The American Invasion
During the Harvard and Princeton Glee Club concert this weekend, the guys with the orange bow ties sang a lovely Franz Schubert hymn in German, which stirred fond memories of my family's trip to Germany this summer.
After a few weeks at a middling Washington internship and a quick shot of my small, charming, but proudly parochial hometown, I was really looking forward to the trip. I thought a few weeks amidst the ghosts of Schubert and intellectual giants like Nietzsche, Weber and the rest would do me good. I didn't suspect that when I left for Germany the Backstreet Boys would come with me.
Sad to say, in the land of Bach and Wagner, they're Living la Vida Loca. American pop music--the same medley of teeny-bopper anthems that fills the US top 40--is everywhere in Germany.
Maybe pop music's prominence shouldn't have surprised me. At least, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind should have dulled the shock. Bloom wrote that "rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire--not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored." Because sexual desire is universal, pop music "knows neither class nor nation." Consequently, pop music is a sort of teenage Esperanto: Every pubescent youth, regardless of nationality, should be attracted to the "masturbatorial fantasy" it promises.
That Bloom was right, at least regarding pop's uncanny ability to transcend nationality and culture, is revealed by recent international adoration for the likes of Michael Jackson and, God help us, the Spice Girls. But reading Bloom is poor preparation for how completely American music has infiltrated Europe.
In Germany, my family lived in a quaint Bavarian hostel overlooking mountains which would impress even the Ricola house band. Each morning, we would sit to a breakfast of cereal with milk from a cow we could see through the window, bread with cheese made in the neighboring town and conversation topped with the mindless thumping of music from home. Our hosts, Christoph and Jutta, were warm country folk, with an agreeable predisposition to sausage and beer, but, alas, an ugly fetish for American music.
This much can be said for Christoph, though--he was a manly man par excellence. In the Bavarian Alps men can be men, because they won't make it there if they're anything less. As befits a man of his timbre, Christoph boasted a heady admiration for America's paragon of manliness, the Old West cowboy. We were chatting about Westerns and cowboys one day in broken English--my German goes no further than "bier" and "bratwurst"--when he told me of his son's "cowboy coloring book." I was encouraged, to say the least, that America had given this exemplar of the strenuous life an untainted character worthy of his children's admiration (I never saw his son without a red John Wayne neckerchief). But then Christoph sang impromptu of the "Wicki-wicki Wild Wild West," paraphrasing Will Smith and breaking my heart.
Towards the end of our trip, we visited Captain Blaubar, a blue-bear pirate who, as luck would have it, has his own amusement park. Blaubar's assistant, Heimblud is a tall, lanky weasel--an absurd caricature of Mickey Mouse who proves, once and for all, that all rodents are not created equal. The park itself is an odd collage, including a petting zoo, cow-milking competition, and a half pipe for skateboarding teenagers.
In the skateboarding section, German punks roll to American rap, ranging from tame FM staples to gansta rap standards. When I first arrived, I was treated to Public Enemy's "He Got Game," a likable tune, at least in the version played over American radio. Funny thing, though: In Germany they play the unedited versions, replete with curse words and sexual imagery unfit for a teen hangout, and passing strange at a children's amusement park. But, of course, they don't understand the words--one American's obscenity is, apparently, another German's lyric.
On the way home from Blaubar's, we stopped in Fischen, a beautiful Alpine village with a darling store selling wood carvings of Biblical characters. In such a store, one is so taken by the statues that it's easy to forget one's surroundings--which is for the better, in this case, since even in this little alcove of Christian peace, a quiet but immutable hip-hop bass line whispered from hidden speakers.
American pop music is cruel retaliation for measles, small pox and other emigre diseases stowed in the ships of 17th century European explorers. Pop is more easily communicable, needs no ships and seems impossible to quarantine. After all, what self-respecting group of teenage boys could resist what Bloom calls a "nonstop, commercially prepackaged, masturbatorial fantasy?" The trouble is, it's not just German teenagers who are infected. My family's hosts were mature adults, the owner of the store in Fischen was an elderly Christian soldier who did not seem prone in the least to indulgence in nonstop masturbatorial fantasies. For whatever reason, though, Germans seem to have left Franz Schubert for Fiona Apple, and it's a shame.
Hugh P. Liebert '01 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.