The diner is one of the truly great American institutions. Cheeseburgers, bucket-sized glasses of coke, comfy booths. It all adds up to calorific perfection.
2. NEW YORK CITY When eight million people from every corner of the world end up chasing their d re ams i n one place, that place must be special. Probably the best city in the world.
3.THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS
The most famous speech in American history is composed of fewer than 300 words and took less than three minutes to deliver. With the nation in the midst of the civil war, President Abraham Lincoln dedicated a soldiers’ cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The speech concluded with a pledge that has echoed down the decades: ‘‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
4.THE FILMS OF MARTIN SCORSESE
Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas. Scorsese has produced some of the greatest movies in the history of cinema, almost all with a distinctly New York flavour.
5. ARETHA FRANKLIN
The first lady of soul, with hits including Respect, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and Chain Of Fools. The state of Michigan, where she grew up, has officially designated her voice as a natural wonder. Quite right too.
6.THE GREAT GATSBY
F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, centred on one of the most arresting characters in modern literature, Jay Gatsby. The novel also said much about America itself – a land where people can, and often do, ‘‘spring from [their] own Platonic conception’’ of themselves. A great work of art and a cracking, page-turning read too.
7.THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER
Not, as is often thought, the longest river in the United States (that’s the Missouri), but the most mythologised and magical. Its source is a modestly-sized lake in northern Minnesota, near the border with Canada. From there it flows approximately 2,300 miles to its outlet, south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. See it, in all its majesty, at least once.
It sounds like an awful mish-mash of an idea: invent a harried mob boss based in New Jersey and create a TV series around him, his family, his ‘crew’ and his therapy sessions. But great scripts and great acting from James Gandolfini, Edie Falco and others make The Sopranos one of the outstanding TV dramas of recent years.
The biggest selling female artist in pop history. A provocative and bold performer. A breaker of taboos, and a dreadful movie star. But never mind, Like A Prayer still sounds great.
10. MARTIN LUTHER KING’S DREAM
On August 28,1963, the most famous civil rights leader of them all delivered the greatest piece of oratory of the 20th century. ‘‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character,’’ was only one memorable line from a speech of breathtaking power and moral force.
11. ERNEST HEMINGWAY
The man who changed literature. Hemingway pioneered a sparse, muscular style. No one has written so plainly yet so vividly, before or since. His Pulitzer Prizewinning (and heartbreaking) novella, The Old Man And The Sea, is a great place for the uninitiated to start.
12. BIG, BIG CARS
Yes, it’s easy to get worked up about the environment and global warming. But there’s still something perversely admirable about the defiance of anyone who owns a stretch Hummer.
13. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
The closest America has to a national troubadour. His best moment in recent years came with the release of The Rising, an album written in part as a response to the September 11 attacks. Springsteen is also guaranteed artistic immortality for Thunder Road and Born To Run, either of which could serve as unofficial national anthems.
14.THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
‘‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Enough said.
15. BRITNEY SPEARS
Spears has a clutch of great pop songs to her name, from Baby One More Time to Toxic. But, more to the point, she has delivered exactly the kind of ‘life-as-soap-opera’ moments we expect from our pop stars time and time again. Special praise is due for her two-day-long Vegas marriage. Superb.
The sitcom that was, famously, ‘‘about nothing’’ became one of the biggest TV successes ever. Seinfeld ran for nine seasons, the travails of Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer amusing more people every time. The show ended in 1998, despite NBC reportedly offering Jerry Seinfeld $5mper episode for a new series.
17.THE CLINTON FAMILY
A husband who is the most charismatic and most libidinous figure in American politics. A wife who looks sure to run for the presidency in 2008, thus ensuring the mother of all election battles. And, lest we forget, a daughter who seems remarkably sane given the circumstances of her upbringing. In the eyes of many, America’s real first family.
We can all complain about corporate expansion, globalisation and all that other worthy but dull stuff. But, really, where can you get a better caramel frappuccino?
19. OPRAH WINFREY
Her chat show has thrust many previously marginalised subjects into the American mainstream. Her book club has encouraged millions of Americans to read more regularly. Oprah, a major philanthropist, is also believed to be the world’s only black billionaire.
A New York phenomenon rather than a US-wide one, but still one of those symbols of America that never seems to age or tarnish.
21. ELLIS ISLAND AND THE STATUE OF LIBERTY
The door to the land of opportunity. Between 1892 and 1954, over 12 million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. (The first was 15-year-old Annie Moore from Cork.) A plaque inside the Statue of Liberty’s base bears the famous lines ‘‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
22. HARRIET TUBMAN
Tubman, who herself escaped slavery in 1849, later made about 19 secret expeditions to guide other enslaved blacks to freedom along the ‘Underground Railroad’ – a network of safe houses provided by blacks and abolitionist whites. She later became the first woman in American history to plan and lead a military attack, freeing hundreds more slaves in a raid in South Carolina during the Civil War.
23.THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE
A weekly slice of brilliance, the New Yorker blends superb reportage with fiction from literary giants.The mix is leavened with a healthy dollop of cartoons. The best magazine in the world.
One of the many musical genres that are American – and, more specifically, African-American – inventions. Marrying old spirituals, so called ‘field hollers’ and west African influences, the blues laid the foundation for much of what was to follow, including rock ’n’ roll. Masters like Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon created music of elemental force.
25. SESAME STREET
The greatest children’s television programme ever, Sesame Street also created the ‘educational entertainment’ template that many others have since followed. There have been over 4,000 episodes and the show has been broadcast in at least 120 countries. With stars like Big Bird and Bert & Ernie, nowonder it worked.
26. MUHAMMAD ALI
From the night he first won the heavyweight crown by defeating Sonny Liston to his later epic battles with George Foreman and Joe Frazier, Ali was without peer as a boxer. But his influence outside the ring, in refusing to fight in Vietnam and in becoming an outspoken advocate for African-American rights, was even more significant. The greatest, indeed.
The channel that sparked the 24-hour ‘rolling news’ revolution has been out-paced in the competition for viewers by the conservative, Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News Channel. But CNN is still the place to turn for coverage of tumultuous developing events.
28. GREAT COP SHOWS
Law& Order and its spin-offs are the latest successes in a lineage that includes Kojak, Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey and NYPD Blue.
29. CHRIS ROCK
The funniest man in America. It’s that simple.
30. ROAD TRIPS
. . .which can, of course, be taken anywhere, but which are, at root, an American tradition. The American highway has always been a place where liberation can be found, at least in the popular imagination, and speeding down one of the arteries that criss-cross this huge nation, it’s just possible to believe it.
31. JOHNNY CASH
A great American renegade. A voice like a lion’s and a face that looked like it belonged on Mount Rushmore. He rightfully enjoyed a career resurgence in the last years of his life. In the process, he made one of the most moving videos ever to accompany his version of a Nine Inch Nails song, Hurt.
32. AMERICAN FOOTBALL
Baseball maybe regarded as America’s national pastime, but football is where the real action is. The sport demands courage and athleticism in spades. Wide receivers, who have to catch a ball at full stretch knowing that a 220lb helmeted man is about to launch himself into their midriff, deserve every dollar they get paid.
People from92 nations died in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. There are over 100,000 foreign-born children in the public school system of New York City alone. The idea of America as the world’s great melting pot still holds true.
34. LOCAL RADIO
One of the great, odd pleasures of driving long distances in America is listening to different radio stations fade in and out as you progress from place to place. According to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, in June 2004 there were almost 11,000 licensed commercial radio stations in the United States. Every one is a window into some city, state, or community.
35. PHILIP ROTH
The greatest living American novelist, Roth has been massively acclaimed for works including The Human Stain, American Pastoral and the much-earlier Portnoy’s Complaint. Sometimes said to be uneven – his most recent novel Everyman has received mixed reviews. Extraordinary.
Unimportant? Maybe. Silly? Of course. But from Tom and Jerry to Shrek, America has been the home of the best in animation.
The great American national virtue. We Europeans may carp, but there is plenty to be admired in the Stateside belief that every ambition can be fulfilled in the end.
38. COLLEGE COMMENCEMENTS
In contrast to the typically dull Irish graduation, American graduations – or commencements, as they are usually called – are often addressed by a bona fide celebrity with something interesting to say. This year, both George W Bush and Hillary Clinton gave several addresses, while musicians Billy Joel and Melissa Etheridge and film director Spike Lee were among the speakers elsewhere.
Before the fried peanut butter sandwiches, the jump suits and Vegas he was a young, sleek rock’n’roll singer who sneered, thrust his hips and changed the world.
The Elvis of rap. Without the jumpsuits, obviously. His prodigious gifts helped a primarily black musical form finally and fully cross over into the white mainstream.
41.THE 12-STEP PROGRAMME
Americans’ near-fetish for self-improvement can be easily mocked, but in its most famous and valuable manifestation it has led to millions of addicts breaking their habit. The 12-step programme came into being in Akron, Ohio in 1935,when Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous.
42.THE WEST WING
As the Bush presidency took America’s global standing to new lows, Democrats and foreigners alike took refuge in the NBC presidential drama starring Martin Sheen as President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet.
In a nation where religion can play such an overt role in day-to-day life, it’s somehow reassuring that the biggest holiday of all is essentially religion free. Thanksgiving is like Christmas without the Jesus part. Fun, in other words.
44. MERYL STREEP
From Manhattan to Angels In America, no other actress of the past 30 years has been so good so often.
The author Bill Bryson has pointed out that almost everything that makes modern life easier was either invented, or first popularised, in the US. From lifts to blenders to cup holders.
46. SEX AND THE CITY
A group of single women talk love, sex and shoes. Millions of women viewers get addicted. The adventures of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte ran on HBO for six years from 1998. Few other series have ever tapped into a zeitgeist so well.
Because we’ve all been grateful for its existence, one time or another.
48.THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN
Living proof that good comic timing, excessively short trousers and an odd, gap-toothed smile can go a long way.
49.THE BUSH TWINS
Dubya’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara, prove that at least some members of the family can add to the gaiety of the nation. Jenna, in particular, exhibits amusing tendencies to drink too much in nightclubs and ‘give the finger’ to press photographers. Tremendous.
50.THE FOURTH OF JULY
Summertime, fireworks and a celebration of freedom from the British. What more could anyone want?
AND FIVE THINGS TO HATE. . .
A cliche but, like most cliches, also true.Why are conversations conducted between Americans at roughly twice the volume of those between people of other nationalities? No one seems to know. What is certain is that many Americans remain apparently unaware that everyone in the restaurant, bar or street doesn’t really want to hear what they have to say.
The then-New York mayor’s actions on and just after September 11 rehabilitated the reputation of a man who had increasingly come to be seen as a divisive, failed figure. Giuliani is now contemplating a presidential run in 2008, but every TV appearance seems to underline his slimy and conceited character. The problem with Giuliani is not his politics. It’s that he comes across as a deeply unpleasant human being.
Bringing trashy journalism to new depths, the supermarket tabloids report with great certainty, but usually no evidence, on the latest developments in the lives of celebrities, criminals and assorted nutters across the nation. Dreadful stuff.
ENDLESS REALITY TV
A good idea, once. Now, a dead horse being desperately flogged.
PARIS HILTON Rich heiress who has become famous for being, er, a rich heiress. The leading personification of the phenomenon through which massive celebrity is bestowed upon people of no discernible talent. Wemight forgive her if she came across as a decent person. She doesn’t.