Comment July 2002

The Taste Business

What foreigners love to hate about America is also what they love to buy
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The spring issue of the literary quarterly Granta carried essays on America from twenty-four non-American writers. Most of the essays were thoughtful, perhaps because most of the essayists had been thinking about America for much of their lives. Almost all of them wrote of their first exposure to America as an epiphany never really gotten over.

"I still remember America coming into our neighbourhood, our house, when I was a child," the Lebanese Hanan al-Shaykh wrote. "The full moon's fuller in America," was the saying Yang Lian remembered from life in China in the 1940s. "Ever since I was a child I have been losing friends and relatives to America," Raja Shehadeh wrote from the West Bank. "There was something so free, so untethered about them," the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif recalled of her first encounter with American short stories.

Cassandras of our times are necessarily and fundamentally Cassandras about America, because America so permeates our times. Left-leaning Cassandras find America appalling because it is imperial. "It is a fully-fledged, award-winning, gold-plated monster [that] has effectively declared war on the world," was how Harold Pinter put it, in the only really stupid essay in the Granta collection. Right-leaning Cassandras find it appalling that America is not imperial enough. But on the matter of American culture the left and the right find common ground. This is a matter more of intellectual and aesthetic values than of ideological ones: America is appalling because it is simply appalling. Here Gore Vidal and William J. Bennett and Susan Sontag and Norman Podhoretz can agree to agree. Here is where it seems even France has a point.

It is true that there is a perpetual wonder to the richness and the variety of the aesthetic awfulness of America. It is not just Bill and Monica and reality TV and talk TV and trash TV and Ozzy Osbourne on MTV and eyebrow rings and the spectacle of a people setting world obesity records who choose this precise moment in history to expose more of their flesh than ever before. It is everything and everywhere and evermore.

A few years ago, at the once stuffy, now trashy, yet inexplicably still stuffy White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, in Washington, D.C., George magazine—Exhibit 7,432,514 in the case for the decline and fall of it all—invited as one of its guests the pornographer Larry Flynt. As it happens, Flynt once published nude paparazzi photographs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the mother of the man who brought Flynt to dinner, George's founder and editor in chief, John F. Kennedy Jr. I thought then that this moment had to be some sort of unsurpassable low: the son of a former President bringing to a formal dinner with the current President a man who put his mother, the former First Lady, in a skin magazine. Of course it wasn't an unsurpassable moment; it was hardly even a moment.

When those of us who are at least social members of the Everything's Going to Hell school speak about what is wrong with America, what we most often have in mind is the thing that brought Flynt and Kennedy together—the mass culture of entertainment and celebrity. It can be argued that this culture isn't all that new or different. As the better class of visitors to America has long pointed out, we have always been oafs. Lamentations about the current abysmal state of American culture invite the response "When, exactly, was that Golden Age? Before or after Jerry Lewis?"

Still, it is a fact that we made Rugrats. We made Fear Factor. We made American Pie. We make things that make parody impossible—did you catch the Celebrity Boxing match between Tonya Harding and Paula Jones? Of course, that's our low culture. In our defense it must be said that we have a high culture, too. In recent years alone we have given the world the novels of Bret Easton Ellis, the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, the films of Oliver Stone, and the political philosophy of Michael (Stupid White Men) Moore. A big high-concept art moment a few years ago was a photograph called Piss Christ, featuring a crucifix submerged in urine. This season it's a musical called Urinetown. The mind boggles contemplating sequelae. As the lawyers say, let's just stipulate here.

So we make a lot of trash. But does this mean that we are trash—the ugly Americans, a people whose aesthetics reflect a moral vacuum? This notion informs the hatred of America that runs in a clear line from the English and French intellectual left to the café talk of Greece and Italy to the diatribes of the Wahhabi mosques. And it puzzles admirers of America, who find that the individual Americans they meet seem often to be quite nice people: pleasant, intelligent, educated—civilized, in fact.

In fact, American mass-entertainment culture does not reflect America or Americans properly or fully, and the reason has to do with the size of the mass.

There is a sign from yesterday that you can see from the train as it passes through Trenton, New Jersey: TRENTON MAKES—THE WORLD TAKES. Trenton doesn't make much of anything that matters anymore. Entertainment is what we make now, entertainment and its spinoff product, celebrity. In 2000 the categories of industry defined by the government as television and radio, motion pictures, and amusement and recreation accounted for $187.9 billion, or 1.9 percent, of the gross domestic product. Printing and publishing added another $105.5 billion, for another 1.1 percent. Altogether, these industries accounted for three percent of a GDP of $9.9 trillion. By comparison, all of farming, agricultural ser-vices, forestry, and fishing amounted to 1.4 percent of the GDP; motor vehicles and equipment were worth 1.2 percent; primary metal industries amounted to 0.5 percent; fabricated metal products accounted for 1.1 percent; petroleum and coal products were worth 0.4 percent; textile-mill products were good for 0.3 percent; and tobacco products contributed 0.2 percent.

Ninety-eight percent of American households, or 106 million, are equipped with a television set; 69.4 percent of these have cable, and there are 287 national cable channels; 91 percent have VCRs. Each year the U.S. film industry puts out at least 500 feature movies, of which fewer than half are released to be shown on any of the 37,000 screens in the United States. Most of the rest go direct to cable or home video. Increasingly, almost everything makes its way to an ever growing international market. In 1996 international sales of entertainment and software products passed $60 billion, bringing more money into America than any other U.S. goods. English-language films (almost all American) take in 60 to 65 percent of a global box office that in 2001 amounted to more than $18 billion.

Two obvious points arise here. The first is that the American fascination with the products of the U.S. entertainment-celebrity complex reflects the fact that these products are the most important things America produces for sale. When we dominated the world automobile industry, we cared a lot about new car lines. Now we dominate the world celebrity business, and we care a lot about new celebrity lines. This is merely rational. The business of America is business, and the business of America is entertainment—which no one else in the world produces as we do.

The second point is that with this kind of mass, there is literally no accounting for taste. Everything the American industry makes, it makes not for "the market" but for one or another specific segment of a market that is global, growing like mad, and ever fractioning into submarkets. There is no such thing as American taste—there is the 27 percent of the population that goes to the movies at least once a month, but there is also the 30 percent that never goes to the movies. There is the under-thirty market, whose sensibilities dictate content ... But wait—this group is increasingly losing in importance to the foreign market, whose sensibilities increasingly dominate ... But wait—there is no one foreign market; there are ten major ones, and they have different tastes too. And some of them are really shockingly low. (Have you seen English tabloids lately?) America makes, the world takes—and America makes what the world wants to take.

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