America's cultural role in the world today
American + culture. Many people in the world believe these two words do not really belong together. The stereotype of the clueless and uncultured American runs deep – and not just abroad. It is part of American culture itself – a kind of “in your face” pride at being down-to-earth and everyday. The common man and woman with common tastes have been celebrated in America since its independence. At the same time, the sophisticated and “highfalutin” tastes of the upper classes have been viewed with satire and disdain. That is why it is a bit of a paradox that American culture has become the world’s most widespread and influential today. Indeed, it has become so powerful and ever-present that some fear it may actually damage their own national cultures.
The basis for the impact is, of course, America’s position as the world’s dominant superpower. Not only does the USA have “hard power” – the ability to get people to do what it wants. It also has enormous “soft power” – the ability to get people to want what it does. This is true even today, although the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016 has made many people around the globe feel less positive towards the culture of the United States.
It was not always so. Before the 20th century, America was viewed as a cultural backwater. At that time the “American Dream” was the USA’s greatest cultural export to the world – an open-ended inspiration into which millions poured their own dreams and hopes for a better life. It was around the time of the First World War that things began to change, that America first began to export some of its home grown culture abroad through films and music. Charlie Chaplin and “Westerns,” ragtime and jazz became familiar to millions outside the country. It was not until after the Second World War, however, that the flood gates really burst. The rise of the consumer economy and the “American lifestyle” in the 1950s had a terrific impact on the world when American popular culture went global.
The English language
In the 1800s the American author Mark Twain once remarked, “There is no such thing as the 'Queen’s English'. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares.” Today, close to 70% of all native English speakers are American, dwarfing all other groups. A constant stream of American TV, films, songs, computer games and websites have spread American words and expressions far beyond its borders. Perhaps the most obvious example is the expression “OK”, adopted by languages everywhere. Through sheer volume American English has gradually replaced the British variety as the accepted international standard. In fact, it has even made inroads into British English itself, replacing words like “stupid” with “dumb”, “angry” with “mad”.
It is the young who are particularly likely to pick up American slang through songs, films and TV. And not everyone is happy about this. Many view the kind of language that rappers and other popular artists use as obscene and vulgar, but as they say in America “that comes with the territory”. Much of American popular culture shoots for the lowest common denominator, and sometimes that can be very low indeed. On the other hand, American English and culture provide a common channel of communication and point of reference for people all over the world. An estimated two billion speak some form of English, and most of those have the American variety as their model. Now that is cultural influence.
Turn on the radio, check the TV listings or go straight to Netflix or HBO, look what’s playing at the local cinema, pull out a computer game or just go to Facebook or Twitter – do any of these things and within a short time you will run into American cultural influence. Why does America have such reach in these media? One answer is market. The United States has a domestic market of over 300 million people in addition to a potential global market of more than two billion English speakers. That means Americans can profitably produce a great many TV programs, films, songs, computer games and other products for use at home and then export the same programs abroad at very low prices. No other country has this advantage in both numbers and language.
Another reason is innovation. It is often in the United States that new forms of communication have either been invented or perfected. TV broadcasting is a good example of this. In the 1950s American TV networks created a multitude of new program types including game shows, soap operas, mystery shows, westerns and, of course, situation comedies (sit-coms) that were later exported internationally. Later, cable TV expanded the variety and quality of American shows creating such international best sellers as The Sopranos, House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. And it also set the foundation for the first international news network, CNN (Cable New Network). Perhaps the easiest example to recognize is the phenomenal rise in the use of personal computers and the internet (including social media) over the last decades. Both were pioneered in the US and eventually spread world wide, carrying American cultural influences with them. One wit went so far as to claim that cyberspace was American territory – an exaggeration, but only barely.
Yes, economics and innovation have their place in the story, but so does style and quality. The fact is that American programming is popular. It successfully appeals to the emotions and interests of a global audience. American sit-coms or dramas have made fans around the world because they stick to the basics – they portray regular people everyone can recognize and identify with, however dramatic or fanciful the situation they may find themselves in. American culture celebrates the commonplace, the average, the universal and as a result it has gained a universal audience.
America’s cultural influence through movies has been particularly strong. Just the word “Hollywood” itself conjures up visions of movie stars and Oscar nights and Western gunslingers getting ready for the shootout. Motion pictures may not have been invented in the US, but modern movies were perfected there. The figures are imposing. Despite the successes of non-American films like the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit movies, Hollywood has continued to dominate the European cinema circuit in the 21st century, representing over 60% of the movies shown. In comparison, European films have little impact in America, taking no more than 5% of the market. As digital players like Netflix, HBO and Amazon press for the right to stream into the European market, European film-makers, and cultural policy-makers, fear for the future of their own film industries.
One interesting effect of the dominance of American culture in films and other media is that many people who have never been to the country nonetheless feel they have a good idea of what it is like to live there. The stereotypes that American film and TV sell to their domestic public become the stuff of international opinion. For example, the action heroes of movies like the Rambo and Die Hard series are regularly referred to when discussing American foreign policy. Equally, people may feel that they know what it is like to live in New York after seeing several years of episodes of Sex in the City or Girls. Depending on what you watch, you can easily conclude that most Americans are gun-happy or girl-happy or simply slap-happy. And, as much as these stereotypes may annoy Americans when they travel abroad, they have only themselves to blame for spreading them around the world.
American literature spans too great a range to be quickly summed up, but American authors are certainly well-liked in popular literature today. Names like Stephen King, Anne Tyler, Michael Crichton, Jacqueline Susann, John Grisham, Toni Morrison, Dan Brown, Gillian Flynn and Alice Walker dot paperback book stalls the world over, both in English and in translation. Here, however, Americans must share the limelight with authors from many other nationalities, not least the British.
If anything can characterize American literature in general it might be, first – that it began to make a serious impact internationally only after the First World War with authors like Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost and John Steinbeck. Secondly – that at the heart of many of the best American works of fiction can be found individualists, misfits and social outcasts who view American society with varying degrees of disapproval and distrust. Beginning with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, American authors have used fiction to criticize and poke fun at American society, trying to force it to live up to the ideals it so often claims it stands for. Overall, this may have given the world a somewhat darker view of American society than it deserves, but once again the Americans can hardly complain. They are their own worst critics.
It is no exaggeration to say that American popular music conquered the world in the 20th century. The list is impressive – ragtime, blues, jazz, big band “swing”, country & western, rhythm & blues, rock & roll, hip-hop & rap. All these forms of music have swept across the globe, most recently through international systems of music distribution established by TV stations and internet downloads and later streaming services. There is little point in reeling off a list of internationally famous American music stars. The really interesting thing about this phenomenon is that it long ago grew beyond it roots and became international in scope.
Starting with the Beatles in the 1960s many of the greatest talents in rock'n'roll haven’t even been American. American music has been re-imported into America with new sounds and impulses, creating a creative dialogue with the world. And it’s not just rock, pop and jazz. Rap has been adopted as a style of musical expression across the world. Even the entries in the popular Eurovision Song Contest held annually are now sung in American English and heavily influenced by American music.
Not that America lacks important composers, directors, musicians or symphony orchestras. It need not bow to anyone in quality or quantity. Classical music thrives in the United States, but it still cannot hold a candle to the scope and power of its popular music. Once again the genius of American culture lies in its close connection to the average citizens who make up its population, to their common touch and the common taste.
As in literature, American influence came late to the international art scene. It wasn’t until the disasters of the Second World War had thrown artists and impulses across the Atlantic that the United States became a center – some would say, the center – for modern art. New York City came to rival Paris as a hub of new artists and art forms. In the 1950s and early 1960s American painters like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were at the forefront of the Pop Art movement – short for Popular Art, a fitting name for America’s entrance onto the international art scene. Lichtenstein’s enormous reconstructions of cartoon images and Warhol’s endless lines of Marilyn Monroe portraits and Campbell Soup cans became icons of American art. Jackson Pollock’s wildly experimental work inspired abstract expressionist painters around the world. Susan Rothenberg’s return to figurative imagery added yet another voice to the mix.
In sum, America added its creativity and energy to the cutting edge of art, a position it has never relinquished. Today’s modern artists belong to a global community and it is impossible to sort them out by nationality. But America remains at the center of activity not least because of its wonderful art collections and museums dotted across the nation. Some of the most important of these are the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. Artists have always needed patrons to buy their work. The United States remains their greatest source of patronage.
Oddly, for a country that loves spectator sports and spends enormous amounts of money on games, the United States has not made all that great an impact on the world of international sports. Of course, it continues to make an impact at track and field events at the Olympics and puts in a good show in winter sports, as well. But when it comes to international sports contests, the US is often a world to itself.
There are two reasons for this. First, two of the most popular games in the country are played almost nowhere else – baseball and American football. Both share common roots with the more international British games of cricket, rugby and football (excuse me, soccer) – but they have developed in their own separate ways in North America. The second reason was just mentioned – soccer. Americans do not play it much. Up to now, the world’s most popular sport has been a no-starter in the US. Yes, a new Major League Soccer (MLS) confederation was set up in 1996. Yes, the fading stars of European and South American soccer often choose to end their careers in the MLS, and the US team have done well in several World Cups, such as in Brazil in 2014. But it is not the first time this has been tried in the States. Two soccer leagues have come and gone since 1921, leading one wit to remark that “Soccer is America’s coming sport, and always will be.” So, it remains to be seen if America will now join the rest of the world in the “beautiful game”.
Or maybe this is the wrong perspective to view the question from. Perhaps the change will come in the opposite direction, with Europe and the world adopting American games. It has happened before. Basketball was invented in the US and is a global sport today. Come to think of it, there is now an American football league in Europe. Can baseball be far behind? Certainly the last sixty years have shown American culture in all its forms to be an extremely exportable commodity. With its vast resources, energy and ability to appeal to common tastes, American culture looks ready to remain “in your face” for many, many years to come. Baseball, anyone?