If you thought we, as Americans, had escaped the dominion of the powers of Europe and Great Britain after the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, World Wars I and II, and the failure of Robbie Williams to ever become as big a star in the U.S. as his PR strategists intended, than you were completely wrong, my friend.
However, as much as we may be chomping at the bit to engage in an “us versus them” themed debate, the increased globalization of culture and technology that we’ve been enjoying for the past century has made such a debate just the teensiest bit difficult.
Different ideas, styles and types of music and art have so suffused both European and American culture that it has actually become tricky to determine exactly who innovated what. Nevertheless, we still love categories, and when Americans see something we think is Europe-y, we instantly think: “classy!” On the other hand, Europeans aren’t as impressed with American stuff as they once were; unless it’s a 5th generation Apple product, and then they’ll sell their own children to get their hands on it.
So, even though Europe may look at American design and style as ham-fisted, unenlightened and childish, what Europeans fail to recognize is the fact that America has so completely permeated their own culture that they can’t even see it anymore. It seems as though Europe covets American style, gadgets and culture in spite of itself, while Americans covet European stuff because it makes us seem sophisticated and, more importantly, rich. We’ll look at the genesis of this phenomenon, and explore the various reasons why Europe simply refuses to admit it has yielded to America’s domination. Rock and Roll? Hip-Hop? Obesity? You’re welcome, Europe.
During the early part of the 20th century, there was nothing cooler to down-trodden, war ravaged Britons and Europeans than Hershey bars, Doublemint gum, American cigarettes, American movies and American money. We have to remember, European nations spent roughly 80 years trying to overcome the desperation of two World Wars and the Soviet occupation of a huge section of what is now the European Union. America was a bastion of freedom and enormous opportunity; where else could someone armed with only pluck and determination acquire unimaginable wealth and power without necessarily becoming the head of a military dictatorship?
As the 20th century grew to a close, however, the United States lost a bit of its luster. American power began to appear unseemly. Europeans became snottier and American foreign policies were less and less appreciated. Of course, by then it was too late; American stuff was there to stay.
Case in point: remember the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics? After the first half, where viewers enjoyed a commemoration of the Industrial Revolution, the National Health Service and, inexplicably, sheep, the program drifted into recognition of what was decided was British culture and innovation. Things like text messaging, the web and Brit Rock were highlighted and celebrated. However, it has to be said that all of the participants were text messaging on iPhones, and the British bands we all know and love were playing Rock and Roll – an American invention. However much we may try to divorce ourselves from the influence of different cultures for the purpose of national pride, the split will never be completely clean.
You may be burstin’ with patriotism, but we’d be willing to bet that at some point you have been seduced by European-style clothing, décor, furnishings, food and even advertising. Why? Partially, because of the clean lines and unique aesthetic, but also, to a large extent, the prestige factor. Let’s face it, to beefy, fanny-pack wearing Americans, European stuff seems ultra sophisticated and James Bond-ian.
While American iconography is all muscle and flesh — John Wayne; Clark Gable; Marilyn Monroe; Ford Mustangs – Europe tends to appreciate suavity. A man in a well cut black suit driving a small, sleek leather-interior convertible: completely European. A man in a t-shirt and jeans driving a ’68 Chevy and ridiculing the small, sleek convertible: completely American. Of course, even though we may scoff at the fancy-pants, Galois-smoking Europeans, by God, we’re jealous of them.
So, what have we learned? We learned that we don’t always have to talk about strictly design-related things. We’ve learned that the impression of a culture can be far more important – image wise – than actual authenticity. We’ve learned that the English can go ahead and revel in their “Brit Pop,” but if it weren’t for Americans they’d still be listening to madrigals. Most importantly, we’ve learned that Europe can be as snooty and stand-offish as it wants, but take away their iPhones, and there will be rioting in the streets.