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Richard Barnet and John Cavanagh

Satellites, cables, Walkmans, video cassette recorders, CDs, and other marvels of entertainment technology have created the arteries through which modern entertainment conglomerates are homogenising global culture. With the toppling of the Berlin Wall and the embrace of free market ideologies in former communist countries, literally the entire planet is being wired into music, movies, news, TV programmes, and other cultural products that originate primarily in the film and recording studios of the United States. The impact of this homogenisation on the rich cultural diversity of communities all around the world is immense, and its contours are beginning to become clear.

Unlike American automobiles, television sets, and machine tools, American cultural products are sweeping the globe. Reruns of Dallas and the Cosby show fill the TV screens on every continent. The 1990 fairy-tale hit Pretty Woman became the all-time best-selling film in Sweden and Israel within weeks of its release. Disneyland is now a global empire; its Japanese incarnation outside Tokyo draws 300,000 visitors a week, and Euro Disneyland, a theme park on the outskirts of Paris occupying space one-fifth the size of the city itself, eventually hopes to draw more tourists than the Eiffel Tower, Sistine Chapel, British Museum, and the Swiss Alps combined.

When the Berlin Wall came down in late 1989, East German families flocked to West Berlin to taste the pleasures of capitalism; what they wanted most were oranges and pop-music records. In Rio, school kids adorn their workbooks with pictures of Michael Jackson. In Kashmir, teenagers hum Beatles songs. Vegetable stalls in Madras still feature "disco" cauliflower. All over the world people are listening to pop music and watching videos that offer excitement, escape, and the feeling of connectedness to a larger world. Most of these consumers of global cultural products are young.

As government, families and tribal structures are thrown into crisis by the sweeping changes of late-twentieth-century society, pop artists have emerged as global authority figures. Thanks to the microphone and camera, a few megastars can communicate power and the appearance of strong commitment at great distance. Unlike parents, mullahs, chiefs, bureaucrats, and politicians, they ask little of their fans except to enjoy themselves and keep buying. On the few publicised occasions when rock stars call upon their worldwide audiences for personal contributions - for rain forests, famine relief, political prisoners - the global outpouring is astounding.

Global entertainment companies are pinning their hopes on the two-fifths of the people on Earth who are under 20. The competition to hook millions of new fans at increasingly early ages is intense. Sony has expanded into the children’s market with its "My First Sony" line of toylike radios, its new Sony Kids’ Music label, and an expanding Children’s Library of videos.

The most spectacular technological development of the 1980s for expanding the reach of global entertainment was MTV. By the beginning of 1993 MTV programming was beamed daily to 210 million TV households in seventy-one countries. The cable network, which began in August 1981, claims to have 39 million viewers in Europe and well over 50 million in the US. 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 hair balls.) The owner of this global network of networks is Summer Redstone, a Boston multibillionaire who made a fortune in movie theatres. Although his name is unknown to the general public, he has become one of the most influential educators of young people in the world. As MTV was announcing plans to extend its worldwide home entertainment networks to China, Korea, and Taiwan and to launch Ren & Stimpy in Europe, Redstone was celebrating the arrival of the global child. "Just as teenagers are the same all over the world, children are the same all over the world," he declared.

Although hundreds of millions of children and teenagers around the world are listening to the same music and watching the same films and videos, globally distributed entertainment products are not creating a new global consciousness - other than a widely shared passion for more global goods and vicarious experience. The exotic imagery of music videos offers the illusion of being connected to cultural currents sweeping across the world, but this has little to do with the predictions of consciousness philosophers from Kant to Marshall McLuhan, who hoped for a new globally unified identification with the welfare of the whole human species and with the planet itself. So far, it has been commodity consciousness that has been stimulated. The spread of commercially produced popular music, most of it conceived in the US, is speeding up as once-formidable ideological barriers come down. The collapse of communism makes it easier to export music, film, and video to Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and China. But integrating vast reaches of the world into a global story-and-song market is not a simple task. In 1990 Rudi Gassner was president of BMG International and was in direct charge of Bertelsmann’s music business. "Our priority," he says, is "signing acts on a worldwide basis exclusive to BMG for worldwide exploitation." Months before the reunification of Germany was completed, Bertelsmann had hired someone to head its sales force for the German Democratic Republic, where, Gassner says, he is counting on picking up an additional 15 million customers. "Our next target group," he wrote in an internal 1990 newsletter, "includes Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and to a certain extent, Poland." But he anticipated "enormous problems for us because of the currency constraints ... We will not make money immediately; we will not be able to take money out. But I feel that long term we should be there and be one of the first, if not the first, ... for political and strategic reasons."

The strongest remaining ideological barrier to American music, television, and film is Islamic Fundamentalism. In the Khomeini era in Iran American cultural products were the supreme symbols of satanic decadence. The more fanatical Iranian and Saudi authorities became in their attempts to purify their traditional cultures, the more people were drawn to forbidden music and films. Underground video clubs sprang up all over Iran, and crowds came to watch tapes of the latest American network programmes, and of course X-rated films. Pirated Michael Jackson videotapes were available for $50, and underground discos abounded. The Islamic Guards regularly raided all these activities, but in recent years there have been a few signs of liberalisation. The technologies of penetration are so powerful that the industry is planning for the day when Iran will rejoin the global market in music and film. In Saudi Arabia, where Western rock was equally abhorrent to the ruling family, except when they were out of the country throwing a party in the privacy of their own homes, the arrival of a half-million American soldiers and Desert Shield Network FM-107 with its dozen or more transmitters all over the country produced a culture shock. Once the war ended, however, the religious police stepped up their campaign to rid the desert kingdom of all cultural traces of their protectors. But ultimately, it is a losing battle.

The biggest growth potential for pop music is in Latin America and Asia. (Africa is almost never mentioned.) BMG Ariola Discos Ltd. operates in Brazil and has 55 percent of the market. About 80 percent of the records sold are by local artists. Today only 50 million of Brazil’s 150 million people buy records. But in a few years, Gassner predicts, "another half will be active economically, doubling our market potential".

Musicians, social critics, and politicians in poor countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America worry that the massive penetration of transnational sound will not only foreclose employment opportunities for local artists but will doom the traditional music of their local culture. "My fear is that in another 10 or 15 years what with all the cassettes that find their way into the remotest village, and with none of their own music available, people will get conditioned to this cheap kind of music." This remark by a Sri Lankan musician typifies the anxieties throughout the nonindustrialised world that industrial music products will sweep away hundreds, perhaps thousands of years in traditional music. "However small a nation we are, we still have our own way of singing, accompanying, intonating, making movements and so on. We can make a small but distinctive contribution to world culture. But we could lose it..."

In the 1980s the environmental movement began to popularise the important idea that biological diversity is a precious global resource, that the disappearance of snail darters, gorgeous tropical birds, and African beetles impoverishes the earth and possibly threatens the survival of the human species. The cultural-environment movement has no powerful organisations promoting its message, but it has a large, unorganised global constituency. The feeling that world culture will be degraded if diversity is lost is widely shared among artists, cultural conservatives, and nationalists. Yet these concerns are overwhelmed by the sheer power of global popular culture, which threatens local cultural traditions and the traditional communities from which they spring.

The impact of the global music industry on the character of local music has been significant. The Indian pop star Babydoll Alisha sings Madonna songs in a Hindi rendering. Tunisian artists now routinely use synthesisers to accompany the traditional bagpipes at live concerts. The need for financing for expensive electronic instruments and the dependence on access to electricity is changing the local music culture. In Trinidad the introduction of multichannel recording has transformed the employment prospects of the famous steel bands. It used to be that a hundred 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, as Roger Wallis of the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, and Krister Malm, the director of the Music Museum in Stockholm report, a few of the best musicians now "record all the various parts on different channels on the tape recorder at different times. The final mix ... might be technically perfect, but it no longer represents the collective communication of 100 musicians and their audiences."

The globalisation of the music market and the technology of multi-channel recording has made it possible to create fresh sounds 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 bhangre 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, but some are uncomfortable that their rich cultural traditions are 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 indigenous music from its native soil and treating it as a free commodity. There is a fine line between tapping into an exotic musical tradition and stealing uncopyrighted songs, and sometimes the line is crossed.

The spectacular growth of global commercial entertainment has inspired a number of explanations. The role of technology has clearly been important. The wiring of the world through global transmission of pictures, talk, and music by satellite greatly accelerated the spread of a global market for movies, videos, and TV programmes. The VCR turned homes, bars, day-care centres, buses, waiting rooms, and nursing homes into a global chain of movie theatres. On the remote island of Siquijor in the Philippines, the inhabitants still gather at "The Hangout" to eat halo-halo (chopped ice, corn flakes, fruit and beans) and watch Rambo on videotape. In Colombia, long-distance buses keep their all-night movie fans on the edge of their seats (and the others grumpily awake) with Robocop. Hours once written off as commercially irrelevant were suddenly transformed into marketable time; insomniacs, housebound invalids, children with enough disposable income to rent a film, and couch potatoes of every variety could thrust a videocassette into their VCR at any time of the day or night. Old television programmes and movies bounce off satellites or travel by cable into homes, schools, and prisons around the world, achieving a certain immortality previously denied to most cultural products. Not many dead poets, pundits, or even departed best-selling novelists last long on the shelf, but thanks to videotape and the near-universal hunger for American movies, music, and TV programmes, dead rock stars and movie actors go on forever.

A more persuasive explanation for the huge audience for global entertainment is that it is filling the vacuum left by the collapse of traditional family life almost everywhere, the atrophying of civic life, and the pervasive loss of faith in politics worldwide. Popular culture acts as a sponge to soak up spare time and energy that in earlier times might well have been devoted to nurturing and instructing children or to participating in political, religious, civic, or community activities or in crafts, reading, and continuing self-education. But such pursuits sound a bit old-fashioned today, although political theory still rests on the assumption that these activities are central to the functioning of a democratic society. Yet increasingly, vicarious experience via film, video, and music is a substitute for civic life and community. As it becomes harder for young people in many parts of the world to carve out satisfying roles, the rush of commercial sounds and images offers escape.

In the US global cultural products may outrage local sensibilities, but at least they are mostly made there. In Latin America and parts of Asia, American films and TV programmes dominate the airways. It costs next to nothing to air an old Hollywood "B" film or a rerun of Lucy or Mr. Ed. Even less antique programmes like Dallas or L.A. Law are much less expensive to run than a local programme with local talent, and the US product is likely to draw a bigger audience. Of the 4,000 films shown on Brazilian TV, according to the Brazilian film producer Luis Carlos Barreto, 99 percent are from rich countries, mostly Hollywood. Television is the most powerful force for mass education in most poor countries. Cultural nationalists in Latin America and in pockets of Asia are enraged that the most influential teachers of the next generation are Hollywood film studios and the global advertising agencies. But recent trends all over the world - advances in intrusive technologies, privatisation, deregulation, and commercialisation of electronic media - are making it increasingly difficult for families and teachers to compete with the global media for the attention of the next generation.

Richard Barnet is author of Global Reach and 10 other books, and articles in the New Yorker, Harpers and the New York Times.

John Cavanagh is co-author of seven books on the global economy and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Reproduced with the permission of Edward Goldsmith, co-editor with Jerry Mander, of The Case Against the Global Economy and For a Turn Towards the Local - Sierra Club Books; fax 1-415-957-5793.

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