The 20th century is often referred to as “the American century,” a time when U.S. power and influence spread across the globe. American popular culture staples such as movies, music, fashion, and food followed close behind. With the embracing of social media worldwide, American culture is finding an even deeper niche.
When the first edition of Globalization and American Popular Culture by Illinois State University Professor of Politics and Government Lane Crothers was published in 2006, Facebook and other social media platforms were still relatively new and smartphones were still in their early iterations.
Fast forward to today and smartphones and social media are windows to a world of content for people in densely populated cities and sparsely populated rural areas all over the world. “Today, if Facebook was a nation, it would be the most populous country on Earth,” said Crothers.
Now in its fourth edition, Globalization and American Popular Culture examines how digital technology and social media help to expand and quicken the spread of American popular culture. The book also looks at the appeal of American products, the central role they play in global politics and economics, and the fear and backlash they induce in other cultures.
Unlike the spread of culture during the Roman or French empires of the past, which relied on military occupation or direct political influence, today’s American culture is spread through a well-developed global marketplace. “We don’t need a ‘Pax Americana,’” said Crothers in reference to the period of relative global peace and stability in the second half of the 20th century. “American products and popular culture are in high demand around the globe because they have a wide appeal and are very well marketed. There’s no longer a need for Americans to actually be present in large numbers in another country in order to exert cultural influence.”
The global marketing machine produced by Hollywood continues to be well suited to pump out American culture. “The movie and entertainment industry in the U.S. has a long history of producing products that appeal to wide—and often diverse—audiences,” said Crothers, who noted the industry was built more than 100 years ago by creating stories enticing to a vast array of social groups. “In the early 20th century Hollywood was making movies that appealed to mass audiences, which included large numbers of newly arrived immigrants.”
Crothers says movies, music, and other media from the United States have become so deeply ingrained in the cultural landscape of other countries that the demand for and expectation of American cultural products is almost second nature. American popular culture exports also influence more than what people watch. “American-style food—especially fast food—has changed the way people eat in other parts of the world,” said Crothers. “It’s now more common to eat with your hands in Asia. That’s a huge cultural shift.”
Fast food franchises—with their standardized menus, restaurant layouts, and operating procedures—also influence the business culture in other nations. “Restaurants such as McDonald’s bring with them American standards of customer service, “Crothers said. “People begin to expect those same types of standards in other businesses.”
Even as it continues to spread across the globe, American culture has never lacked critics, and some level of backlash against that cultural influence can be seen in many societies. “American culture embraces change,” said Crothers. “That’s why it’s often so appealing to young people around the world, and why it’s seen as disruptive and dangerous by many older or more traditional members of a society.”
Some countries and cultures make attempts to block or limit the influence of American popular culture, often to little effect. “American music, media, fashion, and other consumer goods owe their spread to market forces, not to government control,” said Crothers. “Social media has had a huge influence on that in recent years. The spread of that culture is really beyond the control of any state.”
The old notion that “everyone wants to be an American” is still present in the American cultural narrative. “There’s a real sense of American confidence about culture,” said Crothers. “Because of that, people in the U.S. don’t always see why people in other countries might want to limit American influence.”
In this latest edition of his book, Crothers stresses that globalization and international trade will continue to support the spread of American products and ideas. He hopes the book will help American readers better understand the profound and often mixed influence their culture has on the rest of the world.