and a half minutes that it gets on the air, but very few can say that they have actually lived and embodied it, let alone breathed the same air. Lyrics are lifestyles as these teens are bound to the unhibition of these hits, and they want to overpower society as the bass does when it rumbles through car speakers.
Music in this film also represents the living paradox that is America’s unsorted moral compass. For all the purity that it claims to preach, it only amounts to the ungodly contradictions that go beyond the blindsided trail of the dollar bill’s all-seeing eye. Nevermind the conspiracies of satanic messaging that are frivolously used by some staunch Christians to justify what they claim to be an absence of faith in secular media.
American Honey’s brief venture through the Bible belt manages to speak volumes about pop music’s superimposed influence on moral rebellion. If it isn’t already obvious, pop music’s influence on moral values coincide with the puritanical hyperbole of religion, at least in the case of white, Christian communities in the United States who examine the media’s influence a little too closely to come to the conclusion that resonating with secular media is an unforgivable sin.
So much so that one particular scene summates the rift between religion and resistance in the American South, in which Jake (Shia LaBoeuf) and Star (Sasha Lane) stumble upon a Christian mother’s skimpily clad daughter while attempting to make a sale. Alongside Jake’s strawman salespitch that riffs off of class trauma, the mother’s daughter poses as an equally present distraction that sets her off. Star eventually uses this simultaneous occurrence to justify her outspoken lack of empathy towards Jake’s abuse of power as a valid concern.
Ironically enough, Jake’s attempts at creating capital coincide with one of many possibilities as a result of building capital. We know that the devil has a hold of this woman’s daughter, or at least that’s what the visceral effect of a Ciara song does to her. We also know that it should be a crime for Jake to manipulate a traumatic situation into gaining profit. And we are no stranger to Christianity being this mother’s personality trait more than a true vocation.
But most of all, we are more than aware of the lengths that people go to in order to persuade people to become consumers within one branch of the same system that has already made consumers out of one’s children. While this woman’s daughter has absorbed herself within pop music’s temporary opportunity of personal transformation, her mother is briefly oblivious to the fact that her daughter has been sold on a marketed folly of personal freedom — the same folly of marketing that abuses traumatic narratives for personal profit; that turns bystanders into riders of the material beat, pun intended.
Much like what Xavier Dolan has attempted on multiple occassions, American Honey masterfully transforms the glitter-soaked dumpster fire of pop’s sound into audible art that reflects the state of the nation through a cinematic world that happens to be a stone’s throw away. Where Dolan has widened the scope of its use, Arnold perfects the agitpop needle drop in one of the film’s many perfectly soundtracked scenes.
As Star lets her two half-siblings wander into a K-Mart to find something to drink, she first encounters Jake, the rat-tailed salesman of her American dream. Their locked stare bursts open as Rihanna’s “We Found Love” blares in-store, and she is given a glimpse of the mag crew’s spirit as cemented by dance, and the importance of a traditional high.
Given the song’s chorus in the context of the film, it also serves as an introduction to the film’s overarching theme of preserving self-worth. It sets up three interpretations that dictate the sprawling essence of American Honey, foreshadowing the widened landscapes of the American South that go beyond mere glimpses of nearly deserted parking lots:
- One’s love for the nation in spite of its hopelessness (the state of the nation is by all means irredeemable)
- The love of money in spite of the hopelessness of working to live under capitalism
- Love itself in the hopelessness of pursuing love in spite of class trauma, and its ability to destroy self-worth
Not only does pop music exist as the foundation of voicing the youth’s underlying desperation, but it speaks for the reality of their voicelessness. It holds a mirror up to the ways in which their feelings and attitudes are dictated, and all of this in accordance with their identity as pop music’s public residue — the cross-section between middle class white America and the classlessness of pop-fed American youth.
As a result, pop music is not only attuned to the rampant hedonism that occurs within the mag crew, but unites these teens with a disintregrating America as the foundation of this film’s world. Every track on this seemingly neverending mixtape is practically rooted in the film, and quite literally given that they all have a visibly traceable source.
While each working as uniquely intristic pieces of the film’s core, the film’s use of music blurs the lines of non-diegetic and diegetic sound. The music may be out in the open, but its listeners are forever trapped inside their heads. This film exemplifies the search for the American dream, as conducted by Billboard’s bittersweet symphony.
Perhaps the ultimate takeaway from all 22 needle drops that occur in this film is its alleviation of an ideology that summates the backbone of a functioning America in all of its Top 40 glory: the illusion of freedom.