American 'Culture'-And Its Influence

By Singer, Barnett | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

American 'Culture'-And Its Influence


Singer, Barnett, Contemporary Review


IT is patronizing to refer to contemporary American culture as somehow a doubtful entity, but perhaps the problem is the word 'culture' itself. Would 'mindset' do better? Maybe. However, we will stick with 'culture', identifying some salient aspects of it in today's US, which for good and/or ill, seem to exert great influence in the wider world.

American 'culture' has been inextricably bound up this election year with the searing, super-reported Obama-Clinton fight for the Democratic nomination, followed by Obama's increasingly bitter joust with Sen. McCain. One aspect of American 'culture' dealt with below, a huge penchant for nostalgia, was seen in an attempt to make Obama another JFK of fresh mien and views, and his wife a second Jackie-all made more poignant by Teddy Kennedy's sudden struggle for survival. There was also an attempt to show in the pro-Hillary coalition a lineage harking back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. On the other side, there was Republican concern for maintenance of a Reaganite legacy (few wanting out loud to protect George W. Bush's). So let us identify one prevailing theme in today's America as a 'culture of nostalgia'.

The US housing market or auto industry may have experienced significant downturns, but this nostalgia boom shows no signs of abating. Starting with popular music: in American restaurants or supermarkets, 'oldie-goldies' became an omnipresent aural plague at least a decade ago, and remain so, even as these tunes get played into repetitive rubble (or 'rubbish'?). Once they still seemed new, when nostalgia itself was fresh and bracing. This looking backward first surfaced after the explosive late 1960s took rock toward comparative old age. It wasn't quite used up, given that it still had a contemporary run to go in the '70s via James Taylor and Elton John, and through Carole King and the Carpenters to the Aussie Bee Gees, and the Eagles.

Nevertheless, nostalgia did get feet in the door during that last decade of viable, new AM music. A sense of exhaustion with the present, and need to regain a warmer, fuzzier past was seen in Don McLean's Bye Bye Miss American Pie, dealing with a vanished period of white buck shoes and dances in the gym and clean-cut football games. It was also seen in the popularity of Sir Elton's Crocodile Rock and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. And in the Lucas/Coppola film, American Graffiti (1973), featuring a young Richard Dreyfuss as the bookish high schooler, Ron Howard and Cindy Williams before their TV spin-offs, Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley; and many then-stirring oldies from the '50s. Today these tunes have become super-jejune, and American Graffiti now virtually unwatchable.

On current American TV Perry Mason, Leave it Beaver, and I Love Lucy from the '50s, and re-runs from later decades (Hawaii 5-0 of the '70s, Matlock and Murder She Wrote from the '80s, etc.) still do big business, and people vote massively with their TV remotes. Many are obviously comforted by the old suits and dresses, and slower, more ponderous ways. A somewhat more high-minded contingent likes the nostalgia of 'Britcoms' on American public TV, where they, too, have the comforting feeling of avoiding manic commercials and ephemeral fare on other channels.

In movies shown on American television the same holds true. The Turner network sans commercials features old films drawn from different decades, preceding our own apparently more deplorable present. So one day it can be Cagney or Bogie from the brown '40s; the next, a now ailing Paul Newman or Liz Taylor from the technicolour '50s; the next Kramer vs. Kramer on '70s divorce; and so on. Other channels emphatically with today's semi-epileptic adverts also feature old films, particularly around Christmas, where one is sure to get Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, or Home Alone circa 1990. Not to mention the old James Bond films, or a Robin Williams vehicle, Mrs. Doubtfire, played again and again in all seasons. …

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