Rant: the spread of Americana

Sydney’s Americana bar scene is sliding its grease-laden ways into the restaurants and bistros of the Inner West.

On any night of the week, keen customers can visit a grungy New York dive, a low-lit prohibition-era speakeasy, a rustic roadhouse establishment, a greasy suburban diner or a SoCal tequila joint. From their menus discerning patrons can order a number of iterations of American classics (think burgers, buffalo wings, fries, hotdogs) with oh-so modern twists… Spoiler: there is a lot of Kale being fried #ironically.

Off the cuff, fine, once in a while it might have been nice to step back in time and visit a culture that as Australians we are led to believe is superior – but it has all gotten out of hand. I am hard pressed to think of any establishment currently considered “on trend” that is not cashing in on Americana cool. But it’s not just annoying because of its market saturation.

Irony sucks. The experience that is being sold to you every time you visit one of these places is intrinsically one that is aspirationally mediocre or self-consciously shit. On the surface this is annoying – these places bring with them all of the set pieces of America without the famously cheap prices. Mary’s in Newtown hits the nail on the head. You get your shoestring fries and burger with notional amounts of lettuce brought to you in a red takeaway basket for the fairly unreasonable price of $14.

And the more you think about it the more annoying it gets because what underlies this ironic fetishisation of lower class America, is the ironic fetishisation of the lower classes. What you are paying for after all, are the ideas that are loaded into these products.

Your average Mary’s customer, if transported to the southern states of the US, would likely be sceptical of the backwards establishments that it models its self on – the original comes with cockroaches, low wages and a very limited selection of light beer, not to mention decidedly untrendy locations.

Again, all of this could be forgiven if not for the Sydney customer’s unquestioning devotion to Americana. It ends up coming at the cost of local culture because we are too busy dwelling in somebody else’s historical narrative.

The Americana obsession started in Brooklyn and we have unceremoniously inherited it with no discernable adaptation. Crucially, while it is as equally disingenuous in Brooklyn, at least it interrogates local urban living. It lets New Yorkers ask questions like “what happened to our great city?” and have a conversation that starts with “Maybe urban living is not the epitome of existence…”

For us though, it just reminds us that we don’t have a history we are proud of, or a cultural moment that we want to hold on to. As a city, Sydney’s collective conscience seems to be without nostalgia (yet) so it is sad we are spending time romanticising a history that is just as problematic as our own. America represents aspects of our cultural inheritance but it doesn’t necessarily represent our cultural future – maybe this is the start of our own conversation. Sydney is a great city in the making. We just have to be willing to believe it.

Words: Samantha Jonscher

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