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“American” Culture

February 28th, 2007 · 3 Comments

I somehow missed this earlier, but Tyler Cowen has a piece in the International Herald Tribune noting that American cultural products don’t enjoy the kind of monopoly on global attention spans some imagine. Now, while it may hearten those who spend sleepless nights worrying about “cultural imperialism” or creeping homogenization, some of the data he reports just strikes me as evidence of parochialism:

The Indian music market is 96 percent domestic in origin, in part because India is such a large and multifaceted society….Many smaller countries have been less welcoming of cultural imports. It is common in Central America for domestically produced music to command as much as 70 percent of market share. In Ghana, domestic music has captured 71 percent of the market, according to Unesco figures.

I guarantee that a less than 96 percent of the music I listen to is by American artists—I’d actually be surprised if it were much more than 70 percent—and there’s a hell of a lot more quantity and variety produced in the U.S. than in Ghana or Honduras. A more apt comparison might be if 70 percent of the music I listened to were from DC/VA/MD artists. They’re probably a disproportionate fraction, since I’ll often start listening to a local band I’ve encountered via a live show, but there’s no way they make up more than about 10 percent. (Count opera and it might even be below 90 percent anglophone.) If it were as high as 70 or 96 percent, most people would (justly) shake their heads at my sadly narrow exposure. Shouldn’t it be just as unfortunate if Ghanans or Goans or Guatemalans are missing out on what the rest of the world produces?

I also wanted to follow up on this point, which looms a lot larger in Tyler’s books:

“American” cultural products rely increasingly on non-American talent and international symbols and settings. “Babel,” which won this year’s Golden Globe award for best drama, has a Mexican director and is set in Morocco, Japan and Mexico, mostly with non-English dialogue.

I think a big part of the success of American culture has to do with the way it relentlessly absorbs (or, if you prefer, co-opts) talent and ideas from other places, so much so that it seems increasingly inapt to even talk about culture in terms of national origin, as though the political boundaries within which some product was first released told us something especially significant about its character. Take a look a couple of the other nominees in major Oscar categories. For Best Actor, you’ve got three Americans, a Canadian, and an Irishman. For Best Actress, three Britons (one of Russian origin), a Spaniard, and an American. (Tangent: How on earth did Penelope Cruz get a nom for her passable performance in Volver, with no corresponding Supporting Actress nod for Blanca Portillo, who made Cruz look like some amateur hour runner-up?) For Best Director, we’ve got two Britons and two Americans—one of the latter being Martin Scorcese, whose major influence is usually cited as being Italian neo-realism by way of a Bengali filmmaker. The composers nominated for Best Score were two Americans, a Spaniard, a Frenchman, and an Argentine. But because Hollywood studios (in most cases) stamped their logos on the finished product, they were all working on “American films.” That label seems increasingly not to tell you a whole lot of interest.

Tags: Art & Culture



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Reality Man // Mar 2, 2007 at 12:35 am

    I have to ask myself what role language plays in all of this. If you’re from Kazakhstan and only speak the native language, won’t you prefer to mostly listen to music you can understand? We have the benefit of understanding British, Canadian, Australian, etc. artists without being bilingual. If an artist wants to go international, they have to translate their work into English. Some, like Ricky Martin and Shakira, have to become caricatures of how Americans view Latinos, which is far removed from how they showed themselves in Puerto Rico and Colombia.

    Elitism also plays a role. How much money did Babel make again? Elites are more likely in any society to be cosmopolitan than the common man (which is one reason I could never understand how elites could embrace cultural Marxism). Is this a manifestation of the greater wealth of American elites compared to the average person in Ghana?

  • 2 JM Arouet // Mar 5, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    Anglo-Sachsia 15 – The rest of the World 4. What was your point again?

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Mar 6, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    “Unaffected by the irrelevant comment above,” among other things.