The Triumph of Pop

March 19, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

While Americans lament the gratuitous violence and sex purveyed by their popular culture, the rest of the world can't ZTC seem to get enough of it -- the culture, that is.

Michael Jackson, Madonna, Steven Spielberg, Whitney Houston and Roseanne are far more familiar to people around the world than any of our ''serious'' artists.

Here's a suggestion: The explosion of American popular culture in the late 20th century may go down in history as one of the great creative epochs of all time, along with the Golden Age of Greece and the Italian Renaissance.

Is it prejudice or snobbery that prevents Americans from rejoicing in their own creative ferment? Our television is a ''vast wasteland,'' the critics say; rap music is junk and Madonna is a nubile embarrassment.

Our movies are too violent, our novels insipid, our fashions silly and our cuisine unhealthy. You'd think we'd keel over from the sheer volume of schlock, but we just keep churning the stuff out. In America, there's always something new to sing about, write about or put on TV.

So what if the rest of the world regards us as crude, insensitive and vulgar? That's their Puritan guilt -- and our own. If pop culture were really as bad as its critics made out, no one would buy it. But that's not what's happening, daddy-o.

Pop culture is America's biggest export after aircraft, earning billions of dollars in revenues annually.

American films, records, fashions and slang are ubiquitous in much of Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. They are aimed at young people everywhere, giving voice to a universal adolescent rebelliousness that transcends barriers of language, geography, religion and race.

The pop-culture onslaught is changing attitudes among young people abroad and giving their elders pause over its supposedly dire effects -- just as American parents worry about the jading influence of soap operas, Reeboks and McDonald's.

In village societies from Tajikistan to Tibet, elders react with dismay when the younger generation demands to choose their own marriage partners after being imbued with pop culture's romantic ideal.

No wonder American pop is considered a subversive influence. If people are allowed to pick their own spouses, soon they may demand a say in how they are governed -- they may want to pick their presidents, too.

It's not just the Third World that fears the pop-culture juggernaut. France is so afraid of American movies it threatened to wreck the GATT talks last year unless it was granted a special exemption to bar them.

Hardly anyone wants to acknowledge that pop is king because people like it. So die-hard old fogeys dress up their carping in all sorts of fancy, high-culture garb.

The complaints of foreign critics are remarkably similar to those heard at home: Pop culture glorifies materialism, violence, sex and rampant individualism -- a sweetly seductive yet pernicious form of ''cultural imperialism'' that panders to the lowest common denominator. Oh, really? Gimme a break.

Rather than lament the decline of standards, Americans ought to take heart from the triumph of pop culture. The fact that pop is a uniquely American creation that has enchanted the world says at least as much about this country's strengths as its weaknesses.

Just as the last century saw the works of German and Austrian composers come to define what we regard as greatness in music, today's American pop culture is redefining the way millions of people around the world view the visual and dramatic arts, cuisine and fashion.

American pop culture is by definition multicultural, which is to say universalist rather than particularist. Its sounds and images comprise a new universal language uniting people around the globe. And it is determinedly optimistic because -- despite all our problems -- this is still the land of opportunity. Not for nothing do they call our part of the globe the ''New World.''

Does this mean democracy will inevitably follow wherever Madonna leads? Not necessarily, though the liberating values celebrated in American movies and music probably tend to erode every form of authoritarianism. Despots beware.

Despite its acknowledged flaws, American pop culture reflects a brash confidence and faith in the future that the rest of the world finds enormously attractive. If only we at home could see our own virtues as clearly as they appear to our admirers abroad.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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