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Features / Photography

The Language of Fantasy: The Enduring Appeal of Americana

First published in Printed Pages Autumn 2014

Words by

Rob Alderson

Illustration by

Pete Gamlen

“You want to be trendy,
But if you drink whisky and soda,
You get a long hangover!
You dance rock ‘n’ roll
you play baseball
but who gives you the money to buy Camels?
Your mother’s bag!
You’d like to be an American
American, American
but you were born in Italy!
listen to me, there’s nothing you can do…”

Tu Vuò Fà L’Americano is almost certainly the catchiest satire on the rest of the world’s infatuation with America. Recorded in 1956 by the Neapolitan singer Renato Carosone, it lampooned the young men who strutted around the streets of Sicily copying the latest styles from across the Atlantic, but whose American affectations were funded by their inescapably Italian (and presumably somewhat baffled) parents. Whether through its prescient observation or toe-tapping swing-jazz sensibilities, the song has endured; it’s sung by Jude Law and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley and dance samples have been used by shaven-headed Latino songbird Pitbull among others.

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Carl Partridge: Americana

In the (almost) six decades since Carosone released Tu Vuò Fà L’Americano, we’ve had the Civil Rights movement, the Summer of Love, Vietnam, the Cold War, 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Regimes have ranged from Kennedy’s brave new world and Obama’s missions of hope to Nixon’s paranoia and the neo-con nightmare of the second Bush administration. The technology, news, film, TV and music industries have changed beyond all recognition. And yet, particularly in the UK, the obsession with America seems to have endured. Not only that; in recent years it seems to have intensified. The gadgets we crave are those from the West Coast rather than Japan or Korea. We binge on TV series that feature quintessentially American themes and contexts; House Of Cards, The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad. We gorge on American food with hip east London menus offering pulled pork and hot-dogs ( Time Out London recently hailed the arrival of the grilled cheese sandwich as the latest “high-cal, lowbrow American bite”). Artists like Lana del Rey with “her sultry repackaging of curves and chrome Americana” (The Guardian) have bewitched a whole new generation.

But as the writer Will Self pointed out, attitudes to our cousins across the pond, even the idioms we use are folksily patronising, remain “hopelessly confused.” A YouGov poll of 2012 found that only 13% of Brits saw the USA as “a force for good in the world.” One in four said America “lacked important morals” and 40% said it was “bullying.” But fewer than one in five Brits think America’s power in the world is declining, but more than a third of Americans think their own country’s dominance is on the wane.

Against this backdrop, why do so many British artists and designers still take inspiration from traditionally American themes, symbols and aesthetics? What is their relationship with America and with so-called Americana, a term that in its loosest definition means “things associated with the United States” but which so often has a strongly nostalgic and reductive flavour?

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Carl Partridge: Americana

Perhaps the most obvious explanation is the simplest; America is a bigger, louder version of ourselves. Its technicolour super-sized sexiness is intoxicating if you grew up in say, Portsmouth, like illustrator Carl Partridge. His MA graduation project at London’s Central Saint Martins was called Americana and featured intriguing collages of decontextualised American imagery; candy packaging, adverts for rifles, comic-book covers of Hulk Hogan.

“I am inspired by how ridiculous it can be,” Carl says. “The band Kiss have a miniature golf course in Las Vegas, Dolly Parton has a theme park called Dollywood. Hulk Hogan is now a web-hosting connoisseur. I am fascinated with flawed American icons like Elvis, Evel Knievel, Marlon Brando, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson. The America I am interested in doesn’t make sense, yet doesn’t try to. It’s entertainment, it’s exciting and it’s improbable on English shores.”

For his MA project, Carl came up with bullet points to list the themes he wanted to incorporate and it reads as an interesting word association exercise: “native America, flags, fame, sport, success, excess, guns, babes, obesity, fun fairs, the moon and murder.”

“There was a strong desire to be subtle, yet I struggled with the challenge of not being too ambiguous or vague. In the end I tried not to make too much sense of it all. That seemed like the American thing to do.”

Carl though, has never set foot on American shores. “I wanted to illustrate an interpretation of a country never having been there. The image I built was predominantly a result of information I had received and seen on the screen or found in the Buy, Sell and Trade Comic Book Basement in Notting Hill.”

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Matt Henry: 1964 – 1974 The Draft

It’s important to recognise how well we’ve been sold Americana down the decades, as Dr Jennifer Smyth of the University of Warwick’s School of Comparative American Studies explains. “For a long time, American companies have been extremely successful at branding and exporting products and selling a certain image of American history and culture: with time, this acquires a nostalgic patina and becomes Americana. There are certain images, people, and commodities that appear again and again. American culture has become a lot like a Sears Roebuck catalog for artists — a large line of products to choose from, but after a while they all seem alike.

“Americana is popular in America as a kind of adhesive cultural glue — at one level there are certain things everyone shares that define your American identity: baseball, french fries (never chips), Sam Adams beer, superhighways, log cabins. Outside the US, a lot of the historical connections and special knowledge get lost, but for everyone else, there is Hollywood.”

It’s difficult to overestimate the power of the movie industry as hawkers of Americana. Growing up in north Wales, the photographer Matt Henry spent every penny of his pocket money renting VHS films from the Post Office, and he was entranced by TV shows like The A-Team and Dukes of Hazzard.

“Edward Bernays comes to mind here,” says Matt, “the American nephew of Freud and the godfather of public relations and propaganda. He used Freud’s ideas to establish a theory that the best way to sell products wasn’t actually to sell their virtues, but instead to link goods to people’s unconscious desires. The idea is that rationality isn’t the greatest motivating force, and there’s something about American film and television that exploits this. It expertly keys into our sexual, aggressive, irrational urges. It gets you rooting for the bad guy, the anti-hero, and draws you into receiving real pleasure from outcomes you wouldn’t generally consider moral.

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Matt Henry: 1964 – 1974 The King

“It’s at the heart of many a storyline of the rebel, the outsider, the lone man and his gun refusing to compromise with the world. Fierce individualism and power; it’s not moral but it’s overtly sexual and ally sex to the Ford Mustang, or the baseball hat, or the American diner, and you begin to see behind this iconography.”

Unlike Carl, Matt’s been a frequent visitor to north America. His family often spent summer holidays at a lakeside cabin in Canada and they went to Florida too. As an 18-year-old he spent three months working on the East Coast and recently road-tripped across New York state. It’s little surprise then that since 2007, Matt’s work has exploited some of these themes through stylised series that riff on the death of Elvis and student protests against the Vietnam War. He believes the style is as powerful as subject matter when it comes to ramping up emotive reactions to the past, or creating new narratives of Americana.

“_Drive_ is a great contemporary example of a film that blends sex, fear, aggression with truly seductive lighting, sound and camera work. You’ve got a film that is actually morally ambiguous but impossible to resist. Can you ever think of a white sports jacket and driving gloves in the same way again? Two more symbols of Americana have been forged for the next generation.”

It’s no coincidence that both Matt and Carl talk about symbols; it’s what Americana is built on. Over time this huge, sprawling, diverse country has been boiled down in the popular imagination to certain images. How else do you make sense of a country that stretches from the haughty cities of the Eastern Seabord to the rugged beaches of Big Sur, moving from the forests and lakes along the Canadian border down to the unforgiving sun-baked deserts of the south?

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Carl Partridge: Americana

Artists need recurring metaphors whose meaning we recognise immediately. Naturally nuance is sacrificed in this process and we become like Hergé, writing Tintin in America, one of illustrator Pete Gamlen’s formative influences. “I think that book encapsulates a very specific, European, view of America. The story is absurd – Tintin battles Al Capone in Chicago, and then goes into an exceedingly anachronistic Western setting, replete with warlike Native Americans and Mexican bandits. Hergé, naturally, had not been to America, but was himself drawing inspiration from films he’d seen.”

Pete offers a different perspective again on our relationship with America as he’s lived there for the past three years. He grew up in Surrey, London’s suburban commuter belt, and loved what he calls “brash Americana.”

“When I was 17, terribly bored with where I was living and socially unsatisfied, listening to Tom Waits transported me to a mental landscape that was very stimulating,” he recalls. After studying illustration at Brighton University he developed an aesthetic that drew heavily on American themes, symbols and language (he uses terms like douchebag in his work with admirable nonchalance).

Now based in Brooklyn, his relationship with Americana has shifted, both because his practice has evolved with “an increasing interest in quieter, more introspective qualities,” but also because of exposure. “Rather than engaging with the iconic, or boldest or most stereotypical cultural signifiers that persist about America outside of the country, I’m much more in contact with, and more interested in the less obvious, weirder-around-the-edges aspect of American culture. I collect a lot of ephemera – I have a desk drawer of psychic fliers, salt packets, dated or just plain odd packaging. It’s Americana, but it isn’t what’s visible from afar.”

And yet he still appreciates the power of those traditional symbols; the stars and stripes, the diner, the red convertible on the open road. They may not equate with his own experiences, but therein lies their power.

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Matt Henry: Short Stories

“I think the reason why so many non-Americans are drawn to Americana is because it is essentially a myth,” he says. “Just as many people draw inspiration from ancient legends, and fantasies about wizards, a lot of fiction about America essentially takes place in a completely fantastical realm.”

Matt talks in almost identical terms. “It’s more about a language of imagination that was established at a very early age from television and cinema. The language of fantasy for me became American because these were the symbols and icons I consumed and played with in my mind’s eye. Americana is one way of describing this; the bits of American culture that have become so entrenched in people’s minds that they actually become part of the vocabulary of fantasy.”

When these symbols are detached from reality, they take on a versatility that surely helps explain their enduring appeal. In other words, these symbols survive because they can be imbued with whatever qualities suit your own artistic vision.

“Americana is many different things for many different people, and that is what it intended to be: The Land of Opportunity,” says Carl.

Jennifer agrees. “What makes American style and commodities so inspiring for artists and designers? At one time, I would have been tempted to say energy, innovation, and a kind of defiance. There was a kind of take-me-as-I-am-or-go-to-hell appeal running through American culture from Buffalo Bill to Jackson Pollock and Evel Knievel.

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Pete Gamlen: Interior

“Katharine Hepburn made wearing jeans and being an outspoken woman glamorous. But Ronald Reagan and John Wayne wore them too and said other things. That’s what makes Americana so paradoxical: it is both culturally conservative and provocative, a predicable brand and a bold style.”

But what makes us Brits so susceptible to this influence? In an article for the BBC, Will Self wrote that “at root the problem is one of mirroring… No matter how intently we examine the US, we cannot help but see our own features staring back at us. This phenomenon simply doesn’t occur when we look at the French, the Vietnamese or the South Africans – all remain properly other.

“Only America and the Americans have this ability to derange us with their capacity to reflect our own image. Not that they do this intentionally, really, it’s something we do to ourselves.”

For Jennifer it’s more about our similar relationships with history.“I think both countries rely on manufacturing nostalgic images of their past as cultural commodities, and that’s a sound basis for tourism. Whether it’s good for culture is another matter.”

Pete Gamlen has similar concerns about our artistic infatuation with these symbols. “As attractive and potent as Americana can be,” he says, “I think there is a very high risk for making work that is redundant if it’s drawing on influences that are themselves echoes of earlier fiction. That is a problem that I think a lot of cultural expressions are facing at the moment. Peak saturation of pastiche and retro regurgitation.”

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But when we consider why the cultural power has not just endured, but arguably intensified here in the UK, Jennifer has an interesting explanation. “Artists and consumers reach back into the past for these classic colourful images because they cannot situate themselves in their own present. Contemporary life cannot be defined or explained – it’s too messy and confusing – and this nostalgic bric-a-brac is symptomatic of generations who need a soothing, simple past to combat a possibly dehumanising present.

“These commodities (and Americana represents a significant part) give the illusion of a past and an identity, a sense that if you chose the Warhol print or retro Juke box or 1950s sunglasses you are creating a unique identity for yourself and defining yourself against the mass of faceless consumerism. Hang a vintage California licence plate on your wall and dream you are a Kerouac badass. But corporate capitalism produces even nostalgic Americana for bespoke consumers, so your choices have already been made for you. Your biggest illusions are that you have a choice as a consumer and that Americana or any retro style exempts you from the homogenous boredom of everyday life.”

So on the one hand we have Americana as a hipster lifestyle choice. On the other this yearning for nostalgic comfort in the social, cultural and political maelstrom of the present makes sense. And if ironic appreciation for pulled pork sliders and grilled cheese sandwiches is part of the story, we shouldn’t underplay the other side; that Americana conjures up certain ideas and ideals that remain powerful, inspiring even.

“Politically, physically, historically and socially, America is an extreme place,” Pete says. “The sheer scale of it is inspiring. Despite the rest of the world’s increasingly clouded and complex relationship with America, it still exerts a hold on a lot of imaginations. People have used it as a place to try to create their own ideal societies, from the Mayflower pilgrims to modern day hippy and religious cults. The idea that it is perhaps the last place where you can carve out your own corner of the world to make as you see fit has proved weirdly resilient. As long as it holds that power, it is no surprise to me that people will want to make work exploring why that is.”