In Box

Soft Rock Power

Has American cultural dominance met its Waterloo?

566118_inbox_charted_territory_181new12.jpg

For decades, the world has considered business giants like IKEA and Saab the bright lights of Swedish industry. Yet the real symbol of Sweden’s economic power is not the Poäng chair or the Gripen fighter jet, but the catchy choruses of the 1970s pop supergroup ABBA.

To study the globalization of culture in recent decades, Joel Waldfogel and Fernando Ferreira of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School examined a dataset that has been mostly overlooked by economists: pop charts.

Waldfogel and Ferreira analyzed every song on the hit lists of 22 countries between 1960 and 2007. They then compared each country’s share of the pop-music market with the size of its economy.

Not surprisingly, American hits dominated, accounting for 51 percent of music sold over the period. Adjusted for GDP, however, Sweden takes the top spot — followed closely by Britain. Despite fears of pernicious cultural Americanization, more people around the world are listening locally: Foreign artists now account for just 30 percent of each country’s pop hits, down from about 50 percent in the 1980s.

Then again, the world’s most popular artists, no matter where they’re from, often perform rock, R&B, and hip-hop tunes that are unmistakably American in origin. Not many guitarists are trading in their Stratocasters for Swedish nyckelharpas. And there’s still a clear advantage to singing in English. But Waldfogel and Ferreira’s research shows that rather than an Americanized monoculture, smaller countries are becoming significant players in the world’s musical marketplace.

Robyn by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images; Oasis by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images; Lady  Gaga by Dave Hogan/Getty Images; Toshinobu Kubota by Junko Kumura/Getty Images; Justin Bieber by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images; Jenni Vartiainen by Kimmo Pajunen.

For decades, the world has considered business giants like IKEA and Saab the bright lights of Swedish industry. Yet the real symbol of Sweden’s economic power is not the Poäng chair or the Gripen fighter jet, but the catchy choruses of the 1970s pop supergroup ABBA.

To study the globalization of culture in recent decades, Joel Waldfogel and Fernando Ferreira of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School examined a dataset that has been mostly overlooked by economists: pop charts.

Waldfogel and Ferreira analyzed every song on the hit lists of 22 countries between 1960 and 2007. They then compared each country’s share of the pop-music market with the size of its economy.

Not surprisingly, American hits dominated, accounting for 51 percent of music sold over the period. Adjusted for GDP, however, Sweden takes the top spot — followed closely by Britain. Despite fears of pernicious cultural Americanization, more people around the world are listening locally: Foreign artists now account for just 30 percent of each country’s pop hits, down from about 50 percent in the 1980s.

Then again, the world’s most popular artists, no matter where they’re from, often perform rock, R&B, and hip-hop tunes that are unmistakably American in origin. Not many guitarists are trading in their Stratocasters for Swedish nyckelharpas. And there’s still a clear advantage to singing in English. But Waldfogel and Ferreira’s research shows that rather than an Americanized monoculture, smaller countries are becoming significant players in the world’s musical marketplace.

Robyn by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images; Oasis by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images; Lady  Gaga by Dave Hogan/Getty Images; Toshinobu Kubota by Junko Kumura/Getty Images; Justin Bieber by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images; Jenni Vartiainen by Kimmo Pajunen.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

More from Foreign Policy

An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.