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Rainbow Girls’ ‘American Dream’ Reminds Us We’re More Than Our Bank Accounts

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a trio of women pose in front of a colorful foil backdrop
Caitlin Gowdey, Erin Chapin and Vanessa May are Rainbow Girls. (Courtesy of the artist)

Songs that straight-up tell you they’re about America are tricky. They can veer so easily into grandstanding or cliché. The ones that don’t — the songs that say something real and honest about the United States — are often sad and conflicted. Then we as listeners overlook those darker aspects in our collective memory in order to make said songs more easily enjoyable at 4th of July barbecues. This irony isn’t new.

What’s fresh about Rainbow Girls’ “American Dream” is how poignantly the North Bay trio captures the changing shape of this country’s broken promises — without soapboxing. This song knocks the wind out of me. Vulnerability, stubborn hope and deep, overwhelming grief all leak through the spaces between the words and the harmonies and the fingerpicked guitar.

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The band wrote “American Dream” five years ago; it’s the title track from an album they released November 8, 2017. When I first heard it — a year after the election that, fittingly, knocked the wind out of so many of us — it made me cry. It tapped so perfectly into that feeling of being robbed.

But of course I had also spent much of 2017 feeling stupid, and privileged, for thinking anything had ever been guaranteed. To those of us who graduated high school around 9/11 (kicking off decades of war) and entered the job market during a historic recession (all while basic costs of living continued to skyrocket), adult life had been one instance after another of the bottom dropping out. Why should we expect anything different?

Five years later, now with a live version and warm, intimate video recorded at the band’s Bodega home, this song still makes me cry — for all the same reasons and also some new ones.

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It’s nice to have a plan for growing old
Unfathomable luxury, a plan for growing old
It hits you all at once, then you wish that you’d been told
But circumstances change and then you’re kicked out in the cold
But everyone’s worth something and it’s not their weight in gold

A lot of people have downsized their dreams over the last few years. Forget a white picket fence and 2.5 children; try staying sober one more day, keeping your loved ones healthy or affording that next grocery run. In 2022, so many of us are trying to stay afloat on an increasingly flimsy life raft of sure things: Will it be safe to have a family holiday party next month? Will I be able to afford health care when I’m 65? Will it not matter, because the entirety of California will be on fire or under the sea or somehow both?

“American Dream” is a sad and conflicted song, to be sure. But it also now plays, to me, as quietly triumphant. Because against a backdrop of economic desperation and uncertainty, it becomes fundamentally beautiful to have dreams — to not only admit to them, but to nurture and share them.

The institutions have failed us. Home ownership is increasingly out of reach. This song reminds me that how we treat one another, and the small ways we bear witness to each others’ humanity and desire and grief — finding ways to say yes, you were here, your hopes meant something, you mean something — all of that is still very much up to us.

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