In the rich pageant of events, ideas, and cool stuff that is the United States of America, many things really are taken for granted, or even disdained, here at home that enjoy some following in far-off places, typically Europe or Japan. Not surprisingly, these things tend to violate the economics of a large mass-market-based society in some way, usually by being a) too art-oriented or b) too far back in history (defined variously as >50 years, pre-TV, or pre-WW2).
The number one export-only culture IMO is jazz. There are many good reasons to consider jazz a key American contribution to world culture, and many reasons (not all good) that it isn’t a key part of American culture.
American material culture - classic clothing styles, for instance - is a particular fetish of Europeans and Japanese. Makers like Levi’s and Red Wing actually manufacture replicas of early 20th century blue jeans, work boots, etc., in the USA that they refuse to sell in the USA. They’re just worth that much more overseas.
So then: What else were you surprised to learn is so popular outside the USA? Why do you think isn’t it so big at home?
The TV show Baywatch is the most popular TV program of all time internationally. It ran from 1989 to 2001. It was enormously popular all around the world during that period. It was only moderately popular in the U.S. It ran one year on network TV and was dropped in the U.S., so it was then syndicated (i.e., not run on any particular network but shown on many local TV channels by being bought by the individual channel). It only kept going in the U.S. because it made so much money in the international market, since it was expensive to shoot and didn’t make enough in the U.S. to be worth continuing to produce.
Eva Cassidy still isn’t known by most people in the U.S. One of her albums finally made gold record status but hasn’t made platinum record status yet, and she only made major record sales in the U.S. after her album was a number one in the U.K. She’s (literally) ten times as popular in the U.K. as in the U.S. She’s more popular in some other countries also than in the U.S.
I know perfectly well that she’s dead. When I wrote “Eva Cassidy still isn’t known by most people in the U.S” that does not mean that I assume that she is alive. It means that I’m talking about people presently knowing about her. If you’ll seach on the SDMB for theads that mention Eva Cassidy and have posts by me, you’ll see that I have mentioned her in a dozen or so threads and have talked about her death. I have no idea why your friend had to send to England for one of her CD’s. All of her CD’s are available in the U.S.
Heavy metal band Manowar originated in New York, but has been only a minor success in the USA. They’ve been wildly successful in Europe, though, where they tour almost constantly. When the Soviet Union collapsed, a Russian music magazine took a survey of its subscribers to find out what Western band people most wanted to see perform live in (I think) Moscow. The result: Manowar was the first Western rock band to play there when the country opened up.
I have several of their CDs, most of which are “imports” (one is labeled as a German release, another Italian).
Manowar also set the Guinness world record for “loudest band”, in Germany.
Possibly relevent: In The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip Dick, the Japanese conquerors have something close to an obsession with 19th century Americana. Dismissed this as just being another aspect of the fiction, until in SF, I saw Japanese (and other international) tourists going bananas over things many True Patriotic Americans would regard as silly kidstuff. LUNCHBOXES?!
This right now makes me wonder, what sorts of absurdities from elsewhere appeal to Americans, but were flops in their home countries? Lookin’ at YOU, Speed Racer.
For some reason, Bewitched, Little House on the Prairie and Full House were extremely popular in Japan. I guess NHK picked them out of the syndication bargain bin and just played them every single day.
It’s not American, but Anne of Green Gables is extremely popular in Japan as well. There was a hit anime adaptation series made in the '70s which just about every adult has watched at some point. From what I understand, PEI still gets a lot of Japanese tourists coming to see the original house.
I would say I think there definitely was a window of a few years where this was true of Gillian Anderson who was all over British & Irish TV, film and websites at a time when she was just the canceled X-files lady in the US. Things seem to have calmed down but it seemed wacky to me what a fuss there was over her.
The late comedian Bill Hicks, while moderately successful in the US, seems much more so in the UK where he maintains a reputation as an iconoclast.
Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction was probably more popular in France during the 19th century.
Not sure of the “popular” impact, but the French new-wave film critics of the 1950s celebrated such noir-ish American directors as Edgar G. Ulmer & Sam Fuller who were not held in such esteem in the US.