As much as we privilege patriotism in this country, asking someone what it means to be an American is an unfairly loaded question. For one, it ignores years of widespread and ongoing systematic oppression, stripping people of the spheres of identity. To identify as American in earnest, you must feel welcomed by the ruling class. Meaning, if you occupy even one sphere of minority—be it your gender, race, sexuality, or economic status—there’s a dissonance between yourself and your American identity. How do you align with a system of power existing to silence you? Can you? Should you?
These are the questions openly hounding Kevin Abstract across his two most recent albums, 2016’s American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story and 2019’s ARIZONA BABY. On both records, America is the clear antagonist of Abstract’s work. The country and its oppressive systems are characters in Abstract’s musical narrative—likely a reflection of his personal life. America provides the tension and hurdles, making Abstract’s music all too real, but also, all too revealing. To listen to Kevin Abstract is to, on some level, question your Americanness. From the titles and visuals to the content of standout songs, Kevin paints America as a wall he struggles to run through.
Take breakout album, American Boyfriend. In title alone, this album forces us to reassess our understanding of Americanness. Here, Abstract begins by subverting our expectations. When we think of the suburban All-American Boyfriend, we imagine a squeaky clean football player, alluded to across the album, and we imagine him with a squeaky clean, blonde cheerleader. This image is the iconography of an “ideal” America. There is no leading lady in Abstract’s narrative. When we realize our faux pas in assuming this would be a heteronormative narrative, we subsequently conflict with our conception of what Americanness looks like.
Borrowing from his real life, and relying on the imagery of the ‘burbs is an important touch. It allows Abstract to insert his narrative into the zeitgeist without so much as a sound. When we step into Kevin’s world, however, we find a much different reality. We see mothers abandoning their gay sons, of long nights hanging out with the boy you like and his girlfriend, just to experience some closeness.
We also find the reality of falling in love and it inviting violence into your life. For each coming out—that is, every time a queer couple chooses to so much as glance at each other lovingly in public—there is the threat of violence. Kevin captures all of this nuance, terror, confusion, and discomfort in his title. We quickly realize there is no peace in Kevin Abstract’s America. America itself is unsettling him. Just look at his solemn expression on the album’s cover.
His visuals, too, paint America as an antagonist. In the music video for “Miserable America,” subtlety is thrown out the window in place of direct and crucial messaging. Set in “Mr. Red’s Conversion Camp,” the video depicts Kevin, suspended, being forced to admire the woman’s form as if that could “turn him straight.”
Before we even get to Kevin, though, we see Mr. Red, who is the physical embodiment of our American antagonist. His white gloves suggest a racial component, as well. In this video, Kevin defines America as older, white, male, and wealthy. Sound familiar? The white gloves, too, suggest a notion of purity and cleansing, which harkens back to decades-old racist sentiments about bloodlines. In “Miserable America,” the message Abstract sends is clear: America as a character is his antithesis. It hates him; sees him as a monstrosity to be changed, not a soul to be loved.
The women in the video also raise an important note on intersectionality. These Black women forced to dance in Abstract’s face are apathetic, clearly bound to the camp in the same way Abstract is trapped. Interestingly, it is one of the women who reaches for the gun—the symbol of liberation in the video—and aims for Red. Though not pictured, we can assume the Black women freed Abstract, which reminds us that freedom must be an intersectional endeavor. The killing of Mr. Red forces us to question our place in American power structures. Are we more likely to take aim or be aimed at? Can we fashion ourselves into the gun? Is it moral to identify as American when in Abstract’s world—and in so many others’—America is this terrifying and sterilizing agent?
These questions, and this narrative arc for “Miserable America,” are not possible if Kevin Abstract leaves America as only a setting. “Miserable America, assassinate my character,” rings the first refrain. Lyrically, Kevin paints America as the one wielding the gun, which makes the visual turn-and-shoot even more meaningful. By animating the country’s sordid ideals, he brings to life the ugliest parts of the nation, ostensibly so we can face ourselves and be better.
Once freed, Kevin dances spastically to the chant, “I don’t care no more.” Free of his American antagonist, he no longer has to live a life confined. His liberation is endearingly jaunty and deliberate. By the end of “Miserable America,” Kevin has ascended beyond the trappings of what it means to be American, to stand tall in his light. Kevin’s freedom forces us to question our freedom. As long as we strive to identify as American as opposed to as ourselves, are we free, or are we playing into oppressive power structures? Judging by the way Kevin dances to close out the video, it seems freedom only comes by self-determinism.
Sonically, this reading is affirmed by the heavenly transition into “American Boyfriend,” where Kevin finds solace in his Otherness. He bats back against America, singing, “My parents wanna kill me, let ‘em kill me,” in response to the previous song’s lyric about his homophobic mother. Kevin is weaving a world where America is the villain, but not a successful one. The “let ‘em kill me” bar, in particular, carries with it a defiant air. As if to say, “See what I care.” We could not have gotten to this triumphant place, narratively speaking, without our American antagonist. But now that we are here, America as a villain feels small and conquerable. “I found my way,” he concludes, and we believe him.
The stunning arrangement of the American-themed songs continues on ARIZONA BABY, with “American Problem.” This sonic relationship suggests the song remains in the same canon, telling the same story, using the same motif. However, three years removed from the pain of being Othered all over “Miserable America” (“My mother's homophobic, I'm stuck in the closet;” “My boyfriend hates me, won't let me meet his parents”), Kevin Abstract appears untouchable.
“If I don't want to say sorry / Then n***a, I won't / Motherfuck a high road,” Abstract croons to open the cut. Gone is the young man scared of America and what it will do to him and his community. In his place stands a renewed Kevin Abstract, proud to be himself, taking up much-deserved space. Since his emancipation on “Miserable America,” Kevin is unstoppable. Thus, the title “American Problem” is a moment of reclamation: “I'm just another American problem, my n***a.” Here, Kevin is taking back the moniker of the problem and making it a point of pride. The “let ‘em kill me” energy is palpable.
Now, we have to consider what it means to be American under the context of “problem.” For Kevin, he has bested his American antagonist. To self-determine as an “American Problem” is to buck the traditional notion of what it means to be American, is to redefine Americanness in his image. That is the major takeaway of Kevin’s battle with America: The importance of identifying not as American, but as yourself against the backdrop of America.
For many, identifying as American is too fraught and paradoxical an exercise. What Kevin shows us is: You need not bask in any preconceived notion of Americanness. You are free to decide for yourself who you are. Kevin Abstract defines himself as an “American Problem” proudly. That may not be everyone’s solution, but it is a beautiful metaphor, a graceful way to circumvent the same antagonist once driving him to hate himself and stay in the closet.
Perhaps all of this is why Kevin goes from slumped on the cover of American Boyfriend to cheesing on the cover of ARIZONA BABY. Because he knows himself. Because he is finally happy.