Big In Europe:
By Grant Rosenberg

In Cameron Crowe’s film Singles, Matt Dillon’s character Cliff Poncier tells a journalist (played by Crowe himself) that despite their apparent lack of success, his band, Citizen Dick, is huge in Belgium. The comment on one hand humorously illustrates the desperation of a man trying to claim some validity despite a lack of success in his home city of Seattle. On the other, it is an attempt to prey on the mysterious mythology of gaining a following in the foreign land of Europe, where somehow, these more highly-cultivated lovers of art recognize genius where we cannot.

It is both a marketing tool and a paean to art. Music labels release different versions of the same albums, with additional bonus tracks for European audiences. This can only benefit the labels and the bands, because such releases capitalize on the adoration of American pop culture while simultaneously allowing these overseas audiences to be rewarded something superior than their American counterparts—who, if they care enough for the band, will still go out and spend extra cash for it as well. Everybody wins, except for the poor schmoes who shell out their hard-earned cash for the Dutch import of some album because it has an extra live track hidden at the end. And quality is not an issue, of course; the same is true for a release from Bob Dylan or Beck as it is with some new flavor of the month, giving a nice fabric softener to their emperor’s new clothes.

The Olympia Theater in France in 1976

This extends beyond music. What has mass appeal in Europe often has only a select audience at home. Forget the tired cliché of Jerry Lewis fans in France—I’ve never seen or heard of them, not a one; the seriously adored honorary American darlings of Western Europe are those such as filmmakers Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Solondz, singer Leonard Cohen, and author Paul Auster, to name a few. And the Coen brothers, until their recent domestic success began to even the score. Jazz music itself is far more widely appreciated in Europe than it is in the mainstream of the U.S. One suspects there is a certain smugness to it all; not only are they appreciated for their works, but the very act of Europeans proclaiming these North Americans as formidable talents—those who are not nearly as appreciated in their own land—is a relished statement of cultural superiority. As in, "how can you all be so dense so as to not see wonderful art right under your nose? You know nothing." Maybe most of us don’t. After all, when we walk into national video chains, we are greeted with 30 copies of the newest big releases, guaranteed to be there, and one copy, if we are lucky, of Woody Allen’s films.

The Internet, that unruly friend/foe of pop commerce has opened borders as expected. It has torn down some of the pretentious PR walls that exist, dispelling some of that mystique. Fans of bands can read the set lists each day of a European tour and can easily download what were previously (and therefore expensive) non-U.S. releases from either bands’ own sites or file sharing programs. Just over a year ago, I paid $30 for a Japanese import of jazz/blues musician Terry Callier’s most recent album, not available in the U.S. at the time. Ironically, it was recorded in Chicago, where I was living at the time, yet I had to order all the way from Japan to get it. And when it arrived, it had the Japanese overlay, giving this, an album of nothing but Americana, the aura of Asia, and I was more than a little seduced by it as something of greater artistic value.

Film and literature is translated or dubbed and more accessible to foreign audiences than music, making a relationship between musician and foreign audience unique. Perhaps the most prime example of this is Leonard Cohen; the opening page of his official website, has links to microsites for fans in Belgium, France, Holland, Italy and Poland. His albums, like the films of Woody Allen, have greater success in Europe than they do on his own continent. And Paul Auster—who lived in France years ago and speaks French—writes in English, then is translated by others. Imagine that, a master of words being more appreciated in a nation where they aren’t even his words being used. Ironic? Who cares. Those who know him and his work in the United States only see the Euro-adoration as a boon to Auster’s street cred. And if it makes us American readers a little more cosmopolitan in the process, all the better.

Another issue at work here is the concept of the release date, and how it is selected for different countries based on reputation and appreciation or for entirely different reasons. The Eels found more success in Europe, with greater albums sales than in the United States. Souljacker, the latest Eels album, was released in Europe almost 6 months ago and still won’t be released in the U.S. until next week. Why is that? It is a bit of a sonically difficult album and except for a few tracks it is less radio-friendly than the last, Daisies of the Galaxy. Is an initial European release a way to have it embraced where the record company is more certain of its success, which could in turn prompt a larger reception back home? The "Big In Europe" strategy? Or could it have anything to do with its sardonic, flippant tone? This is pure conjecture, but it might be related to the title track itself, which includes the lyrics:

Johnny don't like the teacher
Johnny don't like the school
One day Johnny is gonna do somethin'
Show 'em he's nobody's fool
Oh yeah

This may seem inconsequential as controversial lyrics go, but Sept.11th aside, jokes about school shootings are not taken lightly in the States. And this wouldn’t be the first time for something like this: the film O, last year’s modern version of Othello, was completed in 1998 but its release delayed due to the rash of high school violence like that depicted in the film. As for the Eels, the band’s website offers no explanation for the delay except an acknowledgment of the injustice of the wait, and an apology of sorts by making it a double album with some rarities and (European) B-sides that is adding to the price of the album. Regardless of the reason for the delay, the point remains that the Eels like other bands, have a specific relationship with European fans that differs from those in North America. And now the band is giving something back to its American fans that normally goes to those in Europe.


As for cinema, the Internet has erased the notion of targeted, slow release. Word of mouth travels instantly now. A kid online in Europe or Malaysia can watch trailers for all the latest films being released in the US months and months before the specifically timed ad campaign begins in his country. Without even intending to, the Internet allows for global advertising campaigns. And the studios have caught onto this. Who are they to stand in the way of that and not capitalize on universal interest in a film? Five years ago, most American films being released in France had come out in the States on average almost half a year earlier. Now it is three months, even less. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the upcoming Time Machine as well as Star Wars Episode II have initial release dates within days of the American premieres. But what of American films released far in advance overseas? Sure, some of this had to do with funding agreements, particularly if some of the production money comes from European countries, for example. The films Donnie Darko, Storytelling and the upcoming Human Nature have been playing in France for months. All three have highly bankable American movie stars in them, but share the trait of having complicated, genre-bending plots. Storytelling, Todd Solondz’s first film since 1998’s Happiness, has a fairly graphic sex scene that features red boxes covering the naked bodies of the couple—a pre-emptive protest again the MPAA’s inevitable verdict of an NC-17 rating, commercial suicide (and possibly forbidden according to Solondz’s contract which might—as other filmmaker’s do—stipulate that he can do anything as long as the film gets at most an R rating). All the commentary about these red boxes point out how the film’s European version does not have any kind of censoring, just as Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut before it. Again, the idea of European audience maturity, contrasted to the reputation of U.S. repression. And it is without a doubt that U.S. fans of this or other films will patiently wait for the DVD, in hopes of seeing the "real" movie, giving rise to the idea of European versions as the true and pure form of American works.

In addition to the culture gap between nations, is a prioritizing of the dialogue between fans, press and musicians in Europe. John Ondrasik, the singer/songwriter of the popular band Five For Fighting sees a largely different perspective overseas. "The most pleasing thing to me has been the sophistication of the international press," says Ondrasik, whose album America Town has sold more than half a million units and is just starting to gain notice overseas. "I love the fact that [with European journalists] we spend 90 percent of the time talking about the themes of my record beyond just the musical component. Sadly, in the States this is a scary commodity.

"Obviously, marketing a record called America Town is a bit challenging internationally though at the end of the day it's still about the songs… and frankly the themes of [the album] are surely not unique to America." For Ondrasik’s first album he teasingly recorded a hidden track called European B-Side, a coda of sorts that brings together the themes of the album.

The question arises, though, about whose expectations are being catered to by press and industry. Is "substance" really a commodity in the United States? Has Jefferson’s "marketplace of ideas" really boiled down to the lowest common denominator? Or is that just a bunch of hooey, the common complaint of American disinterest in art beyond the black and white? Lately, these questions have spilled over into the arena of politics as well. Not a few European leaders have criticized President Bush for his Reagan-esque oversimplification of conflict and world affairs with his self-ascribed "Texas-style" lingo, and his clearly defined notions of Good vs. Evil—with respect to the war on terrorism but also beyond that. This is an embarrassing legacy of Americans as not even so much narrow-minded or puritanical, but as unable or unwilling to explore and accept the complexities of both history and current events. An obvious exercise in generalizations to be sure, but it all feeds our mutual notions of what is worth our time and theirs.

And yet, couldn’t some of this culture appreciation be this same over-simplication in the other direction? The mystique of New York City is vital to the works of Woody Allen and Paul Auster in a way that works as a travelogue of sorts. Nashville-based non-country musician Josh Rouse admitted that many European journalists would ask him the same questions about Garth Brooks and country music over and over because he was from the same region in the U.S. And there is no doubt that Things American have a high value of currency overseas, if at the present time, these sweet thoughts are limited to our pop culture.


Still, Auster, Cohen, and the late Jeff Buckley… ultimately these are artists that show respect—props, if you will—to other countries. Foreign audiences reward them with their attention and support for what they see as larger world views, beyond the "americentricism" of other pop culture figures. Contrary to belief, the French don't hate people that don't speak their language. They would just respect you a whole lot more if you at least spoke one more, any other, in addition to your mother tongue.

Leonard Cohen

Depending on the audience, being Big In Europe is definitely a boon, revealing a higher sense of cultivation, a special status, something to aspire to. Or alternatively, it is commercial suicide, the equivalent of being a communist: Obscure, contrarian radically difficult. But at least there aren’t any subtitles. Sure, Europeans love themselves some Hollywood-grown no-brainers, but we all have guilty pleasures. That isn’t the official m.o. of cinema or music over here. Once, years ago one of the "Why Ask Why? Try Bud Dry" ads asked why foreign films have to be so foreign. The images were a parody of Bergman and Fellini. True, these auteurs were Europeans themselves, but the sentiment remains whoever is behind it. Over here they like all that kind of "weird, boring, challenging stuff." But if we Americans can get their respect, so it goes, we must be doing something right.