Coronavirus

Shot Of Hope, What Good Vaccine News Tells Us About Ourselves

The announcement by Pfizer and BioNTech that their COVID-19 vaccine trials have tallied a 90% success rate comes as a second wave of the virus is hitting not only public health, but the public psyche.

Pfizer's announcement of a promising new vaccine does more than simply boost the stock market
David Barroux

-Analysis-

PARIS — It's too early to proclaim victory. But it's not too late to restore hope.

In a world overrun with pessimism and skepticism, one which often pays far too much attention to conspiracy theorists who doubt science and bank on worst-case scenarios, Pfizer's announcement of a promising new vaccine does more than simply boost the stock market. The encouraging result of this anti-COVID-19 drug, developed with the German biotech company BioNtech, is also an opportunity to remind us that science is a powerful weapon for the benefit of humankind.

Even before the pandemic struck the planet, society was facing major challenges. How can we fight against the apparent inevitability of global warming? How can we feed 9 billion people in the future without further destroying the environment? How can we find the energy sources that allow us to produce, light, heat, and travel without using fossil fuels?

The time for questions and the time of answers are not the same

While there is a near-global consensus on the world's problems, we are completely at odds when it comes to potential solutions. The most defeatist among us believe that it is already too late, that the human race has dug its own grave, and that we are sprinting toward our doom. The most optimistic want to believe that human ingenuity will always allow us to overcome any situation by coming up with new solutions. Others, more radical, claim that there is no silver bullet and that we ought to simply reject consumerism and practice a new form of eugenics.

The truth is that the time it takes to pose questions and the time to find the answers are not the same. To become aware of a problem and then to find a solution takes months, even years, and lost time cannot be fully recovered. But even in our society of permanent flip-flopping, debates in which all arguments are the same, scientific innovation"s inability to always offer an immediate solution does not mean we should give up on it.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, those who are convinced that the coronavirus is nothing more than one big manipulation — a disease spread by laboratories in a hurry to line their pockets, or a gigantic plot hatched by some all-powerful group — have generated considerable media attention. Taking advantage of the echo chamber provided by social networks, they have made the whole world doubt itself. And though now's not the time to bask in blissful optimism, we can still acknowledge that the worst is not necessarily yet to come.

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Society

Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.



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