Why Does American Music Rock Elsewhere?

N E W   Y O R K , Aug. 9, 2002 -- 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

Other cultural mores contribute to the success of American acts as well, critics said. American audiences aren't used to seeing stars operate across media, while in Japan, even filmmakers like Woody Allen do commercials, Hyson said.

Sarah McGarr, who runs Dhasselhoff.net, a Web site for fans of the Knight Rider star, said she thought this was the case for Hasselhoff. "Coming from a show about a talking car, and Baywatch, it's really hard to move into a singing career," she said.

But if American mores have prevented Hasselhoff from succeeding at home, it has also helped him win fans abroad. Hasselhoff falls easily into the uniquely German genre of Schlager music, a "mannered form" that combines rock 'n' roll arrangements with lounge singing, said Robert Fisher, lead singer of the alt-country band, Willard Grant Conspiracy.

Fisher, whose band has also found more popularity in Europe than at home, said Hasselhoff is not the only American act to fill a niche in a foreign market.

A number of heavy metal bands have found increased success in Scandinavia, because of the sort of pagan imagery that's more familiar there, said Fisher. "They can get away with the sort of heavy mythology that would scare the hell out of parents here," he said.

Similarly, few Americans have heard of the New York-born and -based singer Anastacia, or her brand of soulful dance music. But she is a star in Europe, having sold some 10 million albums.

"A lot of times that Europop sound is too cool for the room in America," Rice, the music director said. "You've got a whole country out there. These people would rather listen to the Goo Goo Dolls," he said.

Fisher also cited another reason why U.S. acts might take to Europe better than home — the quality of the audiences. He said he's found European audiences to be more faithful. "In the United States, more than anywhere else, music is a disposable thing," he said.

Experts say that such cultural exchanges have been taking place for a long time — especially in the world of jazz, which is an American art form, but has a much wider following in Europe. "Historically, it's not an unusual thing," Fisher said.

A Fairer Model of Globalization

The principles of cultural exchange also work the other way around — that Americans have eschewed many acts that the rest of the world find popular, or adopted some of their less-popular ones.

Stars like Jimi Hendrix, Macy Gray, Kylie Minogue — and mega-star boy band *NSYNC only became popular in the United States after making it abroad, critics said.

Even entire genres — like techno and house music — needed to be adopted abroad before they were adopted at home, said Schuyler Brown, of marketing firm Euro RSCG Worldwide.

Most people identify the thudding beats with British dance clubs but the forms were actually invented in the American Midwest, she said. "We love what's exotic and foreign," she said. "Entire genres look better reflected through another culture."

Similarly, American jazz musicians may go abroad to find fans, but Japanese jazz musicians come to New York to get credibility, said Singer, who manages the career of his Japanese-born jazz singer wife, Chika.

And while millions of Americans count themselves fans of the bands Def Leppard, Bush, and Depeche Mode — the British acts have only been modestly successful at home. "Everybody has their sweet spot," Rice said.

Hyson, the pop-culture expert, noted "it would be nice if there was some clean formula." But he and others agreed that the only formula to be learned is that the whole world counts when it comes to music.

"You have to think globally when you're [music industry bigwig and Sony Records President] Tommy Mottola," Rice said.