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November 7, 2022

No Escape from Ameriphilia

People who really love one country even though they live in another are nothing new. The Western world has seen bouts of Francophilia and Anglophilia, corresponding with the rise in power of France and England respectively. The popularity of anime and manga around the world have led to a particular form of Japanophilia, whose adherents are derisively called "weeaboos." But despite the power of the United States, we rarely hear anyone talk about 'Americanophilia'. There is no cutesy name for it. Wanting to be American is basically in the water.

The lack of a name hasn't stopped people from commenting on it. The following song, 'Tu vuo fa l'Americano' (You want to play at being American) by Renato Carosone, lightheartedly mocks a Napolitan man who wants to drink whisky and soda, play baseball, and wear jeans with logos on the back pocket. Renato believes it all in vain - "Ma si' nato in Italy!" (but you were born in Italy!). The song is sung in the Napolitan dialect of Italian, making the local pride more evident.

There's just one problem with this rejection of American values - the song itself is written in the genre of jazz, a distinctly American style.

Apparently writing and performing your music in an American genre is fine, but American fashion and drinking habits are a step too far!

Another Italian performer who cribbed from American influences was Adriano Celentano, famous in linguistics circles for writing 'Prisencolinensinainciusol'. This long-titled proto-rap is performed entirely in nonsense lyrics intended to sound like American English. While it's usually presented as a novelty comedy song, Celentano has always emphasized that the song is about the difficulty of communication. This is made clear in the (Italian-langauge) opening to the performance of the song on TV:

There's been a rumor circulating that this song was made to make fun of the way Italians would listen to anything in American English. This is currently the top-voted comment on the most popular upload of the song on YouTube:

DrLimp (2021): At the time english songs were getting great popularity in Italy, Italian singer Adriano Celentano wanted to prove that italians would love everything that sounded remotely english, so he wrote this, proving his point since it was very successful. The reason why it sounds so good even if it's gibberish is because Celantano studied phonetics theory to compose this.

...But in an interview with NPR, Celentano celebrates the American connection:

Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, since I like American slang - which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than to sing in Italian - I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn't mean anything.

Side note: it is absolutely hilarious that he believes American 'slang' (referring to Black American English? this blogger also thinks so) is easier to sing than Italian, as Italian was traditionally considered to be the best language to sing in by English speakers. This being due to the prominence of Italian opera. It appears that the language of whichever is the most culturally powerful country is always, somehow, the easiest to sing in.

Nevertheless, the fact that the song became popular enough to hit the top 10 in Italy and some other European countries shows that audiences were probably more receptive to the general sound of American English and the hypnotic beat than to the message of the difficulty of communication. Italian TV-watching audiences might have been aware that the song was about communication, since the school-themed show above was what propelled the song to popularity (per NPR), but I doubt record-buyers would know or care.

What makes 'Prisencolinensinainciusol' sound American? There are many closed syllables: 'eyes', 'red'. There's the use of the retroflex approximant. The consonant and vowel inventory sounds about right. And the prosody is uncanny - I'm reminded of a combo of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. The use of a funk background - another Black American genre - also provides the context. Would we still think it sounded 'English'-like if we didn't have the context to prompt us? Someone run the song through one of those AI background-removers and then place the vocal track on top of something entirely non-American-sounding and we'll see.

Let's return back to Carosone and his jazzy plead to stop wearing hats tilted on side. Why can't we call the young man an Ameriphile, or an Americophile, or an Americanophile? (Yes, I've looked them all up, and it appears there's no standard.) I'd venture to say it's because American pop culture is so dominant worldwide (one could even call it hegemony) that one can't even point it out. Everyone has their limit as to what's too much American culture - Celentano seems to have no problem producing pseudo-American sounds, while Carosone will accept the music, but not the hobbies. I wonder what Carosone would say if asked why he decided to record this riposte in jazz. As a performer of traditional Napolitan music, as well as someone who has stepped into various diverse genres, he may have chosen jazz to show his flexibility as well as add an extra jab at the American-obsessed fellow. But hearing a jazzy song chide someone for Ameriphilia doesn't sound like an ironic twist. It doesn't even sound like much at all, so accustomed are we to American genres.

If we might grant that Carosone may have intended a bit of irony or hypocrisy in choosing a jazz setting for the song, then the following cover of the song, 'Ty hochesh' byt' Amerikantsem' by Zhanna Friske, lacks any of this tension. This song comes from a New Year's Eve performance on television, New Year's being an important holiday in Russia. Many television programs will have performers come on and do covers and skits. This one centers on a man who rudely walks into an establishment and demands an 'Americano' coffee, at which point the waitress, Friske, asks him if he really wants an 'Americano'. This song is less about Ameriphilia replacing native culture and more about the false idea that the United States is a land of plenty, where sociopaths can become rich and step on their enemies (unlike Russia, of course). She instead portends that he'll end up fat, overworked, and disappointed at how ugly American women are. The man recants and chooses to drink tea instead.

Meanwhile, the music is still stubbornly American. The genre remains jazz, but more of a Broadway take on jazz. She's dressed less like a waitress and more like a Bohemian showgirl. Her moves and backup dancers are obviously inspired by 40s-era Broadway shows. Once again, we have the curiosity of using American pop-cultural forms to decry American values. And if Carosone still has credibility as someone who made his career in traditional music, Zhanna has none of that as a pop star dabbling in various types of synth-pop. She's even embraced cosmopolitanism in her song 'Zhanna Friske' where she brags that the man of her desire will be "leaving in English with Zhanna Friske."

Both attempts at criticizing Ameriphilia remain boxed in due to their small scope. If we take Zhanna's version seriously, then it's fine to enjoy American-style cultural artifacts so long as you do them within Russia and you don't get it in your head that the United States is in any way a better country than Russia. If we take Carosone's version seriously, then the problem is being too obvious and naked in your Ameriphilia - if you're going to enjoy American stuff, at least be prudent about it and don't do it all at once. Friske's version is more political where Carosone's is cultural, but both cede that mass media must take place, if not in the language of American English, then in the genre of American music.

Am I reading too much into two lighthearted comedy songs? Yes, absolutely. But it's been on my mind for a while, this contradiction between a song making fun of Ameriphilia being, at the same time, in an American musical genre. It's like making a j-pop song about how silly being a weeaboo is. Only, not even then, because Japanese pop culture has nowhere near the reach that American pop culture has, that has allowed American pop culture to institute itself as a naturalized standard. It'd be more like if we lived in an alternate universe where 'weeaboo' wasn't a word, everyone listened to j-pop, but wearing kimono on the street was seen as gauche and taking it too far.


  1. this contradiction between a song making fun of Ameriphilia being, at the same time, in an American musical genre

    I'd say that's simply part of the parody. The Ameriphile's mindset is expressed in the music.

    1. David MarjanovićNovember 7, 2022 at 4:50 PM

      Argh, forgot to set my name again. Why is "Anonymous" even standard? Is Google selling Guy Fawkes masks now?

    2. I can imagine the contrast might have been intentional for Renato Carosone, since his genre of choice tended to be more Italian folk music than jazz. (I doubt Friske's version had much thought put into it beyond wanting to see entertaining pageantry.) He seemed very interested in the relationship between Italians and America if his writing another song called 'Mambo Italiano' is any indication. What it's an indication of, I'm not sure, because the translation is hard to understand. Italians taking up Latin-American dance and putting their own spin on it? (

      It still requires some knowledge of his career to put the song into context, as anyone listening to the song in an isolated context without knowing who he is would just hear a neat jazz song about some silly man way too into the US. In his time, I imagine the jab would have come across more obviously. Today, I'm not sure people would even notice.

      Listening to the song again now, I just noticed this lyric:

      Tu abball' o' rock'n'roll / you dance to rock'n'roll

      And now I'm wondering - was choosing a jazz genre meant to portray a conservative approach to integrating American music? How would this song sound like in rock'n'roll? Of course there's practical things to consider, like how this melody just works much better in jazz than rock'n'roll, and how his audience may be more receptive to jazz than rock'n'roll, but it's funny that he names an American musical genre and chooses one that's much more faddish. Of course, no trendy teen in 1956 would be listening to jazz and swing. Which makes the song's approach "enjoy American things - but in good measure! Don't enjoy things just because they're American! You're still from Naples, silly!"

    3. Doh, forgot about this. He actually does include what sounds like a rock-n-roll-inspired breakdown near the end of the song, with a boogie-woogie descending bassline and the horn instruments disappear, leaving just the piano, bass and percussion. Now that's actually quite clever, and I never noticed it was rock-n-roll-inspired until I reread that lyric.