How Useful Is the Term Americanization When Discussing post 1945 Western European Popular Culture

American influence on European popular culture was undoubtedly considerable in the postwar period. This said, historians are often keen to explain the process by which European culture was adapted as more complex than the term ‘Americanization’ suggests. One can view the ‘Americanization’ of popular culture as part of broader trends emerging in that period; those of convergence, consumerism, and the rise of a new generation. Americanization’ has often been employed as a metaphor for these trends, and in many ways they were vital characteristics of American culture. Historians have, however, reached a general consensus in that they recognise American influence while also acknowledging the limits of the term.

Not only did the degree to which ‘Americanization’ occurred vary from region to region and even industry to industry, it also often added to, and mixed with, the cultural traditions already in place. This mixing of cultures, in the words of Petra Goeda, ‘followed its own dynamic. [1] I will argue that a consideration of post 1945 popular culture in terms of ‘Americanisation’ is dangerous; it was not specific to the period, runs the risk of generalisation, and it not the most useful idiom with which to work. An initial discrepancy with characterizing post 1945 European popular culture as ‘Americanized’ is that American influence had been happening long before the end of the war. As early as 1930 the influential British literary critic F. R Levis had bemoaned that ‘it is common place that we are being Americanised, but again a common place that seems, as a rule, to carry little understanding with it. [2]

Here Levis expresses the typical problem of employment of the term. Indeed it is often hard to distinguish Americanisation from the international process of modernisation, which again was in place well before 1945. Bigsby comments that ‘Americanisation frequently means little more than the incidence of change. ’[3] In addition, both the Nazi’s and Communists of the inter and war-time period had complained about the growing American influence, nicknamed ‘admass’ by J B Priestly, and had presented themselves as the preservers of culture.

This reveals the source of the ‘Americanisation’ debate, showing how European society used it as a means of discussing modernity. [5] As we can see, so called ‘Americanisation’ was not particular to the postwar period but was instead something that had been developing for many years prior; it is certainly not the single most useful paradigm within which to describe post 1945 European popular culture. This rejection of American culture found centre stage in elite strata’s in specific areas of Europe in the 50s and almost globally in the 60s.

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A re-enforcing of the term in this context is very much part of the reason it was thrust into the historiographical debate. This fear of ‘Americanisation’ was overtly linked to fears of economic, political and cultural imperialism. Fears that were not unfounded. After all, as Richard I Jobs suggests ‘America did seem to be everywhere; from GIs in France, to Marshall Plan advisors, to NATO diplomats, to American products and businesses. ’[6] Indeed, following the war, US political and economic dominance over the west was marked.

With the introduction of Marshall Aid and the subsequent opening up of trade, US private investment in Europe went from $4. 15 billion in 1956 to $24. 52 billion in the 70s. [7] By 1972 there were nearly four million Americans in Europe. [8] Within cultural markets they also dominated; the top selling comics and films in Europe were American productions. France was America’s staunchest critic. In March 1964 Maurice Duverger wrote in the French publication ‘L’Express’ that there was ‘only one immediate danger for Europe…

American civilisation. ’[9] Historians have often attributed this rejection of an imposed American identity to insecurities about their own, following a humiliating war-time experience. Their postwar reconstruction was therefore not only a chance to modernise, but to ‘rejuvenate an infirm cultural identity. ’[10] Both Richard Jobs and Richard Kuisel consider the extremities of French anti-American rhetoric in two separate case studies. Jobs looks at the French comic book industry and the latter at the so called ‘coca-colonisation. While it may have been natural to resent American dominance of the market with publications such as Mickey Mouse, Flash Gordon and Tarzan, Jobs is able to distil the French sentiment to an obsession over juvenile delinquency. [11] Postwar France, like many other European countries, was fixated on the younger generation, as it was them who held the future of French culture. Coca-Cola is often seen as the postcard image of consumerism, and subsequently Americanisation.

Kuisel’s study of the coca-cola ban put in place in France in the late 50s demonstrates the political aspect of the ‘Cold War Culture War’. While Jobs study indicates a French desire to culturally shape their youth, Kuisel’s is more reflective political and economic tensions. Amongst the factions calling for an embargo on coca-coca was the Communist Party within France. They felt that coca-cola was part of a multifaceted Marshall Plan strategy to colonise France. 12] Economic interests groups also had an interest as wine and beer sellers sought to maximise their profits in the face of post war surpluses. [13] Once again however, this is deemed by Kuisel as above all an ‘attempt at national assertion. ’[14] An interesting case study to consider is the placement of GIs in West Germany following the fall of the Nazi regime. Here we can see the most direct form of influence in terms of actual US day-to-day presence.

Both Maria Hohn and Petra Goeda look at the specifics and it fair to say that they reach a broad consensus. Both historians pay homage to the ‘confused’[15] response to American influence that ranged from acceptance to resistance, the generational divide, and the two way process of cultural adaptation. The stationing of GIs in West Germany introduced many to the American way of life, something that was rejected by the older generation and admired by the younger. One contemporary suggested that the Americans had ‘opened up a fantastic new world to us. [16] The Americans had arrived in an economically and socially challenged Germany in the 1940s and 50s and with the help of favourable exchange rates on the dollar were able to present an easier, freer way of life. While the younger generation were attracted by the allure of consumerism it was, as Hohn has argued, deeper than that; ‘these more ephemeral qualities, not just the American consumer goods, that convinced many Germans that the Americans had brought the flair of the big wide world. ’[17] What is critical here is the importance attributed to the younger generation.

In aspiring to the American way of life they were distancing themselves from the more traditional culture of their elders, elders who had, as already discussed, long complained of ‘Amerikanismus. ’[18] It is within the European cinema industry that America was able to monopolise the cultural market most successfully. Hollywood had the capacity to churn out a much larger quantity of higher quality films than the whole of Europe put together. By the late 1950s the US was producing 500 films per year, compared to the combined European total of 450. 19] Axel Korner estimates that, with national variations, 40-75% of films shown in European cinemas were made by the US. [20] Part of its success here owed to favourable economic and political weight. The European market was actively sought out by American film producers who faced dwindling attendance at home and an increased cost in the making of films. [21] The Hollywood lobby was also very effective in this period at using the US government to ease restrictions on American film imports.

An example of this is the by product of the Blum-Byrnes deal that saw the French reduce their quota of home-grown films from 55 to 30%, causing the number of French film production to decline by half. [22] The appeal of Hollywood however, remained in its internationalised language and themes. This is in direct contrast with European cinema that was based on individual experience. [23] In is way, European film gained a reputation for ‘artistry and originality,’[24] cornering, as it did in other cultural strata, the intellectual appreciation while missing out on mass or popular appeal.

Popular music sheds light on another example of American influence but unlike film it reveals a more complex process of ‘hybridization’[25] that can be seen as a general theme in the ‘Americanisation’ of popular culture. Korner traces the origins of both ‘Brit Beat’ and ‘rock and roll’ back to the African-American blues and rhythm and blues of the 1940s; noting that the Rolling Stones were themselves named after a song by prolific blues musician McKinley Morganfield. 26] However, while rock and roll started out as symbolic of America and American values, a distinct change in society by the 60s totally reversed this. Now it symbolized an outright rejection of consumerism. [27] Bigsby, writing in the early 70s commented that; ‘The 60s belonged less to American than to British pop, which by the time the Beatles surfaced had been quietly shaping its own identity in clubs and second rate halls the length of Britain. ’[28] Beatle-mania was symbolic of a new youth culture that was international, seen by their popularity on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now it was new American music culture that would imitate British style while at the same time depending on its own traditions contextually. [29] This said one could argue that originally the Beatles were both a mixture of the synthesisers within rhythm and blues and the distinctly English ‘Music Hall’ tradition. [30] Hybridization of popular music was commonplace and spawned new styles all over. In this vein, Judt asserts that ‘American’ music in France was distinct in comparison to ‘American’ music in Britain. [31]

The term ‘Americanisation’ is shrouded by associations such as modernity, consumerism and globalization. The alleged ‘Americanisation’ of West Germany however, was very much a two way process of exchange and on occasion rejection. This is shown with clarity by the populations’ acceptance of Jazz and American film and their rejection of US sports such as baseball. [32] Popular culture was therefore not something that was uncontrollably Americanised, but instead found niches within each specific cultural framework. ttitudes to black GIs in the 50s. While they were initially treated cordially by Germans, more so than at home, into the 1950s racial attitudes once again gained momentum. While one could easily ascertain that the American approach to racial segregation initiated this, on closer inspection it is clear that it was more to do with a co-enforcing of racial hierarchies. [33] Germany had a long tradition of anti-black stereotypes dating back to the Weimar years. However, it was the discrimination of their rulers that allowed them to justify