Lost In Translation: Five Showbiz Icons The Brits Don’t Understand

Certain elements of popular entertainment, which seem to make perfect sense on one side of the Atlantic, are a total mystery by the time they get to the other.

Here’s the first of four blogs which will look over a few examples. First we have big American brands and icons which were met with a blank stare from the Brits, then we’ll do shabby US cast-offs that were treated as treasures over the pond. Then we’ll flip it around and do British icons that flopped in America, and finally American stars who come from Britain but who can’t get arrested in their home country.

OK, let’s get started:

1: David Blaine

David Blaine

If any preposterous show-off came to London, as David did in 2003, and put himself up in a big glass box, hanging from a crane, for 44 days straight, the only sane response from the British public would be to ask two questions.

1: What does this serve to prove, please?

2: Where did I put my eggs and my catapult?

Now, I make no claim to the inherent superiority of the British psyche in reacting to such egregious showboating with flying food — some people even taunted David with a hamburger dangling from a remote-controlled helicopter — I’m pretty sure New Yorkers would do something similar. But still, you’ve got to love a nation that refuses to be won over by something so terrifically pointless, especially when wrapped in self-dramatizing dry-ice hyperbole. We’ve got Ellen MacArthur doing similar stuff in a boat, after all.

2: Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian

Every nation has people who are famous, but whose appeal is hard to explain outside of their home territory. We’ve got Kerry Katona, and Katie Price, you’ve got Kim Kardashian. They seem, to outsiders, to be popular for reasons which are hard to define. There’s a lot of talk about their private lives; a certain amount of interest in what they are wearing and who they are dating, maybe even a reality show where cameras trail their every move, showing them weaving in and out of exciting situations and paparazzi flashbulbs; but when it comes to the hard reality of what it is they actually do, things become hazy and strange.

3: *NSYNC

*NSYNC

See that? I still remember how to spell it right after all these years. I used to work at Top of the Pops, you see, and spent some time having to write stories about Timbo, The Fatone, Lance, Jeremiah and Droopy (OK, so their names have long since gone) for… well it’s hard to say who now. I mean yes, they had some hit singles over here, and yes, Justin Timberlake went on to enjoy the same kind of slavering acclaim that he did in America. But even when they were good, they were never THAT popular, and I understand this was not the case in the US. Hell, even that spelling thing speaks volumes. Didn’t they originally go out as ‘N Sync? Yeah, we missed that.

4: Michael Jackson – King of Pop

Note the title: no one is having a go at Michael himself. Britain entered a state close to national mourning when he died, and Michael did have close ties to London, after all. But there are three things which did get our goat, back in his imperious early-’90s phase.

Number 1: insisting that all journalists, when referring to him in their work, call him “King of Pop Michael Jackson,” or “Michael Jackson: King of Pop.” That’s just enforced hubris, even though no one else could have claimed the title. Besides, we have actual kings and queens here.

Number 2: Floating a giant statue of himself up the Thames to promote the album “HIStory”. Oh please!

Number 3: The Brit Awards in 1996, when he appeared to be taking a Christ-like role in order to perform “Earth Song.” This prompted Jarvis Cocker of Pulp to invade the stage and flap his bum at the audience. We liked that.

5: Shouty News Anchors

Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck

This, to quote Bill Hicks, is definitely a boat that left us on the island. When reading the news, or explaining the day’s events, even on one of our rolling news channels, British broadcasters rarely stop what they are doing to address the nation with their own opinion on the matter (or that of the network for whom they work). It’s also rare for there to be a show which constantly seeks to express strong thoughts on one particular side of the political divide.

That’s not to say politicians aren’t challenged, and their policies subjected to rigorous debate. It’s also not to say that there aren’t left wing or right wing opinions aired on British TV, it’s just somehow not the done thing for someone in the position of, say, a Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck, to create a platform for their own views. There again we’ve got Jeremy Kyle so it’s swings and roundabouts, really.

See Also: Five Showbiz Under-Achievers The British Adore.

Do you have any more to add to this list? Tell us here.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

See more posts by Fraser McAlpine