When you think of the United States as a global figure, you think of our major corporations, military and economic power (or at least the memory of our economic power) and about our influence on world affairs. Yet, while living these past few months on the Swiss-Italian border, I’ve come to realize when it comes to the day-to-day European citizen, our media power may trump all of our other global influences.
Especially the power of entertainment media.
In an international dormitory of 70 students from about 10 countries, English is the communal language, and a second language bar me and another American. The fluency of English is pretty amazing; it’s not perfect, but communication with students from 10 other countries is pretty easy.
Yet, I was surprised to learn only about half of the students had taken language classes in English.
How did they learn such good English you might ask? Movies, music and the Internet.
Yes, American media is far more than entertainment for many Europeans; it’s a cultural experience. European kids learn English from reciting movie quotes and lyrics.
There have been countless times when I hear someone singing the Beach Boys or Rihanna in perfect English — which would be normal, if it wasn’t an elementary student who can’t speak a work of English except for the lyrics they are singing.
In every store I’ve been in, whether in Milan or a small mountain town grocery, I’ve only heard American music. It seems as though pop music is more popular in Europe than it is in the U.S.
The same goes for movies. It is quite staggering how many Hollywood movies European students have seen. The average European would stand up against the most avid American movie-goer. And while most of them know that not everything in the movies is true, it seems movies leave a pretty deep impression on how they view America.
The conversations of the first month consisted of me answering questions about the accuracy of movies on American lifestyle.
Does everyone really act like that during spring break? Have you ever crashed a wedding? What are sororities like? If I go to Las Vegas, will I wake up with a tiger and a baby?
As I saw disappointed faces after answering "no" to their questions (except for the last one), it was clear people view movies as a serious form of cultural intake.
Yet, no force is more influential as a source of American culture than YouTube.
Because the videos on YouTube are viewed as real, any insignificant and outrageous video gets generalized. The European students have showed me more gun-toting, hamburger-eating, whiskey-drinking American viral videos than I knew existed.
Now, there is no denying using movies or music to formulate a perspective on American culture is both unfair and grossly inaccurate. Nonetheless, it is quite amazing how much attention other countries pay to our seemingly shallow entertainment industry. They soak it up eagerly.
Personally, I think it’s completely irrational to take entertainment as fact on a country’s lifestyle and culture. But kids are learning the English language through movie quotes and lyrics.
That says something about how important other countries think America is. It also shows how eagerly other people absorb the media material made available to them — regardless of how earnest or vile the material is.