Less than two weeks old, and millions have watched, and countless words have already been written about Rihanna’s new song, American Oxygen. But everything I’ve read so far doesn’t seem to get it, at least the way I interpret it. As the song unfolded for me, I saw something about American pride. That felt problematic for me as I tend to not be so jingoistic, and it felt odd to see an immigrant from Barbados raising the American flag so high.
But the images of American exceptionalism were soon paired with the other side – Wall Street and America’s financial strength got matched with Occupy Wall Street and the UC Davis cop casually pepper spraying protesters, Martin Luther King Jr. is joined with police beating blacks and other protesters today around Ferguson. Then there were the heartbreaking images of 9-11 and the fire fighters and police officers bravely carrying out the rescues and clean up. There were also the images of America’s military and its bravery which were joined with pictures of police brutality. Throughout, pictures of children of all stripes leap out of the frame.
Ultimately, what I think Rihanna is trying to say is that America is this big beautiful complicated mess of a place. That is our identity – our extremes. And these polar opposites are what make us exceptional – those amazing feats of bravery, our ingenuity, and all the other amazing parts including our ability to speak out and protest and make change, our complicated relationship to immigration, our sometimes overzealous police, our complicated racial politics – all of this is what makes up America. And maybe one day, Rihanna seems to be saying, those children will fulfill the American promise.