American Culture isn’t really American culture. Not in the sense of apple pie and American football (although the cheerleaders are). Instead, it is one constant crash of tsunami waves that tells us, non-Americans in the rest of the world, of the Godzilla stomp of ‘soft power’ in its most tantalising form.
“It is not enough to conquer; one must know how to seduce,” Voltaire had said with wisdom. And no one seduces better than American Culture. When you see someone in Rohtak with, say, Eminem emblazoned on his T-shirt, it’s not as if the person is an Eminem fan or is remotely aware of who he is. He is wearing it because it was there and he liked what he saw.
American Culture, a bane for so many culturewallas, is a mesmerising mish-mash that holds firm even when it loses context. It doesn’t come waving the flag of ideology, nation or even national culture. Its sole reason to be is to be seen — everywhere and anywhere. And if that makes it as easy for you to follow the life of Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt as it is to follow that of Saif Ali Khan-Kareena Kapoor, so be it.
Hollywood, above all, typifies this genre of engagement. It’s not Hollywood that gobbles the world; it’s the world that munches on Hollywood. Its presence is there in advertising, television, fashion, language, news, gestures, rules of behaviour, the works. Money and technology fuel this lighthouse. As do people who know that big investments need to be made in culture — entertainment being the life force of culture — to get big returns. Being ubiquitous is a happy byproduct.
There was a time when, sitting here in India, we would look towards Europe and Britain for ‘high culture’ and towards America for ‘pop culture’. But populism is a powerful force. And it would be silly to look down on something great just because it’s popular. Philip Roth wouldn’t have written finer novels if fewer people read him. And Paris Hilton wouldn’t have been a Coco Chanel if she were less visible. What is so enticing about American Culture isn’t that it is overwhelmingly beautiful or moving. It is just so available.
Hollywoodisation is about making something bigger, brighter, louder — factors that travel well and wide. In the end, we watch a TV series like Lost or listen to a 50 Cent song or wear a pair of Levis jeans or go out to the nearest TGIF because they are so there. Bollywood, Twenty20 cricket and entertainment television is us refashioning American Culture in our own image. The day a kid in Anchorage comes out of a diner wearing a Shah Rukh Khan T-shirt, not having a clue who Shah Rukh is, but because the T-shirt looked cool, we’ll know that we’ve learnt well from the master.