If there was ever a global pop culture war, the U.S. won it. Living in Switzerland and traveling Europe for almost four months, the ubiquity of American taste, influence and commercialism was most eye-opening to me. The level that American entertainment culture permeates through European society is unbelievable.
My very first night in Riva San Vitale, a village that has a population of a little over 2,000 people, I went to a small bar — I can’t emphasize its tininess — in town to get a beer and to get to know some of the people I’d be spending the semester with. Minus everyone speaking Italian, it was very similar to any small bar I had been to in the U.S. Then I realized it was way too similar — for one particular reason.
While all the patrons and bartenders swirled in a storm of conversational Italian, there was a live band singing nothing but English songs — AC/DC seemed to be the band’s paramour, but it also played the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Steve Miller and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The renditions resembled those played by a five-person band karaoke. The verses were mumbled and fumbled through, such as a karaoke singer trying to catch up to the lyrics on the prompter after one too many drinks. But the singers belted out chorus lines in “You Shook Me All Night Long,” as if they had been crooning it their whole lives, only with thick accents making it sound similar to Brian Johnson.
But that instance was just one event that led my colleagues and me to realize a phenomenon that blew us away. Putting aside foreign policy, economic stability and political efficacy, the U.S. knows how to get it done when it comes to entertainment and commercialism.
Airports and train stations across Europe are almost painted with U.S. movie posters — the upcoming Blockbuster “Thor” is being released a few days earlier in some European cities than in the U.S. “The Simpsons” is available in almost any language on TV, and some Italians love to wear the fictional brand Duff Beer T-shirts. “Like a G6” and “Tik Tok” were just as inescapable in Munich and Belinzona as they were in the U.S. Justin Timberlake, Julia Roberts and Scarlett Johansson are advertising spokespersons for European products that many American’s probably haven’t heard of.
I haven’t even mentioned McDonald’s restaurants, which from what I can tell are more prevalent and popular in European cities than American ones. A quick side note: European McDonald’s restaurants are selling a promotional cheeseburger called the “1955,” which tries to exude nostalgia of post-war American diner culture — a food for thought joke is itching to be there.
A small weekend market in Orvieto, Italy, didn’t offer a single CD by an Italian artist but did have a New Radicals album — remember them?
For me, this has been truly perplexing, and I can only imagine that the reasons for this pop culture’s dominance stretches beyond any full understanding. Coming to Switzerland, I envisioned myself facing foreign identities and all things different, but I was surprised when the first thing I saw in a Milan airport was a movie preview for “Avatar.” This is not to say I haven’t experienced a lot of new and different European cultures or part of this trip has been detracted in any way. I was just taken back by the prevalence of American culture in the world.
After some thought, I would assume a lot of this comes down to information communication technology and language. Pop culture, which relies so elementally on visual, aural and visceral communication, must also be so dependent on the means to produce such interchange and language used.