If you have kept up with this blog, you already know that one of my fascinations is the pervasiveness of Western culture – and specifically American culture – throughout the world. One of my favorite curiosities in my travel has been the soundtrack. As I was driving today, I tried to remember as many of my overseas trips as I could, and particular music that caught my attention. I cannot escape American pop music, anywhere I go.
It’s a little bit disconcerting. When you travel to faraway lands with rich cultures of their own, part of the fun is immersing yourself into the local art and culture. For example, tango music in Argentina. Through the years, this has been the soundtrack of my travels:
- Late 80’s, off the beaten track hotel on the outskirts of Rome. In the breakfast room I am drinking my most excellent morning latte with Neil Diamond music in the background.
- Business trip to Ealing in the early 90’s, a suburb of London, having dinner with a colleague in a most ordinary non-tourist local pub. American contemporary soft rock of the 1960’s and 1970’s is playing throughout dinner, including “King of the Road.” Are you KIDDING me?!”
- En route to Strasbourg, France, connecting at dawn through Brussels. I am the only person in an enormous tunnel the size of a football field with two long moving sidewalks and monochrome beige tiled walls glowing in fluorescent light. I am nearly comatose, standing on the moving belt while the strains of “Mr. Sandman” echo around me.
- Business trip to Paris in the early 90’s, and I am sitting on the steps of the Musée d’Orsay with a Croque Monsieur listening to a street musician with an accordion play “I Love Paris”…you know, “I love Paris in the summer, when it sizzles…”. I am thinking “How perfectly French is this exact moment” then I caught myself and thought “HEY! Cole Porter wrote that. It’s not French, it’s American!” Dang it, they nearly tricked me!
- Prague, 2001-ish. Sitting in an outdoor restaurant finishing dinner and sipping my wine, contemplating the deployment of US ground forces into nearby Bosnia, listening to R.E.M. sing to me that it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.
- And even in a Ryokan in the middle of Kyoto in 2012, the only gaijin in its tiny but amazing restaurant, and they are playing one of my very favorite somewhat obscure albums from the 80’s: Fairground Attraction, “First of a Million Kisses”. Granted, a UK band, but where in the HELL did they come up with this?!? I mean, it’s pretty obscure even in the US. I was in freaking Japan! That is the last place I expected to hear “The Moon is Mine”. Surreal.
- Villa Cora. Florence, 2013: Peter Gabriel playing in the lobby at check-in; Chet Baker all thru dinner.
I think I notice because I travel on my own a lot, and therefore pay closer attention to the details surrounding me. I love me a tableaux, and my mental scrapbook uses all of my senses. But come on, really? Neil Diamond with my morning latte in Rome?
So why is this happening? Am I just jet setting through my exact demographic, and therefore running into every ethnic variation of myself? Stop for a moment and contemplate that. If I am right, then no matter where we go, there is a place where we will feel at home. Whether you are an aging intellectual hipster or a stylish pop culture fanatic, if you chase your bliss you will find yourself among others just like you who were drawn to that same place from wherever they started in the whole wide world. Far OUT. And weirdly comforting. Or, is American pop culture simply produced and exported globally on such a massive scale, it is a product we cannot avoid, no matter how much we hope to leave it behind? Are foreign establishments pandering to the American tourist, as ubiquitous as American culture abroad? Finally, is Neil Diamond cooler when he is a foreigner singing in a foreign language? Just like Americans pay to see Gerard Depardieu films? OK, well they did once.
The world sent America its huddled masses, its laborers and free thinkers. Its hard workers and dream weavers who built our country into the most envied brand in the world. And in some strange cosmic pact, it appears that America is returning the favor by sending back excellent coffee franchises, Hollywood blockbusters, and Sweet Caroline.
…Good times never seemed so good (SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!)