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Walls of Sound

Christopher Fowler

It seems the Atlantic causes distortion in the sound waves flowing between the continents. Musically speaking, America and Europe are just not hearing each other very clearly.

The gap between European music and US music has never been greater. Proof? Recently the US Top 50 had not one single pop track from Europe. For the first time, you get a Top Ten composed entirely of tunes from black artists, nine of whom are rappers. In Britain that figure drops to three, and contains a couple of dire novelty records. In California, Starbucks is rolling out music downloads, and Billboard has listings for the oxymoronic "Hot Christian Adult Contemporary".

Meanwhile France enjoys the sinister sexuality of Mylene Farmer, the controversial homegrown star who outsells Madonna. Back in Britain, neo-easy listening is suddenly the hot sound. A baby-faced jazz crooner named Jamie Cullum gets paid one of history's biggest advances on a music deal. Unplugged suppertime soul makes a comeback. Cockney popsters like Busted fill drive-home airtime. And the student-fanbase attractions are bands like the White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand and The Darkness, filling the gap left by dying superclubs. Just as music divided into tribes, it seems to have also separated into countries. We Europeans are starting to wonder if artists will ever go global, again.

You could check out demographics of age and race to figure out this phenomena, but the short answer? It's an urban thing. Much of the popular music in Europe would be ridiculed in the US, but the American definition of urban music is radically different from the European. European cafes prefer singers, and music goes well with drinks, so soloists like Liane Foly and Garou produce the kind of timeless songs one can learn and singalong to for years. Euro-rappers Java are happy to throw in a few mambo/lounge tracks without feeling they're compromising their integrity, because there's no "cool" hostility attached — just a silly sense of fun.

More alien still is Les Enfoires, the annual stadium fundraiser for the hungry and homeless that gathers together an immense cast of European music and film superstars in a spectacular sing along that almost demands audience participation. The epic show (most recently themed around the sea, funfairs, and outer space) finds further life as a charity cash-raising DVD and double CD each year. Concerts are attended by lip-synching families and kids in the same way that American baseball games cut through all walks of life.

There's another reason why European music will always be different from American music. Many Europeans head South in the summer, to the point where we split-shift between two seasonal lifestyles. On the Greek islands, Spanish, Croatian and German catering staff from bars and hotels follow temperatures and move with the sun, ending their summer on the volcano crescent of Santorini — and they take their music with them. The English decamp for Ibiza, Aya Napia and other clubbing vacation resorts where the dance music is still hotter than the beaches, while chillout mixes rule during the hours of dawn and dusk. Further North, Paris hosts some pretty mean hip-hop, and even Iceland lures revellers searching for some alternative cool.

Italian and French boutique hotels have long been mixing their own CDs; Coste, Byblos, Buddha Bar, 555, Voile Rouge and Café Del Mar (celebrating more than two decades of spliff-and-surf music) all became legends, and you'll hear their sets playing in Budapest and Dubrovnik as well as St. Tropez. Such shared music may prove why downloads will never entirely destroy CD culture in Europe; here, box sets are often little objects of desire. Mylene Farmer's CD was encased in a gold Egyptian casket that weighs a ton. Jean-Jacques Goldman's live set comes complete with its own lightbox and transparencies.

There's something about a beach bar that encourages leniency towards even the most undistinguished summer music. Radio Riviera wouldn't have survived the last few years without Groove Armada, and Moby has become a kind of E-Z-European mascot. The Cote D'Azur is where old tropico-bands wash up; ask Kid Creole and the Coconuts, most likely to be found at the bar of the Martinez Hotel in Cannes. Berlin still loves its metal, of course, and it's best not to ask what Norway and Poland listen to. Arabic techno and Indian lounge music are popular and ubiquitous, probably because they're extremely melodic and provide a cold room with instant atmosphere.

American singers are big in Europe, too, but like fine wine, some music just doesn't travel well. Beyoncé may cross all borders, but Country music will never really make it here because of all that white sentimentality, and Christian rock won't catch on because Europe is a melting-pot that makes listeners allergic to special-case religious pleading. For many Europeans, there's an uncomfortable awareness that the shadow of corporate promotion compromises emerging talent. It doesn't help that Billboard news items reach new levels of vacuity; "Britney and Jewel ink cosmetics deal" read a recent headline. In the face of that, there's a case for going back to one's unfashionable roots, even if a singalong and a little embarrassment is the price to pay.

Of course, it may simply be geography that keeps the continents musically apart America's geographical size and common language creates a singularity of purpose and national branding opportunities. Europe is just a bunch of idiosyncratic little countries that argue, smoke and drink too much. And that weird, Franco-Arabic lounge vibe on the bar stereo? That's most definitely a European thing.

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