Why Does American Music Rock Elsewhere?

In the United States, David Hasselhoff is best known as the aging hunk of Knight Rider and Baywatch fame, who made his name talking to his computerized car or leaping over waves to rescue stray beach bunnies.

In Europe, Hasselhoff is known as a multi-platinum recording star too — one who has had a half-dozen hit albums and performed to several standing-room only tours.

"His love songs [are] beautiful and he [sings] with great charisma," said Elisabeth Csepan, president of Hasselhoff's fan club in Austria.

But Hasselhoff, a native of Baltimore, Md., hasn't found himself as popular among his countrymen. Americans have largely treated his singing career as a joke.

He "has the kind of voice you would politely sit through at a karaoke bar, but secretly wish for the next guy up. It's clunky, off-key and charmless," wrote Hartford Courant critic Roger Catlin shortly after one of Hasselhoff's first performances in the United States.

Hasselhoff is not all that unusual in his stardom though. Many U.S. musicians have found much more receptive ears abroad than at home.

In an age when globalization opponents cry out about the dominance of American multinationals like McDonalds and Starbucks, the music world at times presents an amusingly different model of cultural exchange.

A Variety of Circumstances

Sometimes they're passé, sometimes they're reviled and sometimes they're just overlooked — but plenty of American musical acts have found salvation away from home.

Michael Jackson, whose image in the United States has been tarnished by erratic behavior, is believed to draw most of his fans from abroad nowadays. His last major world tour played to sold-out crowds from Prague to Johannesburg — but not a single stadium in the United States.

"Jackson could probably tour right now in maybe Japan, Russia somewhere and still be the biggest thing since sliced bread," said J.J. Rice, music program director at New York radio station WBLI.

Rapper Vanilla Ice had one hit in the 1990s, "Ice Ice Baby," before he was mocked out of stardom. He was recently pegged by U.S. music channel VH-1 as a "one-hit wonder," but he is still performing today. He has told music reporters that his overseas sales have always been strong.

Americans traveling in Asia have been surprised to see some acts that they thought had long disappeared, like Boney M, a European disco group who had two hits in the United States during the 1970s.

Ernie Singer, a Hawaii-based music manager, said acts from the 1950s and '60s, like The Ventures, The Four Freshmen, and George Chakaris of the musical West Side Story, are still making a comfortable living in Japan. "They're not quite household names, but they're has-beens in the States," he said.

Music experts theorize that some acts manage to survive overseas because they satisfy foreign audiences' tastes for something characteristically American.

"It's kind of like the kind of American movies that do well overseas are the big loud American movies, westerns," said Jeffrey Hyson, a pop culture expert at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

Not only Hasselhoff, but actresses like Alyssa Milano and Jennifer Love Hewitt prove that phenomenon — they have found fans of their vocal talents in Japan.

Hewitt's R&B-laced pop, and Milano's sugary tracks, with names like "Kimi Wa Sunshine Boy" have both spent time atop the Japanese charts — but seldom anywhere else.

In Search of Resonance

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