Previous: 42 Amazing Maps
Next: Invalid Arguments: Climate Change



View count:411,290
Last sync:2023-01-21 17:00
In which John compares the Drake song "Started from the Bottom (Now We Here)" with Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, two American dream narratives that turn out to be significantly more complex and problematic than they initially seem.

Videos from the #tfiosmovie set will return next Tuesday, but I've been wanting to make this movie for months, because I am weird.

BY THE WAY, have you heard that my wife Sarah and I are working together on a new show called The Art Assignment produced and distributed by PBS Digital? It's true! Subscribe:

Thanks to Harley, PA on the set of The Fault in Our Stars, without whose sweet sweet Internet access I could never have uploaded this video.
Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.  So for the last few months, I have been working out a few times a week with a trainer named Sean and he has changed my life considerably.  Like I can now run six miles in under an hour, although all things being equal, I would still prefer not to.  Also, not to brag, I can now bench-press 100 pounds fifteen times in a row.  Which I believe, according to the law of transitive benching, means that I can bench-press 1500 pounds one time in a row.

Anyway I bring this up to explain why I've been listening to the Drake song "Started from the Bottom (Now We Here)" a lot recently.  It is an excellent song to run to.  Hank I'm not sure you're familiar with this song, fortunately 90 percent of its lyrics are in its title.  It's basically about how Drake started from the bottom and then he and his crew are now at the top.  

Meanwhile, I have also been re-reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.  Benjamin Franklin was a Founding Father of the United States and he invented the lightning rod and bifocals and started universities and fire departments and libraries.  He was a very interesting guy.  

And then recently it occurred to me, not to sound like a Comp. Lit. professor or anything, that Benjamin Franklin's autobiography and Drake's song "Started from the Bottom (Now We Here)" are really interesting and problematic to consider together.

Stay with me, first there are the superficial connections- they're both successful people's narratives about success.  Like Benjamin Franklin negotiated important treaties with the French, Drake says that there really ain't much poppin' off in the music industry without him.

Also both narratives are just a smidge repetitive, like the titular chorus of the Drake song appears like 35 times in three minuets.  And Benjamin Franklin, while he was a very talented guy and everything, overuses a lot of words.  Most notably "ingenious", I mean if you can read, Benjamin Franklin thinks you're ingenious.

But there are also much deeper connections.  So the most famous moment of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography is when he is kicked out of his apprenticeship in his hometown and then he lights out for the fair shores of Philadelphia, arriving with only one copper shilling and a dream.  He spends the copper shilling on three loaves of bread, two of which he gives to people who are less fortunate than he, and then fortified only by that single loaf of bread he builds a massive printing empire and becomes the Founding Father of America.

Benjamin Franklin's story is the American dream, of a rugged individual making his, or her, but usually his way to the top via nothing but hard work and ingenious-itosity.  Yeah, except that Benjamin Franklin didn't start from the bottom.  He was from a family of wealthy printers.  Aside from that famous copper shilling, he also took to Philadelphia a letter of recommendation from the governor of the colony.  And he was the right class and the right gender and the right race to become Benjamin Franklin.  Essentially the Benjamin Franklin story is "Started in the upper-middle then I really got very near the top, but George Washington's still a little bit above me.  I was close".
Similarly, Drake did not actually start from the bottom.  For one thing he is Canadian, which is arguably the best place to be born in the world today.  Also his mom is a teacher and furthermore, from a very early age, Drake had a lucrative gig as a cast member on the television program Degrassi - Degrassi?

Sarah- Degrassi.

Degrassi.  Sarah's here, by the way.

In short Hank, the success narratives we hear are almost always privilege narratives, and they almost never acknowledge that privilege.  Now Hank, none of this is to denigrate the accomplishments of Drake or Benjamin Franklin.  No other Degrassi alumni, for instance, are on the road making half a million for a show.  And no other person in the 18th century invented bifocals despite many people having Benjamin Franklin's privileges or even more privileges.

But the underlying idea of the self-made individual who heroically, on their own builds a successful career in music or business or writing or whatever is just deeply flawed and as long as we believe it, we will collaborate too little and judge others too often.  In the end Hank, while I'm probably a bigger fan of Benjamin Franklin I appreciate Drake's retelling of his own story more because while he says "started from the bottom" (which he didn't) he also says "now my whole crew is here".

Drake acknowledges, in a way Ben Franklin never does, that his success sprang from and was fueled by a "we".  And that's always the truth Hank.  I didn't develop this astonishing athletic body on my own.  Drake didn't make his success on his own.  Even Ben Franklin relied on English opticians to help invent the bifocal.

And speaking of how much I enjoy collaboration, Hank I'll see you on Friday.