Doomsday was supposed to come on the first day of winter, according to certain readings of the Mayan calendar. The world didn’t end, but December 21 marked an epoch nonetheless. Psy, the stage name of 34-year-old Park Jae-sang, became the first artist to get 1bn views on YouTube, with Gangnam Style, a dance video about the fashion-conscious haute bourgeoisie of Seoul that is manic, funny, raunchy and surprising.
What is most surprising, perhaps, is that “Gangnam Style” is not American and not even sung in English. Every culture has its dance crazes and its pop idioms. Korean, or K-Pop, groups are in vogue now. But global blockbuster hits, in whatever genre, have come to seem a US niche market. It was Michael Jackson’s popularity in the 1980s that started this global style in pop culture. In contrast to, say, The Beatles, who had an unmistakably English style that became globally popular, Jackson’s music, an ingenious collection of disco rhythms and nonsense phrases, didn’t seem to come from any culture. A similar global product – “Baby”, by the Canadian teen idol Justin Bieber and the US rapper Ludacris – seemed the best bet to reach 1bn YouTube views until “Gangnam Style” blew past it this autumn.
Why have Americans so dominated the globalised part of popular culture up till now? Despite complaints from France and elsewhere, it was not a matter of “cultural imperialism”. The US has little in the way of cultural infrastructure abroad, like Germany’s Goethe Institutes or the British Council. And that should not matter because, to repeat, the culture we are talking about is not American culture – it is an international culture in which Americans have played the leading role.
The US has benefited from intangible advantages. It uses the lingua franca, the cultural equivalent of printing a reserve currency. It is easier for authors to get translated from English than into English, and the same principle holds for movies. US corporations have the longest familiarity with the relatively new business models used in cultural markets. For instance, iTunes is an American invention. This magnifies US cultural advantages because the market into which artists from other countries must sell is often abysmal. A superb report by Youkyung Lee and Ryan Nakashima showed how little Psy has made from “Gangnam Style” in his native South Korea: about $50,000 from CD sales and $61,000 from 3.6m downloads.
Their home audience may be the pivotal advantage US artists have. As the writer Todd Gitlin put it years ago: “By the time it leaves our shores, US popular culture has been ‘pretested’ in a heterogeneous public – a huge internal market with hybrid tastes and a tradition of juxtaposition and recombining disparate elements, melting them down into a Hollywood melange.”
But you could as easily say “dumbing down” as “melting down”. Culturally speaking, the diverse US audience giveth and it taketh away. An American artist who wants to appeal to a variety of US cultural communities does so not by mastering the cultures of others but by stripping away those elements of his own that might require explanation. US society is indeed diverse, but for that very reason American popular culture is homogenous. It deals in universals: it’s wonderful to fall in love, it’s sad to grow old. This kind of US culture is accessible to all, but it is hostile to more elaborate cultures. That is why people abroad resent it even as they buy it.
Americans understand this poorly. They concede that they have fallen behind in old-economy industries. But they believe the planet keeps gravitating to their movies, books and songs because the US is a nation of creative geniuses. Whether due to something admirable in their character or something admirable in their management of diversity, Americans think they are better at making popular culture than other peoples. They are probably wrong.
What the US has is not a national genius but wealth, prestige and glamour. The world is always curious about how wealthy, prestigious and glamorous people dance, fight and fall in love. If this is correct, then the American misjudgment of what other people are really buying from them is going to turn out to be a costly mistake. Obviously, the producers and venture capitalists who drive the entertainment industry will happily turn their focus towards any country that can produce blockbusters. For similar reasons, the Dominican Republic, with a 30th of the US population, provides a 10th of the players in US major league baseball.
But the heart of the problem is elsewhere. The US role in the global corporate economy consists disproportionately of consultants, designers, personnel managers et al., who make a good living showing foreign leaders how to organise their businesses and societies along US lines. Should the US reputation for mismanagement, profligacy and trillion-dollar government deficits continue to grow, non-US corporate executives will at some point ask why they are paying an architect to design a conference room like those in Manhattan. Why not get one like they have in Pudong? By the same token, why not ask how people are dressing in Gangnam rather than in South Beach? Culture follows wealth, prestige and glamour. As the US share of these declines, the world’s viewers may come to prefer Sleepless in Seoul to Sleepless in Seattle.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
This article has been amended since original publication to reflect the fact that Justin Bieber is Canadian, a fact that had been removed due to an editing error
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