America's Winning The Soft Power War: "Mainstream"

Europe has long prided itself on the notion that, even if its cousin across the Atlantic had surpassed it in matters geopolitical and military, its cultural cachet remained unrivaled. Europe was the capital of great literature, haute couture, the nouvelle vague. American culture may have spread to even the most remote reaches of the globe, but it was lowbrow. Superman and Hollywood blockbusters versus Picasso and Cannes.

But, as it turns out, America is actually winning the culture race for global audiences and leaving Europe in the dust, says French journalist Frédéric Martel in his new hit book, Mainstream. Martel spent five years traveling to 30 countries to conduct his research, and his conclusions are striking, especially coming from a Frenchman (albeit one who served as a diplomat in the U.S.). American businesses are far savvier than their European counterparts at using new digital materials—such as cell phones and online search engines—to distribute movies, music, television shows, and books all around the globe. Most of all, they excel in producing a “culture that everyone likes,” says Martel. But mainstream doesn’t only mean Americanized. The strength of the U.S. is to be able to create universal content that caters to different interests. So although the country is often resented as being politically or economically imperialistic, its cultural output—from Avatar and Lord of the Rings to Lady Gaga and Friends—is economic democracy in action, embraced by consumers throughout the global marketplace.

But the U.S. is now getting some stiff competition from other countries—and emerging economies, in particular— that thrive in exporting their own cultural content. India, Brazil, China, and South Korea are fast becoming regional cultural powers, symbolized by the rising fame of Bollywood, telenovelas, and K-pop. In Latin America, in particular, Brazil is much more of a threat in the regional marketplace than the U.S. And in the Arab world, big multimedia groups (Rotana, Al-Jazeera, MBC) are trying to unify a very diverse population by offering an alternative to the Western model.

This developing-world surge means Europe lags behind even more. In part, it’s because Europe’s default definition of “high culture” (which is taken to be synonymous with “good culture”) finds few fans abroad. European films and literature are increasingly seen as too obscure, haughty, and self-referential to appeal to mass audiences. In part, it’s because each nation has its own cultural industry and little, if any, cohesion (much less common business strategy) across EU borders. And Europe could learn a few things from the U.S. For example, American producers have figured out how to go for the margins as well as the middle—which is to say, to diversify and market to a whole range of tastes and groups. Take Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Entertainment Group, for example, which churns out the politically conservative Fox News as well as provocative liberal shows like The Simpsons and Glee.

The result: even though the U.S. may be losing financial and political clout, it’s gaining soft power through its cultural, media, and technological exports. Europe can regain this soft-power edge only if it embraces some new notions: that mass culture is not necessarily “bad culture,” and that diversity, including contributions from immigrants and new arrivals, could make its films, books, and art more accessible to audiences abroad. That is, if Europe really wants to be part of the mainstream.

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