Theorizing about U.S. Pop Culture

I just got back from an academic conference — No! don’t click away, I’m not going to talk about the conference, I promise!

Still with me?  Good.  There were lots of "Americanists" at the conference — German scholars who study North American culture and society.  Interesting to hear what these folks have to say.  They focus on aspects of American life and history that are distinctive to the US or particularly pronounced there, such as Indians, transcendentalists, the frontier, slavery, suburban life, media culture, the position of minorities, and how affluence shapes society.

Plus, of course, American popular culture.  Here’s an explanation of the popularity of American popular culture by one of Germany’s leading Americanists and cultural theorists, Winfried Fluck.  (German translation here).  After rejecting various explanations as too facile, Fluck argues that America simply developed an early lead in ‘popular culture’:

In the past, culture was tied to privilege and wealth. Until the 18th century, books were comparatively expensive; their ownership was limited largely to the propertied classes. Moreover, a certain educational grounding (such as knowledge of Latin or Greek) was necessary to make sense of most cultural objects.

The development of an "entertainment culture” around the turn of the 20th century, including vaudeville theater, amusement parks, a dance craze triggered by the domestication of black plantation dances, and silent movies, further reduced the prerequisites for cultural understanding. The invention of radio and television extended the audience for this new "mass” culture even more, and the shift to the priority of pictures and music created a "universal” language, not limited to a particular community.

For a number of reasons, America was in the forefront of this cultural revolution. Due to its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural composition, especially in the formative years of modern entertainment culture around 1900, American popular culture was faced with the challenge of a market that anticipated the present global market on a smaller scale. This led to the development of broadly comprehensible, non-verbal forms of performance, relying preferably on visual and auditory forms of expression. Before Americanization of other societies could occur, American culture itself had to be "Americanized.”

Americanization, indeed, is carried by the promise of heightened imaginary self-realization for individuals who are freed from the bonds of social norms and cultural traditions.

Americanization, thus, cannot be viewed as a tacitly engineered hidden cultural takeover but as a process in which individualization is the driving force. This process is most advanced in the US for a number of reasons. The promise of a particular form of individualization provides the explanation why American popular culture finds so much resonance in other societies where it has taken hold almost without resistance (mostly carried by a young generation trying to escape tradition).

American popular culture is thus popular across the world because it’s pitched at a modest intellectual level, not deeply embedded in a particular national tradition inaccessible to outsiders (unlike, say, Schlager), and conveys a message of individualism.  This strikes me as a pretty good explanation — especially since it’s very similar to what I hear from many Germans who are fans of some aspect of U.S. popular culture.

The one thing Iwould add is that the tone of U.S. popular culture is generally positive and life-affirming: think "Happy End." Even in mass-market television like Lindenstrasse or Tatort, things like terminal illness, alcohol, suicide, alienation, unemployment and family breakup are recurring themes.  European movies also feature characters who aren’t very bright, who have non-glamorous jobs, or no jobs at all.  The rare American TV shows — such as The Sopranos or Six Feet Under — that address dark themes without saccharine euphemisms or forced happy endings are usually praised as "daring" or "brutally honest," which shows how rare they are.

This, of course, is one of the main arguments European writers and filmmakers make in their favor — they don’t cover up the bleaker aspects of human life, and thus their movies and books and songs confront issues that superficial, focus-group-tested American pop culture rarely addresses.  I can see their point.  I have no problem with Fassbinder films or bleak Tatort episodes (as long as they’re leavened by more cheerful fare once in a while).  But then, I’m not a normal consumer of pop culture.  Most people have more than enough heartbreak, disease, and distress in their own lives. Sometimes, they go to the movies or turn on the radio not to be confronted with inequality or challenged by anbiguity, but to cheer themselves up and escape from their problems.  And much of U.S. pop culture is designed to do just that.

12 thoughts on “Theorizing about U.S. Pop Culture

  1. As to positive and life-affirming “happy end”: It always DID strike me that an ending is considered happy even if everybody besides the hero and maybe his love interest is murdered. I think the typical US movie plot glorifies again individualism (mostly it’s the largely lonesome hero against the rest of the world), whereas e.g. Bollywood movies are completely the opposite. A happy ending here consisting largely in harmony and mutually satisfying resolution of conflicts.

  2. I don’t have a problem as such with the escapists happy ending, German productions are full of them, especially TV-features. Not everything is Lindenstraße and Tatort! Didn’t you also write about this once? What drives me away from American mainstream entertainment are the actors/”characters”. I just can’t escape into a world where there are no poor, stressed or ugly people. Even simpler, no old people as well (except the usual one wise/weird old guy/gran and the one fat kid). How is that supposed to cheer you up? If I am already depressed from my daily problems, how could I escape into a world where every single inhabitant is richer and sexier than me? I know that this pop-culture is successfull, so apparently it works, I just don’t get it…

  3. “Americanization, indeed, is carried by the promise of heightened imaginary self-realization for individuals who are freed from the bonds of social norms and cultural traditions.”

    Two words: Minstrel shows!

  4. I suppose I’d posit that a fair bit of the most enjoyable aspects of American culture – particularly around the turn of the 20th Century – was the emphasis on ‘how’, rather than the continued explanation of ‘why’. Think of the world fairs, with their consistent emphasis on technology, or even action movies, which pose impossible physical situations resolved only with an improbable solution. Classical American culture (outside of novels, poetry and perhaps music) seems to simply approach the ‘how’ more often than the why. Maybe that is simply a traceback to the circumstance that some of America’s most influential sponsors of culture were industrialists, inventors and engineers.

  5. You can hear a similar lecture by Winfried Fluck on “Deutschland und die amerikanische (Populär)Kultur: Amerikanisierung als Selbstamerikanisierung” for free (.ogg format, should work with any audio player like Winamp or VLC).

    This was part of an open Ringvorlesung about the relationship between America and Germany and the remaining lectures are also still available, for instance Karsten D. Voigt’s ideas about German-American relationships, Gesine Schwan’s analysis of Anti-Americanism in Germany and Harald Wenzel’s arguments dealing with “Politainment” and the “Americanization” of politics in mass media.

  6. Interesting post. Thanks, Andrew.

    Fluck has good insights into transatlantic relations, especially that American society, by its multi-ethnic composition and early introduction of mass market production and consumption, paved the way for what is called “Americanization” but which has really become a global cultural phenomenon. This is a more nuanced view than the usual simplistic European view of American culture as an invading bacillus.

    Individual victory over massive social or industrial forces, a continuing leitmotif of the entertainment industry, is indeed often merely “the promise of heightened imaginary self-realization for individuals.” Its significance is that assertion of individualism in popular culture is primarily an illusion to pacify the masses, a Marcusian form of “repressive tolerance.” However, this is not always the case and American popular entertainment is often genuinely critical if not downright subversive.

    So I would disagree with you, Andrew, that “U.S. popular culture is generally positive and life-affirming.” The example of the U.S. film industry shows that since the late 60’s the tone has been pessimistic and the message critical of the political and commercial establishment (“Manchurian Candidate,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “All the President’s Men” et al. to the present day).

    As for current television, HBO productions like “Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Deadwood” are undeniably popular and acclaimed among Americans. They’re not marginal at all, as you seem to claim.

  7. Paul, I don’t know if you’re American, but you’re doing something I notice Americans doing a lot — you’re not asking which Americans like Six Feet Under and Sopranos, or The Manchurian Candidate or Bonnie and Clyde. The answer: well-educated, upper-middle class Americans living in large cities.

    These shows and movies are completely unknown to something like 90% of the inhabitants of the USA. Practically any book you might identify as “subversive” is going to count as literary fiction, and a literary fiction book is a bestseller if it sells over 25,000 copies. In a country of 300 million people.

    What counts as truly popular American culture is stuff like country music, “Die Hard III,” the Black-Eyed Peas, NASCAR, “Guiding Light,” sermons by popular preachers, and the Left Behind books and movies. The “Left Behind” books are a thousand times more influential among ordinary Americans than, for instance, Don Delillo’s Underworld. And they have a pretty uplifting message (the last book is called “Final Victory”) — at least if you’re a dispensationalist Christian.

  8. Andrew,

    You’re right, the “which Americans” question needs to be asked. There aren’t as many well-educated and well-informed Americans as there should be.

    But really–do “”Die Hard III,” the Black-Eyed Peas, NASCAR, “Guiding Light,” sermons by popular preachers, and the Left Behind books and movies” support your assertion that “U.S. popular culture is generally positive and life-affirming”? I think not. Though Bruce Willis never fails to emerge triumphant, his victories seem hollow and American society dismal and dreary. LaHaye and Jenkins–that’s sinister hokum dressed up as religion. And NASCAR is an example that Freud was right about the death drive (no pun intended).

    By the way, the “Sopranos” had a cumulative 13.1 million viewers in its sixth season. That’s a substantial figure.

  9. Hm, I do not like many the results of the US pop culture called main stream, but when I see the creativity of, for example, american musicians at myspace who get hits not over 1000 yet I would rather stop generalizing about it and rather spending time to listen to them. There are too many of them and the majority will not pass the entry to the pop industry.

  10. “american musicians at myspace who get hits not over 1000 yet I would rather stop generalizing about it and rather spending time to listen to them. There are too many of them and the majority will not pass the entry to the pop industry.”

    What you are talking about is an example of something called ‘The Long Tail’, a phrase coined by Chris Anderson in his 2004 book of the same name. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Long_Tail

    The Long Tail refers o a phenomena which comes out of the web revolution, the fact that as more and more cultural products are sold as streams of bits held on computer servers which can be hosted anywhere the costs of offering additional products has declined essentially to zero. The interesting thing is that people’s tastes can be met more and more precisely. The clear implication is that the best seller’s form a steadily declining portion of total sales and presumably views, listens-to, or whatever measure of actual cultural impact you may prefer to use. The marketing term for this is ‘segmentation’, but what we are taliing about really goes far beyond segmentation – it implies that each consumer has become a market segment of one.

    An example is the record collection I built last year when music CD prices plunged. It was dominated by classic Rock n’ Roll, Blues, and Jazz mostly recorded before 1975. Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin, Rolling Stones, Beatles, etc. Most of it were bestsellers at the time but today almost everything I buy was far back on the Long Tail.

    Even what is on the best-seller lists is revealing. I bought two very recent albums by Bruce Springsteen: “The Seeger Sessions” and “The Sessions Band Live in Dublin”. These were big hits – but the way they got there was interesting. Springsteen took classic folk/political music performed by a Folk/Dixieland Jazz fusion band and added the skills of a superb rock vocalist (Springsteen himself). Incredible stuff – I’ve never heard anything like it. But a specialised taste – Britney Spears or the Spice Girls it’s not.

    Johnny Cash is another example. Cash’s career languished for maybe 20 years while he was the captive of a record label who tried marketing his music to the mass market – and held Cash in a creative straightjacket for maybe 20 years. They finally let him go when his sales dwindled to nothing. The producer Rick Rubin signed him up and allowed Cash full creative control over his own output; the result was a cultural and economic triumph. I can’t speak for elsewhere – but you see Cash all over the big record stores in the UK when a ‘new’ release comes out – even though he died almost 5 years ago. In more ordinary times his recent work is all in stock as is all the best of his older work.

    The implication is that the global market is so large that the rules have changed. The way to be successful is no longer to attempt to sell something to nearly everyone but to appeal to a narrow market niche – a niche which may nonetheless appeal to millions of people.

    Something very similar has occurred with products of a more physical nature such as books, appliances, clothing, etc. The cost of warehousing most small goods has fallen to almost nothing – goods do not have to be held and displayed in London or Berlin but wherever it is cheap – they can be shipped from almost anywhere.

    The implications of this revolution are quite mindboggling. I believe the social, political, and cultural impact far outstrips the business implications. One of Springsteen’s reason for recording the Sessions was political – that is obvious to anyone who watches the videos or listens to the songs. Springsteen wanted to remind people of the things the Left had once stood for and could do again. In my case he succeeded – not necessarily in changing my mind as much as opening me to other possibilities. Johnny Cash had different motives (more philisophical and moral) in doing the American Recordings series after 1993 – but again that is a cultural work which changed the way I view the world.

    I don’t think the place to look is the supposedly bad effect of the mass market – the mass market is less important than any time in the last 75 year. No, look closer to home. Look a the stuff people are actually reading and listening to.

  11. “What counts as truly popular American culture is stuff like country music, “Die Hard III,” the Black-Eyed Peas, NASCAR, “Guiding Light,” sermons by popular preachers, and the Left Behind books and movies. The “Left Behind” books are a thousand times more influential among ordinary Americans than, for instance, Don Delillo’s Underworld.”

    This is true as far as it goes, though Andrew seems to overestimate the influence of ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Left Behind’, I think.

    If I gaver you a peek at my bookshelf you might find the experience confusing, or would if you wanted to pigeonhole me on the basis of what I read. I have the first book in the ‘Left Behind series (bought it in an airport because I thought it looked like the ‘Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever’ series, but gave up on the poor writing after a few pages). But I also have L Ron Hubbard’s series of science fiction ‘novels’ – and actually read those. Bad as they were they were ‘grabby’ – like one of the old installment westerns. Does that mean Scientology has the slightest influence on me? Nope. Light entertainment only.

    You’ll also see most of Steinbeck’s novels – (actually read them cover to cover) & some of Falkner’s work (good intentions, haven’t really come to grasp with Falkner yet). Portrait of a Young Man (read it), Ulysses and Dubliners (haven’t). Lot’s of Father Andrew Greeley – but that doesn’t mean I’m a hissing liberal like him.

    I know people who have devoured each installment of ‘Left Behind’ the way I do a new Greeley or did with L Ron’s stuff for a while. I haven’t seen any signs of milennial fanaticism in my friends. No, it’s just a harmless addiction like my devotion to Doritos. In one eye and out the other.

    Not everything is like ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ or ‘Mein Kampf’ In fact most things aren’t – not excluding ‘Die Hard’ or ‘Left Behind’.

  12. “What counts as truly popular American culture is stuff like country music, “Die Hard III,” the Black-Eyed Peas, NASCAR, “Guiding Light,” sermons by popular preachers, and the Left Behind books and movies. The “Left Behind” books are a thousand times more influential among ordinary Americans than, for instance, Don Delillo’s Underworld.”

    This is true as far as it goes, though Andrew seems to overestimate the influence of ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Left Behind’, I think.

    If I gaver you a peek at my bookshelf you might find the experience confusing, or would if you wanted to pigeonhole me on the basis of what I read. I have the first book in the ‘Left Behind series (bought it in an airport because I thought it looked like the ‘Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever’ series, but gave up on the poor writing after a few pages). But I also have L Ron Hubbard’s series of science fiction ‘novels’ – and actually read those. Bad as they were they were ‘grabby’ – like one of the old installment westerns. Does that mean Scientology has the slightest influence on me? Nope. Light entertainment only.

    You’ll also see most of Steinbeck’s novels – (actually read them cover to cover) & some of Falkner’s work (good intentions, haven’t really come to grasp with Falkner yet). Portrait of a Young Man (read it), Ulysses and Dubliners (haven’t). Lot’s of Father Andrew Greeley – but that doesn’t mean I’m a hissing liberal like him.

    I know people who have devoured each installment of ‘Left Behind’ the way I do a new Greeley or did with L Ron’s stuff for a while. I haven’t seen any signs of milennial fanaticism in my friends. No, it’s just a harmless addiction like my devotion to Doritos. In one eye and out the other.

    Not everything is like ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ or ‘Mein Kampf’ In fact most things aren’t – not excluding ‘Die Hard’ or ‘Left Behind’.

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