The American Exception: Pop Culture Today

On the exceptional power of American culture, what first pops out of my own head is a moment about ten years ago, after narrating Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait (1942) at the JFK Library in Boston with the Indian conductor George Mathew — before George got his American green card.

The piece triggered a general rapture over Lincoln’s words (“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy…”) and Copland’s brilliant war-time adaptation of great American folk themes like “Springfield Mountain” and “Campdown Races.” Between final bows, George burst out to me, with tears in his eyes: “Chris… Chris… It makes you so proud to be an illegal alien!”

From Walt Whitman to Frank Sinatra to Spike Lee, we exult in an artistic American pop genius that moves and shakes both plain and fancy people all around the world. The jazz tours by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong from the Thirties to the Seventies, from London to Accra to Moscow to Tokyo, mark a sort of pinnacle for me. But in this Open Source series of conversations about “American Exceptionalism” today — here, here, and here — the question comes: what is the American sound, the American style, the American culture that we’re putting out there today?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Martha Bayles (36 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

Martha Bayles

The independent scholar and cultural omni-buff Martha Bayles went recently to the other ends of the telescope to see us through our exports as they arrive in India, China, Turkey, Indonesia and Egypt. There’s a book in the works, and a strong article on “popular culture” available in the oft-cited Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation. In our conversation, it’s unmistakable that Martha is not just a discriminating listener by training, but an enthusiast and a patriot by instinct. It’s equally clear that she’s distressed by the sound of the American “voice” out there these days:

I think what we project now through a lot of our entertainment is freedom in the sense of libertanism, it’s freedom in the sense of ‘I can do whatever I want and screw you.’ I’ve had people overseas actually say to me that that’s what they think American freedom means. That it’s the freedom of the sovereign kind of self, Orlando Patterson uses that term — the freedom of the master over the slave. It’s not a very pretty side of freedom. And we project this kind of freedom to do whatever the hell you want, unfettered by connections with other people, unfettered by ties to family or community, or any kind of ethical or moral restrictions — it’s a very radical idea of freedom, just as the will of the individual basically to satisfy his or her desires.

Martha Bayles of the blog Serious Popcorn and the book Hole in Our Soul, in conversation with Chris Lydon, August, 2008

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  • hurley

    Listening to the show as I write. Television a key point. Certain shows broadcast by CULT via HBO — The Sopranos, bien sur, but also In Treatment, Mad Men, things I haven’t seen — enormously popular in my corner of abroad. But what they offer not necessarily what the US might want to project. I spent some of my salad days guiding great American jazz musicians around Europe, and the reception was unfailingly rapturous. I recall a joke in the old SPY magazine abut the burden of someone offering you tickets to a jazz performance. Not so in Europe, an appealing aspect of globalism, shall we say, in which a distant culture keeps another alive. Whither Mickey Rourke otherwise?…Perhaps the most elegant man I ever knew was the great, great Benny Carter. The last time I saw him, when I was a teenager, he was in hospital. I brought him my Walkman and all my Bach, so to say. He gave me such a look, put both beside him, and thanked me, held my hand. I doubt I was so prescient, but had I been I might have said that’s the man I want to represent me. Give me Benny Carter. Or the head of Alfredo Garcia.

  • Ms. Bayles respectfully dismantled so many assumptions which are normally held as evident truths. I had to watch 300 in class on the formation of ‘the west,’ in which I was as revolted with the film as she is. It brought to mind Zizek’s position — that the left ought to appropriate 300 as a heroic model. Love Zizek, but here I side with Bayles. I haven’t owned a television for about seven years, but I am a movie fiend. A movie I can process and digest, television is such an opinion machine. With reality-tv, for example, all of a sudden the program is setting standards. I am dismayed by the fact that so many women watch reality-tv, and, yet, its depiction of women (unintelligent, catty, and shallow) is so oppressive. It will be interesting to watch over the next few years, as bandwidth improves, tv go the way of radio — that is, open source. To go from selecting among available programs, to navigating a pool of media when you become interested will revolutionize the predominantly viewed art form (TV). This will then influence our thinking in better ways — so I hope.

  • Yo, Aaron Hemeon:

    So glad you’re aboard. I love your site. And I love the start of your self-profile: “I am a person filled with ideas. I am concerned with the direction of the human project. I am a pragmatist.” Have we ever been photographed together? So people can draw their own conclusions. But you’re in Vancover and I’m in Boston and Providence. Let’s stay on the case. Thanks, Chris Lydon

  • Some fairly insightful comments, especially about what Aaron Hemeon designates as “assumptions which are normally held as evident truths.” (To some academics, the whole “we hold these truths to be self-evident” approach doesn’t seem too conducive to critical thinking.)

    The fact that Bayles recognized the importance of /Friends/ and /Sex and the City/ does seem to have deeper implications than what some US-based commentators on The World’s perspectives on the US might have it. And pointing out some side-effects of the perceived American versions of “Freedom” and “Liberty” had a bit of the “Speaking Truth to Power” appeal of other ROS episodes.

    All said, it sounds like Bayles’s trip was an eye-opener. She was wonderfully honest in acknowledging her surprise at what some people told her of their ideas about the US. And, though she did fall in the trap of talking about US cultural specificity in Manichean terms, she didn’t get stuck under that trap.


    Bayles reproduced a journalistic-nationalistic model of popular culture which almost seems anachronistic in these post-industrial times. Not just because she was “counting countries” or because she uses “The Middle East” to refer to just about any Muslim society regardless of actual geography. Not even because she barely mentioned the implications of Internet- and cellphone-mediated communications. But mainly because she blends together broad comments about US products and discourses. The stuff of directed interviews, with or without interpreters.

    An audio engineering analogy could be one of mixing multiple voices into two balanced channels, controlled by a single individual. As, in this case, the individual in question is an “insider” asking “outsiders” some questions about her own in-group, the mix may have ended up sounding a bit over-produced.

    There’s also this tension between genuine interest in popular culture and the perceived need to address Adorno-type critiques of popular culture. Makes sense in the context of those freshmen courses to which Bayles referred, but to go back to the audio analogy it makes it sound like “ping-pong” panning, not like the resonance of a large hall. (Ok, I’m stretching this one a bit much. But these things are easier to understand than to verbalize.)