Monday, May 5, 2014

Reflections on the Declining Global Influence of American Popular Culture

Note: written in 2004 by John Brown, from 

Reposted in response to a brilliant (no wonder I don't fully agree with her) talk by Martha Bayles, author of Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad (2014) at the Public Diplomacy Council on May 5, 2014


Is the U.S. High Noon Over?

Reflections on the Declining Global Influence of American Popular Culture

“People love to see you are paying attention to their culture. But at the end of the day, they love their Big Macs.”

So says Denis Hennequin, Chief Executive Officer of McDonald’s France, in Fortune Magazine (Tuesday, October 14, 2003).

Mon cher monsieur Hennequin, I beg to disagree.

As an American who lived abroad for over twenty years, I’m not quite convinced that, at the end of the day, non-Americans will continue to love the Big Macs.

True, commentators the world over never cease to point out that America’s popular culture is its no. 1 export, having replaced standard factory and agricultural products.

Pundits of all nationalities are convinced that American popular culture will remain the dominant world culture for decades to come.

But I have my doubts about this triumph-of-American-pop-culture view, just as I was unpersuaded by assertions that the conflicts of history had ended after the U.S. prevailed in the Cold War.

In my view, there are growing indications that American popular culture, in its current form, is losing its global influence. Let me try to explain why.

American Culture’s Loss of Newness

First, and most important, American popular culture no longer appears to be as “new” as it was in the 1900s.

After World War I, for example, when American popular culture’s worldwide ascendance began, one of its unique manifestations – jazz – dazzled Europeans by its newness (to them).

American movies, which in the twentieth century excited and bewildered audiences worldwide with up to then unseen images, led to new social behavior including, perhaps most important, novel ways of attracting the opposite sex.

Detective novels from the United States were a revelation to foreign readers, even among those with highbrow literary tastes. Sam Spade, the tough detective, felt appealingly “new” to non-Americans who read Dashiell Hammett and saw him portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in his filmes noirs.

American clothes were revolutionary in their casualness and stress on relaxation and comfort. After World War II, blue jeans, then quintessentially American, subsequently became a groundbreaking fashion statement of global dimensions.

American advertising, shamelessly proclaiming the newness of the products it peddled, entranced the twentieth-century world by its then unique vitality, characterized by some as vulgarity.

U.S. fast food, dismissed by epicures the world over, was a novelty that drew millions under the golden arches of McDonald’s to savor Coke, hamburgers, and French fries with ketchup.

But the “newness” of American cultural products, their greatest drawing card in the past, is increasingly fading worldwide. In part due to the impact of instant mass communications unrestrained by national boundaries, American popular culture has become all too familiar, even when it is repackaged.

To be sure, there are cultural artifacts originating from America that to others still reveal undiscovered shores. But in an information-saturated world more superficially knowledgeable about the U.S. than ever before, no American cultural product today – for better or for worse – comes close to matching the initial impact on global audiences of twentieth-century American music, movies, pulp fiction, clothes, ads and fast food.

Not the Only Game in the Global Village

A second reason for the decline of American popular culture’s worldwide influence, related to the first, is that, to use hard-nosed language, it’s no longer the only game in the global village.

For many decades during the twentieth century, only America had the resources and technology to produce new forms of popular culture that could spread far beyond its shores.

This is no longer the case. Once typically American cultural items – such as television soap operas or comic books – are now mass-produced in other parts of the world.

“Not only in the Americas but in Russia, China, Romania, Morocco, Afghanistan – well over 100 countries around the world, in all – dubbed or subtitled Novelas [produced in Latin America] reach some 2 billion viewers globally, by industry estimates,” The Boston Globe reports (1/4/2004).

In Japan, “revenue from royalties and sales of music, video games, anime, art, films and fashion soared to $12.5 billion in 2002, up 300 percent from 1992,” notes the same edition of The Globe.

The sounds and images of American popular culture, though still rampant worldwide, are now being subsumed or replaced by other, increasingly competing sources, some of which are more in tune with the tastes of non-American audiences than Hollywood or Disneyland, for all their putative efforts to innovate, can ever imagine.

The Non-American “America” Brand

There is a third reason for the declining influence of American popular culture: the replacement of American-made cultural products by ersatz items that are branded as “American.”

Simply put, American cultural products are increasingly losing their global market share to non-American articles labeled or trying to appear as coming from the US of A.

Take, for example, a college sweatshirt designed and made outside the United States that is sold with the inscription “Harward University [sic].”

This sweatshirt does evoke American popular culture, but a foreign consumer knowing that it wasn’t made in America (and noticing the spelling mistake on it) will conclude, and rightfully so, that it’s not 100% American – and certainly not accurately identifying an elite university in the U.S., Harvard.

Wearing the sweatshirt, therefore, will not really make the consumer the object of “true” American cultural influence, but rather a participant in a global culture that uses American symbols and elements, often erroneously portrayed.

Of course, there’s no such thing as “authentic” American culture, which is a hybrid creation that incessantly recycles and reinvents cultural expressions from other countries and makes them, at least for a short while, exclusively American.

But, even in this era of virtual reality, there’s no way that reproductions of American culture can have the same impact, in the strict sense of a specifically American cultural influence, as original American cultural products per se.

Here it’s useful to think about The Beatles. A multinational phenomenon for decades, they were a turning point in de-Americanizing one of American culture’s most prominent exports, its popular music.

The Fab Four from Liverpool did perform American music, but the sound they produced, enjoyed by millions throughout the world, could no longer be defined as completely “American.”

In a way, The Beatles’s success was a prophetic indication of the future diminution of America’s direct, undiluted cultural impact on other countries.


A fourth reason for the lessening of the American cultural impact throughout the world is a growing global anti-Americanism.

These hostile sentiments toward the United States are in large part due to the policies of the Bush administration, which are viewed negatively in many countries.

President Bush, with his shoot-’em-first mad cow (boy) disease image and aggressive inarticulateness, has not helped in stopping America’s increasing unpopularity abroad.

Other, longer-term reasons for global dissatisfaction with the U.S., many of which already existed and will continue to do so for years, range from what foreigners see as American national arrogance to jealousy regarding America’s power.

While the eagerness of foreign businesses to use America as a brand suggests that anti-Americanism doesn’t necessarily result in the rejection of all things American, increasingly negative views about the U.S. make it more difficult for American popular culture to be welcomed or appreciated abroad. With Americans no longer the universal “good guys” in the eyes of many, their culture is losing its magnetism.

This is borne out by a recent survey by the U.S. public relations firm Edelman. According to the International Herald Tribune (January 19), the survey “found that 66 percent of consumers polled in Germany said they were less likely to buy U.S. products as a result of their opposition to U.S. foreign policy. In France, the figure was 64 percent. While 66 percent of American consumers polled said they trusted the Coca-Cola brand, only 40 percent said so in Europe, the poll showed.”

Given these data, it’s not a coincidence that a savvy American-born performer like Madonna, whose show-business career depends on her ability to re-invent herself, has now chosen to live in London. She senses, perhaps, that her appeal worldwide can be maintained only if she diminishes some of the “Americaness” of her public persona and presents herself as more European or, better still (to use a word in a Beatles song), as a “nowhere” person.

To cite a related example, it should come as no surprise that Radio Sawa, a major initiative by the U.S. Government-funded Voice of America to reach out to young audiences in the Arab world, broadcasts both American and Arabic pop music. Its producers are well aware that, in a region marked by extreme anti-Americanism, presenting American culture alone will not suffice in improving America’s standing. U.S. hit songs need to be programmed together with local popular music in order to have an effective impact in making Middle Eastern youth more favorably inclined toward the United States.

The Once American Language

A fifth reason for the loss of American popular culture’s influence worldwide is the global evolution of the English language.

Before the twentieth century, there were only two main variants of English: British and American. As British political, economic, and cultural influence waned in the 1900s, however, American English became the dominant world language. It was a major vehicle for the dissemination of American popular culture abroad.

In the past century, American English had a certain, to some, irritating allure – in the way Americans pronounce the letter “r,” for example – which foreigners entranced with American popular culture would adopt to show how “American” they had become, willingly annoying, to their considerable pleasure, Anglophiles in the process.

The more widespread American English became, however, the less it was identified as a specifically “American” language. Indeed, as now the world’s lingua franca, the American language is no longer automatically associated with the United States. As a result, American English is not necessarily considered an expression of American popular culture.

Today, the use of American English by non-Americans doesn’t mean they have an interest in, or even are influenced by, the United States or its culture; for them it’s just a language, originating in the United States, that’s useful in communicating internationally.

Without the American language as a component defining its identity to foreign audiences, American popular culture has lost one of the key tools that created its worldwide influence.

Hopelessly Utopian Thoughts?

I think American popular culture, at its best, belongs to the great achievements of mankind. At its worst, it often deserves the condemnation it receives, both in the United States and abroad.

One can admire that great American invention, jazz, while being repelled by the senseless violence promulgated by U.S. entertainment monopolies.

I have used the hazy term “American popular culture” reluctantly. There are so many cultures in the United States (which is not a culturally united state) so that to limit its infinite cultural variety with one label leads to an intellectual dead-end.

But let me suppose for a moment that there’s such a thing as American popular culture, if only to make the following point which, granted, is perhaps hopelessly utopian:

For American popular culture to be influential in our rapidly changing world in a significant way, it cannot simply be considered a “product” to be sold to global consumers, but be a meaningful artistic contribution to the rich cultural heritage of mankind.

It would thereby offer a substantive alternative to the de-humanization brought about by globalization and, like some of its better manifestations in the twentieth century, would be considered fresh, original, and relevant to the concerns of people throughout the world.
John Brown

John H. Brown was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer for over twenty years. He edits a daily “Public Diplomacy Press Review” available free of charge by requesting it at: .

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