The American cultural identity transpires from the body of the cultural output this nation has produced and spread all over the globe. The rich output reflects the general characteristics of the country’s ongoing reinvention and redefinition, which are part of what makes the American cultural scene a highly representative and dynamic construction. A brief survey of examples shows to what extent American popular culture -anchored in the desire to affirm its cultural identity- has penetrated the world. Therefore, this essay is going to show that although American popular culture has a rather short history, compared with the European one, it nevertheless captures the spirit of the American nation and goes along with the significant evolution that America has known.
The economical prosperity of the U.S. determined powerful cultural industries that commercialize America’s popular culture. The latter’s spread depends on three main globalizing forces: trade and international commerce, media and communication technology, and arts and language. They are behind the rise of the consumer economy and the American lifestyle which, in turn, are having intense effects on different nations around the world. Large scale transnational companies and multinationals such as Walmart, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, or Microsoft spread out their manufacturing industries in many parts of the world in order to mass produce their products or services, and transport them all over the globe for mass consumption. American popular culture is consumerist by nature as it lures its target audiences to consume its material goods.
Media and communication technology in general have enabled cultural products to circulate more freely between the different corners of the world. With the rise of the internet, and advertisements both through television channels and social media, American popular culture became more diffuse. Singers as well as the general public qualify a song not with its artistic essence but rather through the number of views it makes on social media like Youtube and Facebook. Besides, most internet users rely themselves on search engines such as Google or Bing to research information. According to Internet Live Stats, the number of searches on Google approximates 3.5 billion per day. This might indicate the intensity which American popular culture has reached; it has evolved from a traditional product to be consumed a single time to a cornerstone product to be depended on continually.
Any cultural identity is lost without a firm presence of language. The English language provides a communication channel between America and the world. On the one side, the worldwide spread of the English language has tremendously paved the way for American movies, music, and books to be understood. American cultural goods enjoy a widespread popularity overseas, and thus shape the international opinion. Jens Ulff-Møller claims in his book « Film Wars With France: Film-Trade Diplomacy and the Emergence of the French Film Quota Policy » that « American films [back in the 1920s] did not merely supplant European productions, but increased the total number of available films by 200%-300%. » (Ulf-Møller) Besides, U.S. movies in 1987 represented 56% of European film market. Nowadays, however, American movies account for around 70% of European box-office sales every year. As recorded by the Theatrical Market Statistics, American-made movies unlock the first spot of films shown in Europe by 64%. In contrast, European films shown in the U.S. hover around 3%. According to the French CNC, American films reached €747.7 million in revenues in 2016. In contrast, European films’ revenue is €125.9 million. Ultimately, the number of feature films released in U.S. cinemas starts with around 110 movies in 1980 and enduringly grows to reach 736 movies in 2016. The drastic increase in the number of movie production per year reflects the global reach of American popular culture in cinemas, and speaks for its impressive extension over other cultural spheres.
On the other side, popular culture markets the American mindset and lifestyle to « sensitive » massive audiences. Typically, young people tend to believe what is shown to them, and out of a lack of insight and common sense, they are excitedly ready to any call for action. The artifacts of popular culture get the masses « programmed. » (Brown) Originally, popular culture, as the name indicates it, is addressed to the public. It is therefore intended to suit their general taste and understanding -an everyday entertainment of some kind. But via its simplicity, it articulates its mindset, and communicates it by connecting the masses to redefined ideas. Thus it shapes their inner thoughts and beliefs.
« [Music choruseses] used repeatedly in adverts, soundtracks and trailers. It is enjoyed in isolation, and in its own right; there are doubtless people who have never heard the full verses. The song can be decomposed without loss of meaning — its moments can be pulled out, and re-used. In contrast, the [American] culture industry trains us to focus on minute intervals of time and content, dulling our ability and willingness to experience artworks as unified, complex objects. » (Owen)
Martha Bayles, a professor of humanities at Boston College, claims in a television interview that “During the Cold War, the government sponsored jazz tours and jazz broadcasts » to deliver to the world a new and appealing image of America. « In the end of the Cold War, » she continues « Rock music […] galvanized young people in the eastern block to be more rebellious and subversive. » However, she comments later on that contemporary American popular culture seeks to attract mass attention, and therefore develops « [an accentuated] libertine notion of freedom, » which eventually removes its artistic originality. On the over-sexualization of music industry, she opines: « I don’t think American popular music has the same cache that it used to have and it is partially because we cranked up the sexual heat […]. » Indeed, American culture has become a commercial undertaking. In its attempts to shape the international opinion through its pleasantness, it transformed itself from a form of art to a commodity.
The worldwide scope American popular culture has reached could also be measured through different yet interrelated realities. The far beyond imaginable borders widespread has led to a sort of « homogenization » of cultures, for that people from different parts of the world eat, dress, greet, react, and communicate in the same way. This puts an end to cultural diversity, and acknowledges the potential of a dominant culture to dilute local cultures. Furthermore, following the theory of Cultural Imperialism, the domination of one culture favors it as a point of reference to development and progress. Local cultures are hence minimized and perceived as undeveloped, and this leads to their ruination. For instance, a non-American would prefer to take his girlfriend to a McDonald than to a local fast-food restaurant because he might see in McDonald the stamp of American sophistication and advancement he does not find in his local fast-food restaurant. In the same way, and by degrees, people start to integrate typically American ethics into their own lives, and this serves as a stepping stone for America to gain political influence, and at length, to install stronger diplomatic ties to assist the progress of its political agenda. Globalisation not only spreads a totally unrivalled American popular culture but also helps implant America’s economic, political, and cultural ideals across geographical boundaries. Many observers consider Globalization as an outlet to « Americanize » the world, since the U.S. is by far the largest producer of a wide ranging set of cultural goods.
Globalizing forces are pouring in the American popular culture to the world, and inserting within it many aspects of America’s civic culture, so much so that people become obsessed with America. For example, people from different parts of the world closely follow U.S. news and affairs. The worldwide coverage of Trump versus Hillary competition to Presidency might present the best example. A wit went too far to suggest that the world should vote with the Americans since they are concerned about America’s diplomacy, political decisions and foreign policies more than Americans themselves.
What would best demonstrate that the U.S. has globalized its popular culture is perhaps that people from different continents who have never been to the U.S. already have a thorough idea of how American houses, streets, schools look like. This is not startling because U.S. televisions such as FOX and CNN have started only for home viewers but are now reaching millions of houses and territories across the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Exporting American popular culture to the world helped America not only shape the international opinion but also present a modified image of itself in the post-World Wars period and gain political influence over several countries.
Perhaps, the global reach of American popular culture would be best summed up in the words of former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell who noticed that « images of America are so pervasive in this global village that it is almost as if instead of the world immigrating to America, America has emigrated to the world, allowing people to aspire to be Americans even in distant countries. »
- W3C. « Internet Live Stats — Internet Usage & Social Media Statistics. » Internet Live Stats — Internet Usage & Social Media Statistics, http://www.internetlivestats.com/. Accessed : 27.02.2018
- Bayles, Martha. « Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad. » New Haven : Yale University Press, 2014.
- Artsdesk. « Is American Popular Culture Swaying Public Opinion Abroad? » PBS News Hour, 5 June 2014, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/american-popular-culture-swaying-public-opinion-abroad. Accessed : 27.02.2018
- Ulff-Møller, Jens. « Hollywood’s Film Wars with France: Film-trade Diplomacy and the Emergence of the French Film Quota Policy. » Rochester : Rochester University Press, 2001.
- Brown, Justin. Former Facebook Executive : « You don’t realize it, but you are being programmed. » — Ideapod, 2017. Web. Accessed : 26/02/2018.
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- Hulatt, Owen. « Against Guilty Pleasures: Adorno on the Crimes of Pop Culture. » Aeon, Aeon, 4 Mar. 2018, http://www.aeon.co/essays/against-guilty-pleasures-adorno-on-the-crimes-of-pop-culture. Accessed : 27.02.2018