The Common Good
January 1994

The Sound of Money

by Richard Barnet | January 1994

Pop imperialism moves to a global beat

"Globalization" is the most fashionable word of the 1990s, so portentous and wonderfully patient as to puzzle Alice in Wonderland and thrill the Red Queen because it means precisely what the user says it means. Just as poets and songwriters celebrated the rise of modern nationalism, so in our day corporate managers, rock stars, and writers of advertising copy offer themselves as poet laureates of the Global Village.

In the age of globalization, the chase of the global customer is speeding up. Corporate executives dream of a global market made up of people with homogenized tastes and needs who no longer demand that marketers and advertisers be so "respectful" of local tastes and cultural quirks. (Moslems and Hindus both need to brush their teeth. As one advertising specialist puts it, "A headache is a headache.")

The idea that a company can sell its products in exactly the same way and with essentially the same words and pictures in Katmandu as in Peoria is immensely appealing to global corporations and the advertisers and marketing specialists who serve them. Robert C. Goizueta, chair of the Coca-Cola Company, notes that "people around the world are today connected by brand name consumer products as much as by anything else." Logos on bottles, boxes, and labels are global banners, instantly recognizable by millions who could not tell you the color of the U.N. flag.

The aura surrounding global products and their immense reach means that masses of people separated by great distance now want the same things to eat, drink, play with, and wear. The penetration of commercial culture even into remote villages across the world is spreading global dreams of the good life based on spending and consuming, a window but not a door for the vast majority of people who lack money or credit to buy much of anything. The global shopping mall is in business to serve about 1.7 billion of the 5.4 billion people who inhabit the planet.

GLOBAL ENTERTAINMENT SELLS all sorts of products from Fruit Loops to Nikes. Entertainment products themselves are the third largest surplus item in U.S. trade. The most spectacular technological development of the 1980s for expanding the reach of global entertainment and global products was MTV. By the beginning of 1993, MTV programming was beamed daily to 210 million TV households in 71 countries.

The cable network, which began in August 1981, claims to have 39 million viewers in Europe and well over 50 million in the United States. It has already spun off a second network called VH-1. Viacom, the parent company, also has a channel aimed at children called Nickelodeon. (In the early 1990s, its hit attraction was the Ren & Stimpy Show, a cartoon saga of a hyperactive Chihuahua and a cat that spits up hairballs.)

MTV, along with the rest of the pop music industry, targets the global teen-ager and the global pre-teen. Sumner Redstone, the principal owner of this vast global entertainment network, is perhaps the most influential educator of young people on five continents. He is excited about opportunities now opening up to reach the global child. "Just as teen-agers are the same all over the world," he says, "children are the same all over the world."

"From the outset," Tom Freston, chair of MTV explains, "our vision has been that this would be a worldwide rock-and-roll network." A pop video is many things, but it is always an ad - for itself, for other songs, rock groups, concerts, the latest fashion in teen-age apparel, or Hollywood films from which bits of soundtrack may be included. Non-music products are relentlessly plugged. RC Cola financed a Louise Mandrell video which featured so much RC sipping that it made its debut at the National Soft Drink Association convention in 1985 before being shown on TV and marketed in stores.

The performances and the ads merge to create a mood of longing - for someone to love, for something exciting to happen, for an end to loneliness, and for things to buy - a record, a ticket to a rock concert, a T-shirt, a Thunderbird. The advertising is all the more effective because it is not acknowledged as such.

The blurring of advertising, fashion, heavy beat, ecstatic melody, dance, and story; the quirky camera angle, the quick cutaway, the split-second succession of dream snippets, the floating, disconnected pictures; and the daring lyrics and images command an unprecedented global audience. The sheer power of combining sight, sound, fashion, dance, and the fast-paced film camera technique originally developed for advertising spots has whetted appetites around the world for recorded music, Coke, and all sorts of clothes that are meant to look like Madonna costumes.

MTV's success helped rescue the music industry from its slump at the beginning of the 1980s, and as it became a global network for promoting pop music, it acquired enormous power to decide what kind of music to play and what artists to push. Entrepreneurs around the world are eager to latch on to its success.

An enterprising Hong Kong-based company is beaming MTV into 400,000 households in India to the delight of the middle-class kids whose families have the satellite dishes to receive it. Mahesh Prasad, India's secretary of information, worries about the social impact: "Our own social ethos, our cultural values - we would not like them to be subverted."

Even though India is reversing nationalist policies of the past, Prasad is concerned that satellite television is giving poor people "dreams which cannot be fulfilled. It can create social tensions." Ads for such items as jewelry and baby food that are well beyond the reach of most Indians were banned on state television for fear of stimulating envy and greed. But thanks to powerful boosters used by unregulated cable companies, politically incorrect commercials, rap singers, and rock nymphets from far-away places are entering Indian homes.

BECAUSE OF THE CONSIDERABLE market power of MTV and its imitators across the globe, the promotion and advertising budgets of the global packagers of sound, and their increasing control over the local music industry everywhere, MTV has drawn fire from an array of critics across the political spectrum. "From the beginning, we made a lot of hay out of the fact that MTV was meant to alienate a lot of people," Freston recalls. "It was meant to drive a 55-year-old person crazy."

It is scarcely surprising that the media are a prime target in the holy war now fought out at abortion clinics, mosques, and other such battlegrounds around the world. All across the planet, people are using the same electronic devices to watch or to listen to the same commercially produced songs and stories.

Thanks to satellite, cable, and other globe-spanning technologies, even autocratic governments are losing the tight control they once had over the flow of information and their hold on the fantasy life of their subjects. In Malaysia, for example, the traditional dinner hour in many homes has fallen victim to television and, increasingly, to the microwave.

In coffee houses, tea houses, and cafes, and in cramped living quarters around the world, the same absence of conversation and human interaction is noticeable as family members, singly or together, sit riveted in front of a cathode tube. Centuries-old ways of life are disappearing under the spell of communication technologies.

In the early 1980s, Roger Wallis of the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation and Krister Malm, the director of the Music Museum in Stockholm, conducted a four-year study of what was happening to local music in 12 countries around the world as a result of the rise of the global music industry. In remote fishing villages in Sri Lanka, researchers discovered that about a third of the families had cassettes of the traditional Baila-style songs. But increasingly, cheap pirated versions of Anglo-American pop music became the status symbol.

The global music industry is having revolutionary influence on local performances. In India, the pop star Babydoll Alisha sings Madonna songs in a Hindi rendering. Tunisian artists now routinely use synthesizers to accompany the traditional bagpipes at live concerts. Electronic instruments are expensive, and the increasing dependence on access to electricity is changing what audiences look like and the way music is heard.

In Trinidad, the introduction of multichannel recording has transformed the employment prospects of the famous steel bands. It used to be that 100 musicians would be crowded into someone's backyard, each with his own tuned oil drum, and two microphones would pick it all up to make local tapes. Now a few of the best musicians are brought into a studio, and they record all the parts on different channels at different times.

The globalization of the music market and the technology of multiple-channel recording have made it possible to create fresh sound for the world market with musical exotica from all over the world. Everything from zouk, rhi, and jit from Africa and salsa from the Caribbean islands to the chants of India known as bhangra are mixed with a variety of American pop genres to produce a blend that is promoted around the world as "world beat."

"Lambada," promoted by French entrepreneurs as the dance craze of Brazil, is Bolivian in origin. A recorded version of this music performed by mostly Senegalese musicians became a global hit. Paul Simon used South African singers and songs for his hit album "Graceland," but he wrote his own words and the political message was diluted.

Local musicians are of course excited by the audiences, fame, and money that the international record companies can provide them, but some are uncomfortable that their rich cultural tradition is being fished and skimmed to make an international product. The companies, though much agitated about the protection of their own intellectual property from pirates, feel no compunction about uprooting the music of indigenous artists from its native soil and treating it as a free good until they have blended its rhythms and melody into a global commodity. Painters and composers have often borrowed from folk art and folk music, but not on this scale.

Still, gainful employment, recognition, even fame flow from the integration of local artists into an international industry. Paul Simon may not be a purist when it comes to South African music, but without his fame and initiative there would be nothing like the audience for it outside of South Africa that now exists.

There is growing alarm in communities not yet overwhelmed by the global commercial culture that ancient art forms are headed for extinction as surely as the endangered flora and fauna of the hacked-up rain forests. This may well turn out to be too pessimistic. Some genres and traditions will no doubt disappear, as has happened all through history. But there is a process of local resistance and renewal under way as well.

The invasion of global culture is reawakening the appreciation of local cultural traditions and the preciousness of cultural diversity. Yet the power of global commercial music grows with each new breakthrough in the technology of reproduction.

IN AN ERA WHEN MASSIVE shifts in cultural values are continuing to transform families around the world, creating a political backlash in the United States in defense of "family values," the global commercial culture industry has found itself almost everywhere welcomed as a liberator and at the same time attacked as godless, alien, and subversive.

Rap music communicates messages of social criticism to audiences considerably larger than the readership of The New Republic or the Kenyon Review, or even Dan Rather's viewers. Marxist critics have traditionally attacked pop music as an anti-revolutionary narcotic that celebrates hyper-individualism, narcissism, sexism, and violence. Feminist and African-American, Hispanic, and other minority groups point out that music videos reinforce race and gender stereotypes. When it comes to violence, critics on the Left are joined by critics on the Right, but the conservatives' main target has been "explicit sexual content" rather than violence, as if there is much of a distinction in many cases.

But the backlash against global commercial culture is also fed by other springs. There is mounting evidence that in various parts of the world more and more people feel assaulted by powerful messages designed to entertain but which in fact disturb. Few places in the world can escape these cultural currents. Especially in so-called traditional societies, there is mounting anxiety about the impact of mass entertainment on the most basic, the most emotionally explosive issues of daily life - men-women relations, sexual morality, and the obligations of parents and children.

Increasingly, neither parents, teachers, priests, nor mullahs can hold back the tides of change, and the levels of frustration are rising. Families cannot control what their children see and hear or how they spend their time, and teachers cannot compete with highly professional global media that preempt more of their students' waking hours than they do. According to a Nielsen survey conducted over two months in 1989, the average American household has the TV set on 50.1 hours a week. (In black households the set is on 77.3 hours a week.)

Ten-year-olds who are glued for two or three hours a day to TV or who dream away the afternoon with the aid of CDs are neither exercising their brain, developing their own aesthetic sense, nor coping with reality. In an increasingly atomized society, packaged fantasies serve to cut off real human relationships, for which they substitute stereotypes; the beat and pictures touch basic feelings of impressionable pre-teens about race, gender, love, and social interaction, and in ways we understand only dimly, help mold the personality of the adolescent by offering role models.

In schools of communication and media, earnest graduate students are cataloging instances of "crotch-grabbing hands, gyrating pelvises, and perfect curves bursting out of molded spandex" in music videos and counting acts of violence. One research team, after watching 100 hours of music-video programming found that there were on average 18 violent or hostile acts that were either actually depicted on the screen or communicated in lyrics every hour.

"Heavy metal rock lyrics and music videos routinely romanticize bondage, sexual aggression, and death; and popular teen movies are showcasing role models engaged in the most criminally indulgent, morally ambiguous, and self-destructive forms of behavior," another researcher concludes. Much of the violence is subtle. Most of it is against women. It all takes place in a dreamy setting in which there are no consequences.

As traditional family authority continues to weaken, and public education fails to prepare American children to cope either with the responsibilities of citizenship or with the challenges of a changing job market in a changing world or to develop the critical faculties citizens need so as not to be gulled by their leaders, children are being instructed by shadows on the screen on how to become precocious consumers and debtors.

Music industry executives whom we have interviewed disclaim responsibility for any possible negative consequences of their products. We are not in the business of creating taste, they say, but of satisfying the widest range of tastes and keeping up with changes in taste as fast as they occur.

A music company is like a big department store. A babel of sound is released, and the ring of the cash register decides which CDs sell and which ones are ground up to end their days as trays for other CDs. To prove the connection between what is heard or watched and what is going on inside a child's head is impossible, they point out.

To be sure, there are child psychologists who say that healthy children in a stable home are as likely to be harmed by TV and movie violence as their grandparents were by being read bloody stories from Grimm's Fairy Tales. But it is precisely the increasing numbers of children without stable homes on whom the impact of popular culture is most powerful and most negative.

The result is that no one - least of all the "family values" preacher/politicians - is taking responsibility for major influences on children and young people in their formative years. Movies, TV, pop music, and advertising, given the doses now being administered to young children around the world, do affect their ability to learn, to think, to imagine, and to love.

The globalization of culture is merely one aspect of the tectonic changes now occurring in the global economic and political order. Globalization, as the business world understands it, is very different from the global consciousness expressed through the ages by poets, philosophers, and prophets. It is a strategy for picking and choosing from a giant global menu of possible workers and customers.

But globalization is not really global, because most people are left out. Consumer globalization celebrates the liberation from passionate attachments to any specific piece of territory and writes off billions of people.

RICHARD J. BARNET and JOHN CAVANAGH are the authors of Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order, from which this article is adapted. The book will be published in February 1994 by Simon & Schuster.

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