The power of the mythical 'America'

19:30, Oct 11 2012

As soon as I figured out that I could travel alone, and not just on trips that my parents were taking and willing to pay for me to take with them, I wanted to go to America.

And I did and I ended up meeting an American girl that I married. So in retrospect I applaud this impulse of mine, wholeheartedly.

I've been thinking a bit this last week of what lies at the root of my early desire to come to America. I can't really get past pop-culture as the prime reason. There's a deep thicket of things that have sustained this interest, but it starts with pop-culture.      

Like many of you, I've been fascinated by American pop-culture since I was young. It always seemed more enticing than the Shortland Street, John Hawkesby, Petra Bagust-flavoured offerings I was being provided as a pre-teen New Zealander developing a cultural consciousness. Our own depictions of ourselves were flat, and weird. They never seemed to fit.       

This is going to seem odd to admit, but the other day I found myself engaged in a long discussion about Beverly Hills 90210 over text message with my friend Jon, a New Zealander now residing in Los Angeles. He confessed that Brandon Walsh was an extremely formative role model to him in his early adolescence. I confessed in return to having accepted that I was probably much more of a goofy Steve Sanders type than several of the much cooler characters one might aspire to be. We spent a while assigning 90210 avatars to all of our shared friends.

We covered a lot of other ground. We probably devoted a lot more time to this than two adult men texting about a two-decades-old show should.


We both concurred that in the context of our cultural upbringing, these characters were important to us. It was important in a way that was genuine, not sarcastically or in an attempt at hip irony.  

What I found myself debating after this conversation was this: as a child, did I take so strongly to American pop-culture because it was most of what was on offer to me?

Or did it create an idea of America that took a powerful hold over my imagination?

Looking for clues, I created a timeline to trace how my cultural notion of America was created for me through early experiences with books, movies, TV and music.

1993: At the tender age of nine, I pick up John Grisham's The Client and read it in a matter of days, to the amazement of my parents. America is first sewn into my imagination as a place of danger and drama, where small children can accidentally witness murders and consequently need go on the lam to outsmart mobsters. 

1993: Melrose Place makes its debut, and takes pride of place in the Robinson household alongside Beverly Hills 90210 as a weekly must-see. I have an early memory of my Mum making me cover my eyes and stare at the wall when Andrew Shue's Billy Campbell and Heather Locklear's Amanda Woodward fell into a passionate embrace when he was helping her put the trash out. America now becomes a place in my imagination where everybody has a glamorous day job and engages in sexy schemes.   

1994: The premiere of Friends romanticises American big-city living, setting North American early adulthood to an intoxicating backdrop of roomy apartments, bottomless cups of coffee, PG-rated bed-hopping, and slick, entertaining camaraderie. (Later experiences of my own early adulthood prove this vision fiscally impossible and out of touch, e.g. Rachel's transition from waitress to fashion executive, sans any relevant qualifications. But I guess it's set in America. Anything can happen!)   

1995: Clueless introduces the idea of Alicia Silverstone into my psyche, my first encounter with a paragon of Hollywood's idea of beauty. I am smitten. (This obsession continues through the release of Batman and Robin.) Clueless also introduces the notion of the American shopping mall and the American high school, as places of infinite joy and excitement, rather than drab, soulless boredom.    

1998-1999: Aping my eldest sister's taste in movies, I fall under the spell of Reality Bites, Mallrats, and Grosse Pointe Blank (all of which I taped off Sky Movies and later wear out over many repeated viewings). The Clueless/Friends/Melrose Place American paradigm is broadened, yet still remains romanticised and distorted, by a string of cool, jaded, overly verbose and sensitive male leads, fated to fall in love with waifish Minnie Driver/Winona Ryder types. In these years, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye for the first time. These books were more sad and existential than cool. But it still seemed like an indefinably American sadness, a subconscious pain that sat just outside of the New Zealand purview.     

2001: The Strokes' Is This It, for better or worse, pares artfully the recycled sounds of the Velvet Underground, the iconography of the 1970s New York punk movement, and a general whiff of debauchery. Seventeen year-old James is hooked.

I've avoided listing things like Batman or Jurassic Park here because they were more visceral in their appeals to me as a young watcher, and my connection with them was much more young boy-ish and wondrous, than something centred around a place, notably outside of my own.


It seemed clear when writing the above list that I did have an idea of America built up for me through these cultural interactions. What I can't answer, still, is whether this idea of America is what attracted me to come here at first, or maybe I'm just an unimaginative traveller.

Either way, it worked out okay.

What early experiences with pop-culture informed your sense of America? How did this alter your own interactions with America, and desires to come here?

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