September 28, 2023

Travelog: ‘Made in U.S.A’

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How to react. Going to listen to vaguely defined live music in Dublin only to experience an American accent, complete with a Southern Twang and frat house classics. The artists are Irish, but their vocal patterns are spot on: The accents are part of the performance, it is all imitation.  

The complaints here are twofold. On one hand, there’s that surface level frustration at a failure to experience authentic Irish music, an unfair expectation and frankly silly desire that still manages to worm its way into one’s head every time it remains either unfulfilled or fulfilled only in the most touristy context (that is to say, for Americans and Americans only). Legitimately pernicious though, and perhaps a more valid complaint, is that presentation of American music devoid of any cultural context. Among the many, many negative outcroppings of American cultural dominance abroad is that when the American culture becomes a global commodity, the actual societal and authorial informants of that culture vanish into the newly globalized commodity. When a song can be played and recognized anywhere in the world, by anyone, in any way, it ceases to be a song as a work of art and becomes a commodity. Subsequently, when the bulk of American popular music is packaged for export and presented as a global product rather than an American one (and even then an American product rather than a songwriter’s vision), American culture as a sum of its artworks ceases to exist. 

More complicated than simply facing the consequences of American cultural hegemony was the fact that the American accent, Southern twang, and familiar choruses were comforting rather than frustrating. What to do when the last thing you want to hear is the exact thing to make you feel best. How to deal with the fact that my chicken soup music is… bad. Bad obviously not in the sense of poor quality (no song played could have had an approval rating below 80 percent), but in the sense of its institutionalization. The overwhelming cultural space the music takes, so much so that it “hits” played by any half decent cover band, serves to inject it with a sense of intellectual property, anonymous content. In every opening guitar riff inspiring a cheer, the experience of listening becomes akin to watching a Marvel movie. Every few minutes are infused with that fleeting thrill at the revelation of a new character just as the legitimate artistic merits of the film are either entirely absent or else stripped of authorship to such a degree that the whole experience becomes inherently corporatized. 

Harry Potter fans have found themselves reckoning with a similar phenomenon recently, forced to choose either to extricate from their fandom, extricate their fandom from the creation’s author or else sit uneasy about something that once and still does remain so meaningful to them. On the surface however, the Rowling experience isn’t quite so complicated: The art still has an author, it undeniably retains its quality as “art” (much as David Zazlov has alternative designs). I wonder what instead to make of the fact that so much of what we have read and consumed our entire lives (ie the things that now provide comfort, stability) have been since (or perhaps before) consumed into the world of intellectual property. To what extent do those go hand in hand: Does hearing a Michael Jackson song in a TV commercial or a nearly AI generated movie increase its comforting quality? Presumably. 

As may be obvious by my half-baked dilemma of discomfiting comforts, I’ve been watching a lot of Jean-Luc Godard films. Godard was a film critic turned filmmaker, radicalized in the 1960s. Though he became disillusioned with the art of filmmaking, he compulsively continued to create through the end of his life, and continued to filmically express some continued comfort with those Hollywood films he ultimately perceived as a tools of capitalistic imperialism. 1967’s Made in U.S.A has been identified by both contemporary critic Gilles Jacob, and since by J. Hoberman as Godard’s political coming out, diverting from earlier works which, though politically inclined, were largely formless ideologically. It exists, however, as a fascinating experiment: A loose reimagining of the Howard Hawks classic The Big Sleep, albeit now centering a specific figure of the European Left, rather than Hawks’ anonymous criminal figure. The presentation has a dual effect: Godard acknowledges an affection for the Hawks film (it is after all difficult to hommage a film without affection) and rejects its place in the institution of the Hollywood studio system, an inherently reactionary if not fascist body (at least in the estimation of Godard). Perhaps Godard conceived of the film as a supplantation of The Big Sleep, adopting its contributions to the cinematic form while improving upon it with a radical impulse. 

There’s not an easy answer to the uncomfortable sensation that our comfort foods are the worst things for us. It would of course be nice to find solace in films and music that represent a standard of quality and radicalism, devoid of any institutional backing that may make us feel gross. There likely isn’t a project in reclaiming these songs from their pernicious cultural supplantation: They are and will remain global products, and to reclaim (even with good intentions) is to uplift their hegemony. There’s hope for the prospect of reestablishing comfort watches and conditioning one’s taste to represent one’s worldview: That is after all some component of a ritual involving constant watches and rewatches of Godard. Ultimately, though, the prospect of excising affection for things we know aren’t good for the world, or even for us, is impossible. I’m increasingly skeptical that there exists an escape from fetishism of those most heartwarming commodities. 

Max Fattal is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]