The Conspiracy That Isn't

by Polar Levine for popCULTmedia October 7, 2002

Some of my favorite shows on TV these days are cable broadcasts of garish Chinese pageants, ablaze in (to the Western eye) clashing pastels, gyrating dancers and windswept banners -- the backdrop for bland vocalists lip-synching about "all the smiling faces" as "we advance gloriously into the future." The most interesting aspect of these spectacles is their resemblance to America's pop music performance medium of the past decade -- the return of huge Vegas-like dance production and laser spectacle with over-dubbed vocalizing about the joy/agony of romance objects. It's just like what our parents or grandparents used to like on Ed Sullivan -- as opposed to the rock bands we waited for that just got up there and played without all the prefabricated excitement enhancers.

It would be fun to view this psychedelic Chinese propaganda as the last burp of state sanctioned art in the civilized world. But curiously it's making a comeback in, of all places, the U.S.A.

This was brought home again during the MTV awards -- how strange it feels watching the Hip Hop Nation express itself in the medium that I used to suffer through before the Stones or James Brown came on. But the scary part is not an aesthetic issue -- it is how the music sold to today's youth is driven by the nation's political call to consumerism and corporate boosterism. The "rebellious" stuff, from gangsta rap to Limp Bizkit, is no more threat to this nationalist creed than the teen romance stuff. This is why the corporate media giants have no problem promoting them, to the exasperation of both right and left wing morality police.

America's creativity is lavishly sponsored, not by a theocratic or authoritarian state, but by the ideological machinery that sponsors the government -- the ever consolidating and centralizing corporatocracy. This shadowy political engine has developed over time into a virtual holding company for both political parties and every medium that delivers culture and information to the vast majority of Americans. Only the internet has been stubbornly free of its dominance... for now. But as the media industry rams through the courts and the congress its program to control the web market for its own content, the rest of us are too doped on junk entertainment and infotainment to notice.

The theology of untempered "free" market capitalism (except for pro-industry big government regulation and subsidies) is delivered like wafers to the faithful by an ever-passive press. Consumerism has become the nation's (and soon to be every nation's) hobby, pastime and means of personal expression and identification. The logos we wear express our world views and philosophical attitudes. We wear the uniforms of each market-tested subculture that we will passionately belong to until we shed it for another. The models for these subcultures are our popstars, TV shows, movies and magazines. What are they about? Looking good, looking bad, looking dangerous and rebellious, looking hot.

Polar, seriously dude -- do you actually believe that some secret dictat from the White House has been delivered to establish a post-industrial Manhattan Project dedicated to creating Britney Spears? And her function is to hypnotize us with her beckoning navel while the Cheney Administration and its cronies loot the mall? Not at all, folks. But I do believe this: provide a society -- any society -- with a 24/7 menu of mindless entertainment, junk food and celebrity-obsessed journalism and political double-talk -- and a governing body can get away with anything.

Our society is plugged into the pleasure machine that tells us through music videos, narratives, children's programming and advertising that, after child-rearing, buying things is our primary function as human beings. We're told what to buy and when it's time to replace that stuff with the newer stuff. We're offered attractive choices of who we are and who we should emulate. The screen is our stand-in for experience and our observations are based on a projected world rather than our own lives. We ogle a parade of hard sweaty bodies while our own grow slack from sitting and gorging. We become needy of those products that will distract us from our ennui and promise to make us more like those we'll never become.

And as this national credo becomes more entrenched, our creative instincts are steered away from the expressive anarchy that historically develops into a culture's DNA -- chiaroscuro, impressionism, cubism, surrealism, abstraction, pop art, method acting, jazz, rock, hip hop. Instead, these instincts are harnessed to the cause of advertising products and political slogans. When a nation's creativity is diverted this way, something vital in the soul of the beast will be tamed. And that's worse than sad -- it's tragic and dangerous. Good people go to that banality because that's where the money is. Have you noticed that in the past decade or two there's better art in advertising and design than in the galleries? That movies look better as the narrative gets dumber?

No, it's not a conspiracy I'm describing. But it's a system that has evolved to put the needs of corporations, politicians, CEO's and wealthy popcult artists over those of the population at large; the plumbing is in place to deliver the goods while the rest of us gurgle into the pleasure machine.

For every Bill Maher who puts his network success on the line, there will be hundreds of others who will deliver entertainment devoid of boat-rocking reality checks (check the replacement for "Politically Incorrect.") For every Bono, risking his rocker cachˆ© to travel with a conservative pol in order to effect political change, there are thousands who will gladly devote careers to selling Pepsico and bitch-slap chic -- keepin' it real for the great commerce machine. Because of the triumph of lite entertainment values in pop music that are wildly expensive to produce, you will rarely see a large concert stage without a highly visible corporate logo. America's new corporate-sanctioned rebel class is up there performing kitchy production numbers and promoting its clothing lines; and promoting whoever is footing the bill for the laser FX, stage sets, costume changes, choreography and the machinery that makes the lip-synching look real and the body language look dangerous. And I bet CEO's love it and laugh every time a rebel superstar says, "fuck you" to the company's logo while drawing hundreds of thousands of eyeballs to it.

In the wake of Michael Jackson's bizarre transformation into blackface political satire -- near-billionaire celebrity and publishing mogul as exploited black man -- we hear how cynical white record label execs spew into the market all this hyper materialistic violent gangsta clowning as a means of perpetuating black stereotypes. Bullshit. They promote that stuff over far superior hip hop because it sells more. This is what the coveted American teen boy market (white and black) craves. If all the young dudes craved Eminem rapping pie recipies -- we'd be seeing that in massive rotation. Can you imagine "Masters Of War" era Dylan or a videogenically handicapped Aretha Franklin getting signed as new artists by major labels today? I wonder if our corporate-sponsored rebel kitsch and kiddy pop is as funny to the Chinese as their Communist kitsch is to me.

by Polar Levine