Some of the USA's biggest stars hit the big time by pretending to be American...and doing it so well that many don't know they're faking. (ft. Keith Urban, Henry Cavill, and Def Leppard)
Sat on an uncomfortable plastic chair, I let out a whoop as Def Leppard’s guitarist played the opening chords of Pour Some Sugar On Me. The Raiderettes and Dolphins cheerleaders (once called the Starbrites…bring that name back!) danced around lead singer Joe Elliott.
The arena was full, the big game was minutes away from kickoff, and I thought to myself “Damn, it doesn’t get much more American than this.” But, if you take a closer look at the details, you see that I couldn’t have been much more wrong.
In 2014, the Dolphins took on the Raiders (and beat them 38-14) in Wembley Stadium. In London, England. The audience, myself included, was predominantly British. And Def Leppard, despite their faux American singing voices, are English and Northern Irish.
When questioned on that affectation, guitarist Phil Collen said the following:
People used to ask why we sound like Americans. Because that’s how we learned to be musicians.
It is an American accent before you know it. We learned it that way because the stuff happening in England wasn’t really homegrown.
I won’t try to pretend that Def Leppard weren’t also popular in the UK, but I will point out that their only #1 single – Love Bites – came in America. It didn’t even crack the top 10 in the UK. Their fantastic Pyromania went Diamond (10x Platinum) in the US. It only just managed Silver here.
That might be because Def emulated (and built on*) a sound – KISS, Alice Cooper, Journey – that’s quintessentially American. And they enjoyed stateside success that comparable UK acts like Iron Maiden, though both use the Union Flag liberally on their merch, never quite managed to pull off.
*I’ll leave the Leppard fanboying for another day…
That isn’t unique to Def Leppard.
Many of America’s favourite actors – e.g. Henry Cavill, Tom Holland, Tom Hardy, Andrew Lincoln, Margot Robbie – hail from the UK, Australia, or New Zealand. But, like Def Leppard, they’ve spent much of their careers pretending to be American.
Hell, Cavill even played Superman. Maybe THE most American character ever written.
Except, of course, that Supes isn’t American at all.
Despite being an Alien, capitalised to avoid confusion with those legal aliens Sting loves to sing about, Superman comes to embrace and embody Truth, Justice, and the American way. In other words, he’s one of those “good immigrants” – the ones who know how just lucky they are to be in “the greatest country on Earth” and get a chance at living the American Dream.
Which makes me think about Keith Urban, one of American’s biggest country stars, who didn’t relocate from Australia to Nashville until he was 25. Which means the “Hail Mary”s on “Friday nights” Urban sings about in We Were Us are more likely to be memories of Aussie Rules football than high school gridiron.
In Wild Hearts, Urban tells another “American” story:
Saw the man in black
Spotlight in the air
Heard a thousand screams
Saw my daddy stare
Feel like I've been runnin'
Since the day that I was born
Eagle on my back
Phoenix on my arm
This goes out to the drifters
And all of the dreamers ready to fly
All those born to be rock stars
Lifting their guitars and painting the sky
Can you hear me, all of you lost ones?
Who aren't really lost ones
Keep shining your light
This goes out to the wild cards
And all of the wild hearts just like mine
Wild Hearts was written by Brad Tursi (Old Dominion), Jennifer Wayne (Runaway June), and country music powerhouse Eric Paslay. Yet, somehow, Urban’s revisions to the lyrics – taking in a Johnny Cash concert with his father at age 5 – make the song feel more American than less.
They’re another reminder that American culture, such as the music of Johnny Cash, is omnipresent.
And, even though they call Burger King Hungry Jack’s over there, it probably helps that Australia has a lot in common with the US – pushing West to make a home among the inhabitable, a certain exuberance and outgoing personality, and questionable treatment of the indigenous people. (Yikes.)
These days, Urban is a bona fide American citizen – as is wife Nicole Kidman, who has Australian roots of her own – but still seems to have some trepidation around his own Americanness. When asked if he would perform for Donald Trump, his answer was non-committal to say the least:
First of all, I’m an American citizen, and I support supporting our country as a citizen. I’d like to probably answer that question when it comes up…But I’m a citizen, and I like to do what’s right.
It’s a feeling I understand – Americans are often curious about how I see the US healthcare system, my thoughts on guns and, for a few years there, Donald Trump. As a non-American, I don’t always feel comfortable sharing them because…well, it doesn’t feel like it’s any of my business.
Which might be why I could find almost nothing about the political views of actors like Cavill, Lincoln or the Toms (Holland and Hardy) online; it can feel like it’s not our place to criticise.
A few years ago I spent some time in Nashville with a group of Australians – due to some accent blindness a lot of Americans thought we were all Australian…u wot m8 – and it became apparent that several of them were just as fascinated with the US as I am.
Chugging a Four Loko at 8am (I wish I was kidding), one of them looked out over the sunrise and said to me “land of the free, no bloody place like it.” It was the sort of comment that would sound trite coming from an American but, from the mouth of an outsider, felt very poignant.
All of us take things for granted – myself included – but I’ve always found that some Americans treat their homeland with a certain sense of disdain, like they’d rather be somewhere else.
As someone who has always felt very “meh” about The Beatles, Harry Potter, and soccer (football, whatever), I get that. But it doesn’t change the fact that there are many non-Americans who, despite everything, regard making a life in the US as the pinnacle of success.
Even if it takes some faking to get there.
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