by Tom O'NeillTwo things became immediately clear after arriving at the University of Oxford for my semester abroad this fall. First was the British gastronomical preference for peas. Regardless the entrée, no plate was complete without the presence of at least a couple soft, green, globules. The only time I approached the cash register without a helping of peas, the horrified cafeteria worker frantically paged a supervisor to complete the transaction, as if the audacious pealess purchase required managerial fingerprint verification.
The second, perhaps more meaningful, observation was the necessity for each American visiting student to produce and succinctly articulate a profound difference between America and England. This requirement, though, proved surprisingly challenging. The first time a British student posed the question, I responded with what amounted to be little more than a summary of several major themes from The Great Gatsby. "Well, you see," I began pretentiously, "Americans seem much more concerned with material goods. However, accumulating these goods doesn't make the individual happier. Rather, these goods create an unmistakable emptiness within the yank's soul." She was overly generous in her response: "If that isn't the understatement of the century, I don't know what is." As the semester marched on, I continued my search for a perspicacious answer ("Oh, you know, everyone is so civil here!"). Each observation though, was either met immediately with a counterexample ("No that's not really how it is outside of Oxford") or dismissed as a cultural stereotype ("Yes they do say the British are more reserved, don't they?").
The inability to sufficiently identify glaring differences between the countries, I posit, isn't necessarily a condemnation of perceptiveness. If my experience abroad is any indication, perhaps deep-seated differences between cultures are disappearing before our eyes. Indeed this hypothesis seems neatly embodied in the musical preferences of each nation's youth. As a fan of hip hop, I incorrectly assumed I would wallow away in my headphones, blasting Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in anxious anticipation of Kendrick Lamar's major-label debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Imagine my surprise on the first night, then, when the Londoner next to me in the dining hall described his highlight of the summer as the A$AP Rocky performance in London. Truthfully, he had much better taste in American hip hop than me. Later that night, as I explored the Oxford bar scene with my American and British classmates, I was astonished by how similar the DJ's musical selections were to playlists at Ohio State house parties.
Perhaps more unexpected, though, were the musical tastes witnessed during weekend excursions to Budapest and Lisbon. Our plans in Lisbon centered around the sold out Bon Iver concert at Campo Pequeno. Astonishingly our rag-tag concert crew of American visiting students seemed to be the only audience members that didn't know each lyric. In fact, while we strained to understand Justin Vernon's falsetto crooning, the Lisboetas next to us not only mimicked his hard to distinguish sounds, but seemed to gather profound meaning from the words. When the band began performing "Lisbon, OH," a title referencing a town only an hour and a half away from my childhood house, I couldn't help but feel the Portuguese concert goers had more right to believe he was singing about their home than mine.
The weekend in Budapest offered comparable surprise. When R. Kelly's Bar Mitzvah hit "Ignition (Remix)" came on at Szimpla bar, I began a conversation with a Hungarian student about her music tastes: "I listen to pretty much everything," she began with a slight Hungarian accent, "but I really enjoy hip hop." She showed me her Recently Played playlist on her iPhone. In addition to several tracks from Cruel Summer, the list was populated by songs from Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.
The most surreal musical moment, though, came during a concert in Oxford. David Rodigan (MBE), a sixty-something, balding white radio DJ born in Oxford, is known across the globe for his superior taste in Reggae music. His concerts offer people a chance to hear the latest and greatest reggae tunes, and his onstage persona is nothing short of remarkable. As he grooves to the beat and shouts Jamaican exclamations (Jah!), he introduces each song in a seemingly flawless Jamaican accent.
David Rodigan is not Jamaican, and his concerts consequently serve as a beautiful symbol for music's strange globalization. Rodigan seemed to anticipate our modern, shrinking, musical world. His young audiences use music as a way to learn about cultures. While Rodigan played his set, in a bar on the other side of Oxford, students bopped around at the monthly K-Pop night. Truly, today's music offers a chance to interact with different cultures, without having to leave your home. Perhaps we lose something with our ever-standardizing musical tastes, but such global harmony is an invaluable tool. Music may be unmatched in its ability to depict and teach a world much different from the listener's own. It allows the listener a new appreciation for the cultural snapshot illustrated in the song. Perhaps it would be helpful to return to the pea imagery. For no matter how diverse the main course was (whether enchilada or curry night in the dining hall) the presence of peas seemed an almost adorable way to blend different cultures. Like a hungarian accent while discussing the dopeness of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, the peas are a way to provide a sliver of uniqueness and perspective in our increasingly-globalized world.