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.