A few years ago in Mongolia, under a night sky 100 kilometers from the nearest town, a group of us sat and listened to our Mongolian colleagues sing traditional songs around our camp fire. Upon finishing their melodic tales of love, loss and national pride, they asked the Americans, "now sing some of your songs." We looked at each other blankly and nervously. Cultural songs? National songs?! Us? Uhh....
We started rattling off songs to which we simply knew the words, looking for the overlaps. There were five. We all knew one Christmas carol, "The Star Spangled Banner" (which two people refused to sing), the theme song to "Cheers," the theme song to "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," and "Hotel California."
When we said "Hotel California" the very rural Mongolians lit up. They knew that song too. We all sang it together...and then we later taught the Mongolians the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" song.
Now, several years later in Rwanda as I sat in the Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali -- better known thanks to Hollywood as "Hotel Rwanda" - I was struck as "Hotel California" was played through the hotel speakers. I was struck yet again as I walked outside the hotel's gates and a man was listening to "Hotel California" on a dilapidated radio.
Between my Mongolia of the past and Rwanda of today, I've heard "Hotel California" -- and a smattering of its contemporary counterparts -- sung and/or played in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.
Without fail, whether I am in an extraordinarily remote region, a region cut off by embargo, or in a major city, a bizarrely high number of people representing myriad races, ethnicities, creeds, and geographic dispositions don't just know "Hotel California" -- they know every word. Thirty years after it was a number one hit in the United States.
With extensive anecdotal evidence in hand, I'm here to say that alongside Coca Cola and Nestle products, "Hotel California" is one of the United States' most prominent exports.
(As well as its slightly lesser known aforementioned counterparts which include "Livin' On A Prayer," "Sweet Caroline," "Rocky Mountain High," "Summer of '69," "Sweet Child O' Mine," and more recently "things by Britney Spears" and "rap.")
That isn't simply a random observation. Our music matters. The United States' cultural exports impact other cultures and lives the world over -- for better or worse.
Last night I was at a bar called Café Junior in a part of Kigali "mizungus" (white folk) don't typically visit called Nyamirambo. It is affectionately known as "Compton" by my local friend Moheri (thanks, Tupac) because of its ever-so-slightly rough nature. Just above the bar was a small TV that played American hip hop and rap music videos throughout the evening. Moheri and his cousin, Ben, knew almost every song that came on by Li'l John, Ashanti, Beyonce, Shakira, Sean Paul, Usher, P. Diddy and others -- as did the rest of the bar's Rwandan patrons.
"Do people in New York wear a lot of bling bling like that?" Ben asked at one point. "No, not really," I said as a still shot of a 9mm pistol surrounded by $100 bills and a gold necklace sat prominently on the screen. "Really? Seems like they do."
Fortunately or not -- and whether we know or care -- what American businesses and artists say and do (and sing) impacts how people around the world think about us, as well as what their version of reality will be. As much as I have admired Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton, and others in their international efforts, it is all too often Sean Combs, Jon Bon Jovi, Joe Walsh (that's the Eagles' lead singer for those my age), and corporate logo designers who are our most prominent and effective diplomats.
Moheri asked me later, "What is the mountain that has the faces on it in your country?"
"It's Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Jefferson on Mount Rushmore," I replied. "In South Dakota."
"Yes! That's it. That is below North Dakota and Manitoba, yes?
"Wow! Yes it is. How do you know so much about North American geography? Most Americans don't even know that?!" I shot back.
Moheri, who along with his cousin wants to receive an advanced degree, responded: "I started studying U.S. history (on the internet and in books) after I became fascinated with American culture when I listened to hip hop and rock music like Kanye West and Three Doors Down. Do you like rock music?"
"Yes, I do very much." I said. "I love Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and Pearl Jam and..."
"Ahh yes! I know these. These are very good. Another song I like is 'Hotel California.' Do you know it?"
"Yes. Yes, I do."