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Sound and Fury

Atlantic Divide

By Andrew R. Iliff, Crimson Staff Writer

An apocryphal story has it that several years ago, Dave Matthews traveled to London and began to play on the street in Time Square, while Time Out watched to see what happened. In the end, a group of cell phone-equipped American exchange students showed up and got autographs, while the passing Britons were unmoved by the man who commands a greater following than any other musician in America. The British do not dig Dave. What have they got against him?

We live, in case you hadn’t heard, in a globalized world. Standardization and homogenization are the rule. Same McDonald’s the world over, with regional flavorings. Same Coca-Cola, same World Trade Organization. In this “global community,” Britain and America are siblings, prevented from squabbling too much by a little ocean and a few hundred years of history. In an age of monopolistic record companies and internet file-sharing, you could be forgiven for expecting everyone to listen to the same music—whatever the corporate gods see fit to entertain us. Everyone likes talking about Radiohead, everyone is afflicted with Britney Spears, Coldplay is everywhere on both sides of the Atlantic. But look closer, and the common tastes start to vanish.

For every cross-Atlantic Coldplay, there are a hundred sad-sack, pasty-faced British guitar bands which most Americans never hear. Doves had their moment here (I even saw The Strokes open for them a couple of years ago), and Travis are known by connoisseurs of the mopey acoustic, but they are the elite in a genre as ubiquitous in Britain as emo was in the US. Americans don’t produce enough earnest strummings locally, so they import it from across the pond to meet the limited demand. What America does produce in abundance doesn’t often make for good export, though. Much less than gangsta rap, the American fetish for jam-bands does not travel well—perhaps the gloomy British weather is less conducive to day-long festivals and hour-long solos than Vermont or Colorado. No moe., no Phish, no String Cheese Incident—Britons like their rock music in manageable five-minute song format.

The music awards in each country only highlight the conceptual width of the Atlantic pond. America has the Grammys, whose endless categories and strong leanings towards Latin and country music are all but incomprehensible to the British. The real barometer of U.S. musical taste is MTV, home to the Coldplay standard. But with the exception of Coldplay, even MTV’s slick populism doesn’t do much to bridge the waters. The problem is simple: no one in Britain will take you too seriously if you give a prize to Justin Timberlake or Kid Rock. MTV retaliates by not concerning itself with the club or dance-based music by the likes of Portishead or Roni Size, something that has seriously impoverished recent U.S. hip hop.

The shortlist for the Mercury Prize, Britain’s premier music award, highlights these divergent tastes. The Mercury’s idea of nodding to pop sensibility is to shortlist Coldplay whenever they release an album, but never actually award them anything—a trick they’ve been playing on Blur for years. There are always a couple of jazz or classical albums nominated just to prove how classy the award really is, though they also never actually win: high-brow classiness that stops just short of alienating its audience is the object.

There are endless explanations for the persistence of a musical divide between two countries close enough to share a language and an illegal war, mostly involving fairly mundane aspects of history and geography. Closer to Mexico equals more Latin music. But there are some more interesting factors—weather, for example. Jam bands require open, sunny fields and large parking lots for full enjoyment, while glum British rock only really makes sense in the context of the endless grey of London days.

Difficulties with accents rule out some potential continental crossovers as well. Dizzee Rascal, the spectacularly talented 18-year-old rapper and winner of this year’s Mercury, is tough to understand at the best of times. But for someone unacquainted with his East London wide-boy accent, his rapid, voice-cracking delivery is incomprehensible—let alone the fact that the garage idiom he has borrowed to underwrite his flow sounds almost entirely foreign to anyone raised on American hip-hop.

Or perhaps the British simply disdain huge followings in general, preferring to prove their independence of spirit by listening to as different band from many of their peers as they can manage. This phenomenon exists in the US amongst those who enjoy name-checking monumentally obscure indie bands or unsigned underground rappers. Besides the reality glitch that was the Spice Girls, Britain seldom supports the monolithic popularity that, say, Eminem or Dave Matthews enjoys in the U.S. British artists endure by never getting too big, so that the armchair music fiends who judge the Mercury can nominate them with their consciences clear of the crime of supporting anything obvious or too populist.

So watch the VMA’s and enjoy the fact that you recognize all but one of the artists. And then if you’re interested, check out the Mercury list for a cultural experience. Who knows, you might find something you like whose name you can drop the next time you catch someone listening to “The Scientist.”

—Crimson Arts columnist Andrew Iliff can be reached at iliff@fas.harvard.edu.

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