WASHINGTON - It is well known that Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck toured the world as American Jazz Ambassadors, and American symphony orchestras have played throughout the world. Less well known is the role country music has played and is playing in U.S. public diplomacy.
That was the focus of this month's CCLP Communication Leadership Lunch Forum here, presented by David Firestein (pictured right), a China expert and vice president at the East West Institute.
"For public diplomacy to be effective," said Firestein, "it has to be organic, personal and emotional." He added that it must be "true to who you are and/or relevant to people's lives."
According to Firestein, those are exactly the attributes of American country music: it is "quintessentially American," similar to jazz and blues; but blues are mainly sad, he said, while jazz is mostly instrumental.
"'Telling America's story' is a phrase we all use in public diplomacy," he said, noting that successful country music songs always tell a strong story. Firestein also noted that country music is firmly American - one-third of U.S. adults listen to country music, he said - and includes references to family, a universal appeal worldwide.
"You don't hear Lady Gaga singing about her cousins or her family," he said.
Rap and pop are also American, but he noted their lyrics are often unintelligible to foreign audiences with at best a "mid-level command of English." And rap and pop have another problem: the choice of words.
"What may play fine in London or Paris doesn't play well in the Middle East or, for that matter, Moscow," he said. But country music deals with difficult issues, "including race, the economic downturn, 9/11... and does so without using the F word." Country music, he argued, was "mom-tested and mom-approved," because most country listeners are women, many listening with their children.
Challenged by one forum participant who argued that country music is often associated with racism, Firestein was emphatic, saying he had analyzed the lyrics of every top 50 country song of the past fifteen years, and he could not find any evidence of racism, anti-Semitism or homophobia. (He has also written about country music and U.S. politics; see, for example, "The Honky Tonk Gap".)
At this week's forum, Firestein played some of the songs he plays for foreign audiences, straight from YouTube: the Zac Brown Band's "Chicken Fried", "Cost of Livin'" by Ronnie Dunn and"Home" by Dierks Bentley, a song about patriotism that Firestein said always gets a reaction.
The forum audience listens to the songs, following along with lyric sheets.
"What I found is that sometimes the best public diplomacy is vulnerability," he explained. "My take on public diplomacy is we don't have to get up and say we're number one. A lot of that may be true, but a lot of folks around the world don't want to hear that." Country songs about hard times can convey that vulnerability, and audiences around the world can identify with it.
Firestein said he was not a country music fan growing up in Texas, adding his friends were country fans, but he did not discover the music until he was in his 20's. Then in China, he discovered that country songs also appealed to Han Chinese, who identified with country music's themes of blue collar homes and families. Since 9/11 he said he has used it in presentations in China, Russia and the Middle East, where it always connects with audiences.
"Without exception," he said, repeating for emphasis, "without exception, every time I play country music overseas, there are tears in the audience."
An historical perspective: Firestein identified Garth Brooks as the key figure in the transition to modern country. In 1995, Voice of America presented Garth Brooks to a global audience, and then VOA Director Geoffrey Cowan (now CCLP's Director) said international audiences responded strongly to Brooks' music.
This CCLP Washington Communication Leadership program was part of a monthly series of lunch forums presented in partnership with the USC Center on Public Diplomacy and the Public Diplomacy Council.
The series continues through the summer. The topic for the August 3rd forum will be "Combating Boko Haram."