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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