How did America Influence Popular Culture in Australia?
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The ‘How’ in this question holds two meanings: how as in the Why, or method; and how as in a description of impact. In this essay, I shall attempt to account for both.
How (as in method) did the USA change our formerly British ways? This was done in a 3-step process.
Step one was initiation. In Australia’s case, WW2 was what initiated our relationship with America. During the war, we relied on America for protection (like we would have done with Britain if the Singapore disaster hadn’t occurred). Australia was an important base for America in the Pacific. This was our first contact with American culture.
Our second step involved strengthening our ties with America. Even after the war, Americans continued their defence role in our regions through the ANZUS and SEATO pacts. We accepted American communication bases and satellite ground stations, and they became one of our major trading partners. American investors and companies (most importantly those in the media business) saw the business opportunities in Australia as radio and film became the most popular sources of entertainment for us due to falling prices (i.e. of the radio) and rising living standards (more spending money).
American soapies, such as Dr Paul and Portia Faces Life, were immensely popular; some (like Blue Hill) ran for several decades. The majority of these soap operas are based on imported US scripts. Only few Australian soapies were successful. When American rock ‘n’ roll hit Australia in the mid 1950s, most airtime on the radio was devoted to music programs like the Top 40. A hit song was usually American and musical fads such as Bob Dylan, Beach Boys, and Elvis Presley attracted a huge following.
Cinemas were entertainment venues before and after WWII. However, from the 50s, most films shown were made by American or British companies. By 1952, 74 percent of films shown in Australia came from the USA. These American actors and actresses were celebrities whose lives provided an endless flow of publicity material for our printed media.
This foreign ownership and control instigated great problems for Australian filmmakers, and the our film industry experienced a major slump in the fifties and sixties. After numerous failed attempts by local companies to revived Australian film, it became obvious that this can only be achieved with government support. Therefore, in the late 60s and early 70s, the State and Federal government took a series of steps to assist this revival. These steps included establishing the Australian Council for the Arts in 1967 and Australian Film Development Corporation in 1971 to support and fund the production of Australian films, investigating the impact of foreign control on the local film industry in the Tariff Inquiry in 1972, and setting up films school to train potential filmmakers.
When the television hit the Australian markets in 1956, the Australian public was enthralled by this new and powerful medium. Incidentally, it was cheaper to import programs than to make them locally, and up until 1962, less than half of the televised material was Australian made. Hence, the TV provided us with a further diet of American culture. Sit. Coms., movies and soapies like I Love Lucy and the Sunday night (American) movie soon became the most watched programs of Australians.
The third step of the process derived from step two: hearing, watching, and reading about America and Americans naturally led to us becoming more and more like them. The onset of the Baby Boomer era saw to the beginning of a wish to be American. Australians wanted to look like the American TV and film stars, to indulge in the leisure activities they see American celebrities do in their free time, and to adopt their tastes, habits, fads and crazes, and youth culture.
As such, the influence of America extended to all aspects of our society. Under the influences of stars like Marlon Brando, Australian teenagers began to don Levis jeans, ripple-soled shoes and leather motorbike jackets. The American tenpin bowl caught on like wildfire and by 1964 there where 1600 lanes operating in Australia. During the fifties and sixties, drive-in theatres, modelled on the large open-air movie theatres that appeared in America in the thirties, sprung up across Sydney and Melbourne. This became a popular and ideal way to spend a Saturday evening.
The Australian teens provided a huge market for American manufacturers of clothing, food, games, and other fads and crazes. Every girl had a Barbie doll and every boy a collection of matchbox cars. The yoyo, the Cyclops scooter, the Rubik’s cube, and anything else American films/TV showed and American manufacturers made were a must-have for the Australia teenager.
More importantly, Australia’s public sentiment began to change to identify with America. Australia in the 60s was a country of civil rights movements, women’s liberation, concern for the environment, and the growth of political awareness. The San-Francisco-born hippy’s movement caught on in Australia’s youths. This flower-power generation wore flowers in their hair, preached peace, love and understanding, and turned to Eastern philosophy for spiritual guidance.
Even the face and shape of our cities began to change. The shape of city skyscrapers took after the architecture in American cities. With the hippy’s movement, interior décor became brightly coloured and graphically simple. From the Laminex tabletops to the skyscraper city streets, the face of Australia has changed into a modern world – and its resemblance to the USA is unmistakable.
Sport is a central part of Australian life. In fact, it can even be said to be Australia’s culture (if anything is). Therefore, sport was an aspect of Australian popular culture that’s least directly affected by America. Rugby continued to be played instead of gridiron, and baseball never replaced cricket. Nevertheless, it still managed to indirectly change Australian sport (although not for the worse).
Australia has always prided herself for leading the world in swimming and tennis. However, this was not to continue. All international sporting competitions in the seventies were turned by the Cold War into a test of strength between America and USSR. Their athletes received funding and support from their governments and trained fulltime. Australian athletes relied on the funding and support of local clubs. They had to work and only trained in their free time. Seeing our sporting fortune slump, our government also began supporting our athletes financially – thus allowing them to train fulltime, and devoted funds to scientific research to help them perform better. Thus, under indirect American influence, Australians became even more devoted to sport.
Our links with America has broken through our sense of geographic isolation. Adopting America’s mass communications, trade, financial investment, politics and popular culture, we have entered the modern post-war world.