The stuff I got'll bust your brains out.
—Robert Johnson, blues singer.
(Swans - November 29, 2010) A young man hurriedly buys Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd and leaves the bookshop hotfoot in pursuit of an attractive girl. A few minutes ago they were both in a used-book shop and he heard her ask for the novel. It's a coup de foudre; he fell in love at first sight. Now he hands her the brand new book and tries to say something amusing. But the girl actually wanted a second-hand copy and fires back: "Your jokes suck. Straight out of a sit-com..."
The repartee is run of the mill, except that the scene comes from a 2008 Turkish film, Issiz Adam (Lonely Man), directed by Çagan Irmak, and the girl's line reads: Çok kötü espriler yapiyorsunuz. Boyle tam sitkom seyleri...
Languages differ, but a sit-com is a sit-com wherever you go, just like a burger, a coke, a baseball cap, or a rapper's rhyme. Who on earth ignores the reality of Mickey Mouse, Elvis Presley, or Spiderman? Taggers in Rome sign every wall like would-be Keith Harings, maybe dreaming of one day becoming as famous as Jean-Michel Basquiat. Andy Warhol's prophecy of fifteen minutes' fame on the contemporary mass media stage for each and every one of us has become a promise we all expect to be fulfilled, whether we live in the USA or elsewhere.
American pop culture has spread over most of the world. Turkey and Italy are just two examples of countries with an ancient local tradition where American songs, sit-coms, and quirks of lifestyle have taken root. To gauge the influence of American pop culture we might muse on the case of Indian author Vikas Swarup. His first novel Q & A (2005) told of the incredibly lucky performance of a young Mumbai Untouchable in the local version of the TV quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? ("Kaun Banega Crorepati?"). Danny Boyle afterward brought the story to the big screen with fanfare as Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
Although an entire book, if not an encyclopaedia, would hardly exhaust the subject, let's for the moment reduce it to a couple of questions: 1) What has made the impact of American culture so great universally during the 20th century, and 2) Will the country's present weakening of economic and political muscle see the slackening of American cultural influence?
There is no question that engagement and victory in WWII propelled North American culture worldwide. Old Europe did pretty well in the 19th century. Genius appeared in German philosophers, French painters, Russian novelists, Italian composers of opera, and British imperial officers -- not to mention figures like the Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queirós, the Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu, the Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla, and hundreds more. But in the 20th century Europe saw a double self-inflicted massacre, 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, fuelled by heinous racist ideologies, fearsome new weapons, and fortunes gathered at the expense of Africa and other imperial treasure troves.
The United States was not only victorious in both World Wars, but also sent West and East its pulsating pop culture. This turned out to be one of the American empire's most powerful means of control. We may be frightened by nuclear power, but we are in love with Superman and jack-o'-lanterns on Halloween. American pop culture proved to be the most effective soft power of the 20th century. We could almost say that East Berliners in 1989 tore down the wall in the first place to buy blue jeans, rock music records, and American-style burgers.
In my country, Italy, the United States has been considered supremely à la page -- cool -- by almost everyone since the 1940s. It's significant that Benito Mussolini tried for twenty years (1922-1943) to keep Italy free from American cultural influence. All the same his son Romano (1927-2006) made a career in jazz music, playing piano with artists such as Duke Ellington, Chet Baker, and Dizzie Gillespie.
How long will the world's love affair with US pop culture last? Another anecdote will bring us closer to an answer: In 1924 the already illustrious Austrian doctor Sigmund Freud received the visit of Samuel Wilder, an eighteen-year-old apprentice journalist. The young man asked Freud what he thought about Mussolini and Fascism. But the good doctor distrusted newspapers and got rid of the pesty youth in a hurry. They were both Jews. In 1933 Wilder, even if not savvy in psychoanalysis, was clever enough to understand that Austria was no longer a safe place for him. He fled to the U.S. where he changed his name to Billy. (His mother on her visit to America had been infatuated with Buffalo Bill!) Wilder, of course, became the successful Hollywood director of Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Some Like It Hot).
The Billy Wilder story underlines the fact that people from all over the world contributed to American pop culture. Joe Di Maggio came from Italy, blues and jazz from Africa, hamburgers from Hamburg in Germany. The English language furnished the glue that kept the countless fragments together. But it wasn't for want of originality that North Americans built their culture in such a way: It was rather a result of their self-confidence and an awareness of their power. We can compare the process to the creation of classic Latin literature, which was the work of authors strongly influenced by Greek culture who were not natives of Rome (with the unique exception of Julius Caesar), but came from all over the empire, from Spain to Syria.
American pop culture is not a national but a global product. It's so sure of itself that it can embody lethal attacks against the American establishment and the much vaunted American way of life. I'm thinking for example of grunge music from Seattle in the 1990s, or recent movies like Charlie Wilson's War. No wonder it has been so popular all over the world for half a century and more. Even in Germany, the man in the street, not to speak of kids at school, feels closer to Elvis Presley than to Richard Wagner.
Now that The Decline of American Empire is giving way to The Barbarian Invasions, if not directly to Days of Darkness -- to quote the titles of French-Canadian Denys Arcand's movie trilogy -- will American pop culture follow the same path, the same Sunset Boulevard? I can't, you see, make my point without using the idiom and stage properties of American pop.
The U.S. will resist its decline with all its might. I say this even if the success of political movements like the Tea Party's in 2010 makes me think of a farmer who hopes to restore his burnt-over land by burning it again. His pugnacious reaction only furthers his own decline and paradoxically adds to the catastrophe. But US pop culture will surely resist its own decline far more effectively.
The reason is quite simple. Not India, nor China, nor South America has developed a popular culture of worldwide reach able to replace what America has given us. Ancient Indian literature, the tradition of Chinese science, or modern South American music surely have immense intrinsic value, but at the same time, because so closely linked to national values, they can't match the universal appeal of US pop culture. It's this planetary penetration that has sometimes convinced foreign political leaders to shut down certain Internet providers in order to prevent their citizens from hobnobbing in a world village square. But pop culture has always come out victorious, and it isn't easy to stop a winner. Ketchup is undoubtedly an Indian sauce, but only after Americans put it on their French fries (a British recipe) did ketchup become a universally known condiment or, we could say, a pop sauce.
My guess is that so long as Turkish rappers keep hammering out rhymes and Italian boys continue to cover their arty haircuts with Holden Caulfield baseball caps, American pop culture will keep the music going in cyberspace even while the country's clout, along with that of the West, diminishes at home and abroad. A time will probably come when a Chinese filmmaker will direct an anti-Chinese movie and distribute it (on broad band Internet?) at home and all over the world. Then we shall all understand that something has really changed, and not only in pop culture.
In the meantime let's sing along, as Langston Hughes did in Dream Boogie. The poet was meditating on American pop art.
Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
You'll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—
It's a happy beat?
Listen to it closely;
Ain't you heard
What did I say?
Take it away!
The author thanks Peter Byrne for his help.
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About the Author
Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio. (back)