Culture War: Art in America and France

Culture War: Art in America and France
Photo Credit: Rachel Snapp

Patisseries, espressos, mimes, outdoor markets, beautiful countryside and historical architecture: all things that I imagined when looking forward to my six-week summer study abroad experience in Perigueux, France.

In anticipation for complete French cultural immersion, I expected the locals to throw open their windows, baguette in hand, and burst into the French rendition of the song “Belle” from “Beauty and the Beast.”

While that is a bit exaggerated, it was a twisted culture shock that not even two hours into my stay, I heard Katy Perry over the radio at the supermarket. Let’s not forget Lady Gaga in the flower shop, and of course Michael Jackson in the café. Tricky France, playing with my expectations.

My expectations were to experience a completely new palate of French cuisine, find myself thrown into a completely new set of social protocols and to be completely immersed in the French language.

These things happened; believe me they happened. My failed attempts at French conversation could fill an entire page all on their own. But as an American music performance student, coming to France to study music abroad, I anticipated discovering the French artistic culture and expanding my iTunes library with my new found knowledge. I wasn’t quite ready to hear “I Kissed A Girl” so soon after leaving the States.

It intrigued me that a country so rich with its own traditions and history favored music with English lyrics. I started to pay more attention to the popular media around town and found that the cinema was showing mostly American-made movies such as Man of Steel, Despicable Me 2 and Monster’s University. The bookstores also carried a good number of American literature translated into French: The Hunger Games, Twilight, Eragon and more.

I sat down with one of my new French friends, Lydie Szymaszek, a vocal performer and music teacher from Clermont-Ferrand, France, to help me identify the connections between American and French popular culture.

Szymaszek shared that it’s a hard business for French musicians, because the market for French lyrics is not as promising as one for English lyrics. The English language is more international than French, therefore English music can reach larger global audiences.

“A lot of music, like rock, just doesn’t sound as good in French. It’s harder for a French band to book a gig if their music is in French,” said Szymaszek.

There are a number of French musicians who have succeeded in France with French lyrics, such as Stromae, Grand Corps Malade, and  -M-, but they have not reached as many international audiences as French artists David Guetta or Daft Punk, whose music is in English, and whose renown extends beyond French borders.

Despite this marketing phenomenon, France has made efforts to preserve and support its local artists. French radio stations are required to broadcast a minimum number of French songs, and the French government provides monetary support to art in all its forms.

After all of these discoveries, I was left with the question: What does a country’s entertainment and artistic culture say about who they are as a nation?

There is a definite difference in the style of expression in the arts between the United States and France.

The United States focuses on the consumerism of the industry, following the philosophy that the bigger the show/spectacle/special effects, the better.

French artists seem to approach their craft through the bare essentials, focusing on the intimacy of emotion and the reality of everyday life.

One thing that does not translate well to French culture is a good amount of American humor. “It’s not exactly our thing,” said Szymaszek. “French comedy is it’s own style, but often movies and such can be more intellectual than humorous, which is why a lot of the cinema can be boring.”

France favors private, diverse and independent music and maintains a culture that produces ideas that go beyond a strict commercial value.

American arts are often mainstream, as the industry revolves around making profits.

As a visiting classical musician this summer, I noticed that overall, the French culture appreciates the fine arts and supports the individual artist, whether they are dancers, painters or musicians. France places value in the art and the artist for what they are, whether or not their creations reach the globe (or even the next village).

While American music and entertainment appear to impact the globe, it wouldn’t hurt the United States entertainment industries to learn a thing or two about raw appreciation of the arts from the French.