Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Who Do You Think You Are?

There’s a song being played on the “Hits” pop station I’m forced to listen to when my kids are along for the ride (almost always). It’s called “American Girl” and it’s sung by Bonnie McKee. The opening lyrics include this:
“We talked about our dreams and how we would show ‘em all,”
and it got me thinking about John Adams and the American Revolution (as these things do), and I wondered which “’em” McKee’s talking about. Who did a California-born white girl who attended a private school in Seattle and had her first recording contract at age 16 have to “show” anyway, and where did she get this antagonistic attitude? Obviously, in the case of Adams and his revolutionary counterparts, the initial “’em” was England, dominator and unfair taxer of tea, and later, “’em” would be France, the Netherlands—anyone who needed to be showed that we were, in fact, a country and perhaps an eventual power to be reckoned with.*

Later in "American Girl," McKee sings about “taking over the world”—again, I’m unclear exactly how she means this but I’m pretty sure it has to do with money and the Billboard charts. Are we all born with a chip on our shoulder, this distinctly American, underdog persona that manifests as a need to prove worth or dominance? This seems to be a common complaint by non-Americans, our sense of entitlement. Does it help to think that it comes from an insecure place?
I’ve also been watching several episodes of a new show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” An overt yet well-made advertisement for, each hour-long episode follows a celebrity as they discover information about their family tree. Because of my own experiences with searching for family, I’m always interested in this kind of stuff. I like the personal stories, like when Christina Applegate cleared up some family lore about her paternal grandmother and was able to share it with her father, who never knew his mother. But the more historical angles are interesting too, if you can stomach Cindy Crawford being a descendant of Charlemagne.

Several of the celebrities are motivated by a desire to find out something about themselves, some genealogical trace of their own characteristics, some explanation of their talents or inclinations. Kelly Clarkson’s great-great-great grandfather was a Union soldier who survived prison camp and eventually became a senator and she was certain that she inherited a tendency toward “standing up for what she believed” from him. Coming from a family of non-artists, actor Jim Parsons was ecstatic to find a grandfather (six or seven greats back) who was an architect to King Louis XV.

Can we credit non-tangibles to heredity, things like work ethic or artistic leanings? How true are certain stereotypes about nationalities? Are these feelings taught or genetically inherited? I really have no idea, but it's interesting to think about. And I’ve got a strong feeling John Adams would have something to say about it (after talking to Thomas Jefferson, no doubt).

*By way of explanation, I’m currently watching the 8-hour HBO miniseries on Adams and read the biography for my book club. So I pretty much have an Adams lens (WWAD) on everything right now.


  1. As I've already told you, I loved the John Adams biography, as well as the mini-series. I actually sobbed at the end of the book, even though I knew the historical facts. What a great story about friendship, alongside all the other themes.

    You've posed some interesting questions here, and I'm sure John Adams would have plenty to say!

  2. Also, I think traits do run in families. I have my own personal experiences to provide evidence. I didn't meet my biological father until I was an adult, yet I found we both had a lot in common--things my stepfather didn't share. Don't know if I'd claim to have the same traits as my distant relatives, but things are passed down over many generations, like immunity to the certain diseases (the Plague and smallpox). However, I believe both nature and nurture play a big role on who we become.

  3. I agree with you, Janet. Some things pass down, but both N's form us. I've always thought studies on separated siblings were very interesting. John Adams would probably say no matter what you're given in life, your duty is still to your country ;).

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  5. ...and I can't believe I forgot to mention the circular awesomeness of my line of reasoning. Turns out Jim Parsons's great-great-etc. grandfather, the architect, was somewhat of a French revolutionary and at some point, hosted Ben Franklin and Adams in his home, where they were no doubt conspiring about rebellions and perhaps, the inherited rights of man...


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka