I Know It's Really U.S. Cultural Imperialism, But I Like It

by Neil H. Buchanan

I suppose that, in early 1933, there must have been intellectuals scattered about the world thinking about relatively lightweight topics like popular music.  They surely knew that important things were afoot politically, especially in Germany, but they likely had no idea that the Reichstag fire was imminent.  Today, at least we have reason to know that something like that is all too possible.

Wikipedia helpfully explains that "[t]he term 'Reichstag fire' has come to refer to false flag actions facilitated by an authority to promote their own interests through popular approval of retribution or retraction of civil rights."  Today, as Donald Trump's political nightmare deepens and he becomes increasingly untethered to even his abnormal version of normal day-to-day behavior, it seems more than reasonable to wonder what extreme and desperate measures he will take to save himself.

Groups of his supporters -- possibly even including some in Congress, but certainly some among the people on whom he is counting to take to the streets to save his presidency -- are surely also thinking along such lines.  One reason that it has not happened thus far is that Trump has seemed relatively untouchable, with the Mueller report inexplicably having had virtually no impact and Senate Republicans solidly behind him, no matter what he has done.

I write today gripped by a grim near-certainty that something truly catastrophic is in our future.  The reasons that we might be optimistic that people would not do this -- basic human decency, a sense of limits, worry about being found out -- seem naive at best when applied to Trump and his cultists.  Unlike the people in 1933, most of whom presumably did not yet have reason to believe that the rising nationalists in Berlin were capable of doing anything so horrible, we are reduced today to the choice between facing this reality or living in denial.  But other than sheer hope, there is little reason for anything but pessimism.

What to do?  Like those people whom I imagined living their lives back in 1933, I am going to think about popular music!  Why?  Because it is better than worrying about something over which we have no control and which is likely to fundamentally change the future.  Why not sing and dance instead?

OK, so that is a rather neck-snapping change of direction, after an outright morbid beginning to this column.  But there you have it.  This column, then, is motivated by some recent thoughts about the continuing and profound influence of Rock'n'Roll music, more than sixty years after its birth.

Because I am once again traveling around the UK and have only been in a position to eat out, my daily existence has involved a steady diet of pub food and restaurant fare.  Fortunately, as I noted a few months back, vegan fare has become almost universally available in major cities in the UK and similarly wealthy countries, which means that I am actually eating rather well.

My interest here in writing about music is based on my observations about the kind of music that is playing in the background at almost every pub and restaurant that I have visited.

What in the U.S would be called Classic Rock and early New Wave music is ubiquitous in British public houses.  One can sit for hours and hear a steady stream of Derek and the Dominoes, Cream, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Queen, Buffalo Springfield, Janis Joplin and the Holding Company, and on and on, as well as hits continuing into the 1970's and early 1980's.

To be clear, I am not falling victim to a fallacy of self-selection.  That is, even though I'm an older middle-aged white guy from the United States who grew up on this stuff, I am not choosing my eateries on any basis that would suggest that the music fare is targeted at people like me.  Indeed, because I have spent most of my time in university towns, I have frequented places that skew very young.

I do know -- because my 20-something daughter keeps me up to date -- that there are plenty of excellent 21st Century musical acts (Florence + the Machine, Halsey, Walk the Moon, to name a few) and that young people justifiably love them.  Even so, I have been amazed by the apparent popularity of songs here that all but define my youth.

And as I have thought about it, my attitude has changed from an initial regret about American (and Baby Boomer) cultural imperialism to a more gut-level (and honest) reaction: Hell yeah, this stuff is still being played everywhere, because it's fantastic!  If you are a person who can listen to any of The Who's best songs, or Stevie Wonder's funk work (leaving aside his treacly pop), and not feel thrilled, then I can only say that although there is no accounting for taste, I feel lucky to have my tastes.

As an aside, it is important to note that my emphasis on the Americanness of all of this does not betray a lack of awareness on my part that many of the bands mentioned here are British.  Heck, the reference in the title of this column is to a Rolling Stones song, not the Beach Boys (whose best work is also iconic, of course).  Earlier this year in Cambridge, I was amused when I was giving a talk in a restaurant and noticed that the sound track was all Beatles.  (Appropriately, "Tax Man" came on just as I began to speak.  Also unplanned.)

So yes, roughly half of what I am enjoying as I travel around the UK is "local" music.  It is so local, in fact, that I almost cannot turn around without seeing something that reminds me of a song.  As I was going down to London from Cambridge, Joe Jackson's "Down to London" was stuck in my head and was then replaced by The Clash's "London's Burning."  I needed something to get Gerry Rafferty's song out of my head after my subway train stopped at the Baker Street Underground station, and luckily I was soon in Knightsbridge and thinking about Elvis Costello's wonderful "Man Out of Time."

Obviously, then, I am not denying that this soundtrack of my life is in large part the work of non-American musicians, dominated by Brits.  It simply remains true, however, that the British Invasion and everything that it set in motion was brought to us by bands who were building on American blues, soul, and so on.  The Beatles (who were covering American hits in German bars before making it big) and the Rolling Stones were enthralled by Chuck Berry and other American musical geniuses — and rightly so.  Even as far into their stardom as 1972, the Stones's "Exile on Main Street" fairly aches with admiration for American musical styles.  ("Tumbling Dice," "Sweet Black Angel," and "Shine a Light" stand out.)

Interestingly, the one exception to my run of pubs/restaurants playing Classic Rock and early New Wave music was a whisky bar (The Doors alert!) in Oxford.  What were they playing instead?  American songs from the 1930's, including show tunes and swing music.  The music feed at the bar included apparently English singers covering songs like "Night and Day" (by Indiana's own Cole Porter).  USA!  USA! USA!!

As a default assumption, I view such cultural domination to be regrettable.  Despite the unpleasant attitude that many French cultural critics adopted in condemning American cultural imperialism in the 1970's and 1980's, I always thought that they had a point.  I still do, of course.  I will not get into the distorting effects of Hollywood movies on film culture beyond simply mentioning them here to acknowledge the reality.

Even so -- and again, because my generally grim outlook these days is causing me to try to find something that makes me feel ... what is that word? ... happy -- there are times when I am willing to say that the dominant culture is simply good.  Fun.  Even the product of genius, in some cases.

That is not to say that I know it to be better than what would have existed in a different reality, nor does it say that the winners were determined in a fair competition.  (Record executives are not exactly renowned for giving all comers an even break.)  I daresay that I would bet on our timeline in a competition against others, but that is purely conjecture on my part.  And it surely reflects the fact that my tastes were formed by listening to these songs throughout my life.

But again, sometimes it is important to let loose and enjoy life when joy is there to be had.  The odds, sadly, are that the future will be bleak.  For now, I am going to crank up The Kinks and have some fun.