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The 'Seduction' of America



"I am not trying to seduce you."

The lilting, Lolita-esque lyric loops mischievously out of the radio, wreathed snugly in girlish laugher that smacks of smug assurance.

I'm not sure exactly when the realization sank in, but I have a feeling it was sometime between the millionth radio-play of "Macarena" and the million-and-first of That Fujees Song. School schedules may vary; temperatures may dip and soar, but there's no more predictable indicator of the arrival of summer than the calculated, bankable megahits of the entertainment industry.

(Theoretically) new though they may be, there is something about all of them so uniform that coming home to watch new releases in the theatre or read a best-seller at the beach is more nostalgia than novelty.

A brief round-up of what I mean:

Radio: This season, that most ubiquitous form of summer lite entertainment has brought such offerings as Mariah Carey's paean to true love, "Always Be My Baby," and the previously mentioned incessant dance mixes. Beside that, we have also gained the latest release by Tracy Chapman, a talented artist with a small and dedicated following who had finally made her first foray in years to return to a larger, mainstream audience.

Perhaps it is only the marketing maze of summer media, but there was something less driven about her latest release, something that sounded less driven and more, well, produced. Calculated. Chapman's latest release sounds like her first one, put through a blender to average the overall "Chapman sound," and then poured into a CD mold. The problem is, generic Tracy isn't Tracy at all. One of the things that made her earlier albums so compelling was their inconsistencies, the exquisitely different points they were able to access, like so many different facets on a diamond pressurized into shape by the urgency of honest anger and desperation.

Primitive Radio Gods also promised an exciting debut onto the mainstream musical scene (despite the obnoxiously long-winded title of their first hit single) with music that capitalized on Carpe-Diemesque philosophical appeals that have reverberated through the lines of rock for decades. They managed to save themselves from their lyrics to some extent with sound that is at least refreshing. They'll kill time while you're waiting in line for the phone, at any rate.

TV: The Olympics. 'Nuff said. Well, except for one thing--the Super Bowl may still be The #1 U.S. Athletic Event, but the Olympics is giving it a serious run for its money in at least one department. Sure, the athletic performances are good, but the advertising! It's refreshing to know that in an era of reduced arts funding the most creative minds of our time have found another outlet into which they can funnel their talents. It's always curious to notice the way in which mass media has transformed our cultural resources The advertising industry has done just that by providing ad designers with a broader public viewing base than artists or writers usually ever attain. David it's not, but in its own twisted way, advertising has re-formed the space for creativity in the public eye. The fact that our greatest cultural legacy is now funded by, and revolves around, marketing rather than, say, private or ecclesiastic patronage, says much about our nation. It also often makes for a fascinating array of condensed packages of talented, carefully sculpted craft between the sitcoms and soaps. Just as content seeps out of the substance of entertainment, it winds up in advertising. Curious.

Books: Sidestepping the calculated dead-tree weight of mainstream writing, I wanted to spend one minute to mark an anomaly, a record that is noteworthy for its lasting evasion of conventional wisdom in marketing.

This past Sunday marked Week # 663 on the New York Times' Best-Seller list for M. Scott Peck's Book of "Inspiration," The Road Less Traveled.

For TWELVE YEARS and 39 weeks, Peck's book has told the readers of America, the same culture that nurtured the catharsis-via-Oprah method of personal problem resolution and the so-called "cult of victim-hood," to stop complaining about how tough their lot is, get their respective chins up and just deal. "Life is difficult," as the book's mantra claims, but from Week 663, the view is probably a lot rosier.

And last but not least, the greatest (in sheer size) form of modern public theatre: The Blockbuster. Even beyond the slightly (dare I use the word any more) ironic fact of having a presumptive presidential candidate go out of his way to praise a film in which space invaders blow up the Capitol (shortly after he announced that security there should be reduced...), there's something slightly unsettling about the shift that commentary represents in the balance of power between fluff media and serious public discourse. It's disturbing to have reached a point where officials feel that they have to play follow-the-leader with Hollywood (not renowned as a think tank for sound public policy). Leaders should be spending more time trying to set an agenda of national concerns and less trying to co-opt the currents of a cultural mainstream that is swinging away from them. The fact that media mainstream forces like Hollywood blockbuster action films--mere entertainment--have maneuvered so successfully in the public eye that they now must be addressed as a campaign issue is disturbing. Their content is hardly worthy of it.

Movie theatres, like the other ubiquitous forms of summer entertainment, have provided vacationers this year with a comfortable, familiar fare of spectacle and romance. Hollywood has gotten into a tizzy over why its most recent batch of big-screen money-makers aren't ringing up receipts like in the past. On the airwaves, the TV screens and the big screen, there's a certain palatable contempt for fare which has become over-produced.

Across America, students are home or working on everything from archaeological digs to Congressional internships to the dishes at Pizza Hut. In diverse places, they are meeting different people and shaping the eclectic attitudes they will bring back to school in the fall. But almost anywhere they may have ended up, they can count on the uniting strand of a popular culture that is so target-marketed and spun that you could predict its essential substance without ever picking up a specific record lable or movie poster.

Popular culture has long been derided for its failure to take artistic risks, but this summer marks a new low in the calculated deliberation of its bland content.

As the frolicking strain of "Macarena" drifts out of radios and into psyches across America, the vixenly voice seems to amplify and to speak for a whole moment of cultural transaction between mass entertainment marketers and the haplessly bombarded citizen. For the five-millionth time, the lyric wends its way out of the chorus.

"I am not trying to seduce you," it proclaims. Yeah, right.

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