THE MERCHANTS OF COOL
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Interview: Mark Crispin Miller

Mark Crispin Miller is a media critic, professor at New York University, and the author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV.

Can you talk about the five major media conglomerates in the world and how big these companies are?

Our media landscape is very, very heavily dominated by just a handful of gigantic media corporations, transnational corporations. The most important ones are Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, the News Corporation, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and Universal-Vivendi, which is about to become a French-owned corporation.

To give you a sense of some of the power that these corporations wield, let me take you through just some of the holdings of the News Corporation, for example. This Australian-based transnational owns Fox Television, 20th Century Fox Films, Harper Collins Publishers. It's also the largest owner of newspapers in the world. Rupert Murdoch has Sky Television, which broadcasts to the world over--and the list goes on and on. This kind of range is unprecedented in the history of all the media industries. We now have all of our culture industries, from movies and TV and radio to music and book publishing and the web, dominated by corporations that are all-powerful in all of those fields. They are all-purpose media corporations.

ItÕs part of the official advertising worldview that your parents are creeps, teachers are nerds and idiots, and authority figures are laughable The perceived wisdom is we now have more choices than ever; but what is the reality?

One often hears that we all enjoy many more choices as viewers and listeners and readers than any generation of human beings ever enjoyed before. Well, that's actually not the case. There's a seeming multiplicity, a great ostensible diversity out there; but behind the surface of that apparent vast range of choices, there's really not all that much in the way of true difference or true diversity. There's a handful of owners behind most of those products that you see at the newsstand or on cable or on the web, you know? A handful of owners and the same commercial imperative at work, no matter where you turn. You talk about newspapers, magazines, movies, TV shows, radio. It's all alike, calculated to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible.

Now, most of the media industries have always been commercial above all. There's no question about that, although some were more commercial than others were. Book publishing, for example, was historically not driven, above all, by a concern about profits, but it was actually run by men and women who loved books. It sounds quaint today. Nevertheless, by now all the media industries are alike, driven by commercial concerns. And this has been intensified by the fact that the huge few that wield all the power are heavily indebted. They have to make a lot of money. Their shareholders are always at the door. They are very anxious enterprises. They are forced to go wherever they think the money is right now. They are forced to try to grab the biggest demographic bloc they can. They aren't inclined to take any real risks at all.

And this has tended to make the quality of most media product highly dubious. Whether we talk about the TV news, which is in this country more idiotic and lurid than ever before; or whether we talk about the content of most magazines, which is increasingly soft porn; or whether we're talking about newspapers, which are more and more like television; or movies or music; we're talking about a decline in quality that most of the people who work in these industries have recognized.

Give us a good sense of today's commercial imperative and how that's changed things from the past.

Well, in a thoroughly commercialized environment, there is very little incentive to be careful of the sensibilities of particular segments of the audience. Thirty years ago, a certain kind of commercial approach to children would have been unthinkable. Thirty years ago, children's TV programs were, by our standards, largely laughable in how slow and elementary and often sentimental they were. People marvel at the miracle that is Mr. Rogers, because he is such an unusual kind of figure in today's media world. Once the commercial logic takes over, children are fair game along with everybody else.

I can give you a very dramatic example from the world of book publishing. Bantam Books was the second mass market paperback company to be formed in the United States just after World War II, and it was conceived deliberately with large masses of young readers in mind. Books like The Grapes of Wrath, Shakespeare's Greatest Comedies, Jane Eyre, sold for 25 cents with the aim of making sure that young people who weren't rich could get hold of really good books. And it did very well.

Well, by now Bantam Books is part of the Bertelsmann empire, which is the largest book publisher in the world, a commercial entity based in Germany that dominates the American publishing landscape. A couple of years ago, Bantam came out with the Barfarama series for young male readers 12 to 15 with titles like Dog-Doo Afternoon and The Great Puke-Off. These are all brainlessly scatological books that were packaged just to make a buck. Now some of the people who do them claim, "Oh, at least we're getting young people reading." That's a very disingenuous thing to say. This is going deliberately and systematically for the lowest common denominator, and the logic there is purely commercial. It has nothing to do with literary quality or with introducing the joys of reading to the young.

The same kind of callousness, the same kind thoughtlessness, the same disregard for propriety and the same uninterest in what kids really need and like dominates throughout the culture industries. If you watch Saturday morning kids' TV, you can see it in programming that is unrelievedly frantic, hyped-up, hysterical, and, in its own way, quite violent and pervasively commercial. It's all about selling, and this, I think, is the primary reason why there is something of a crisis nowadays, a cultural crisis involving children. It is not because there are fugitives from the 1960s generation who are in control of the media. It's not a communist plot. It's not because bad people are involved in those industries. It's because of the inordinate influence of commercial logic and the commercial imperative overall.

Children used to watch, say, "The Brady Bunch", whereas today there are niche shows directed right at teenagers, not families, in which there are no parents. What has happened?

The media spectacle overall has changed as advertising has changed, and as advertising has become more central to the media spectacle. So, on the one hand, advertising has itself become nastier, less and less utopian over the decades. If you compare advertising from the 1920s-1930s-1940s and 1950s with advertising since the mid-1970s, you're struck by how much crueler, how much more self-centered the values tend to be. There's less of a pretense of an interest in camaraderie. There's less sentimentality. It's less pastoral. It's less escapist. It's much grimmer, and it's more about you and how you look and how cool you are. It's more ironic.

What is happening to advertising, and why?

For one thing, it has to do with the fact that we're all far more jaded about advertising than we used to be--more cynical about certain kinds of utopian claims. It also has to do with an increasing desperation on the part of the advertisers to break through the "clutter," as they put it. So they tend to do things that are more outrageous than anything they would have tried 30 years ago. There are other factors at work here, but what it all comes down to is that this all-pervasive commercial propaganda, which sells not only countless products but a whole view of life, has itself become much nastier since, I'd say, the mid-1970s. The utopian element has gone out of advertising, and now it tends to be a celebration of the worst kinds of values.

At some point, that kind of advertising began to be directly pointed to teenagers. When did that happen, and why, and what has been the result?

Teenagers have been a pretty desirable market for quite some time. In a way, teenagers were an important mass market in the 1940s and 1950s, although that whole subculture, that whole market was a controversial one, because rock 'n roll stood in a certain disrepute. The 1960s and the early 1970s were an interesting time, because the youth culture was kind of a non-commercial development. It had certain commercial pay-offs, obviously, but it formed more or less spontaneously, and it was not TV-centered. TV was pretty much irrelevant to the youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s.

Well, what happened since then is that youth culture has tended more and more to be defined by the mass media. You no longer get so much of a sense of the advertisers and the media struggling to keep up with developments that are out in the streets. More and more, you get the sense that the youth culture and the youth market for the most part are indistinguishable, which has meant that things like fashion are far more important than they used to be. And this has much to do with the rise of rock videos, for example.

The youth market today may be called the avant-garde of the consumer culture, if you see what I mean. There's an awful lot of money there, and kids don't tend to have many of the same inhibitions or cherish the same notions as their elders do. So that there's more at stake in trying to be on the cutting edge where kids will appreciate what you're doing, if you see what I mean.

So there's often a kind of official and systematic rebelliousness that's reflected in media products pitched at kids. It's part of the official rock video worldview. It's part of the official advertising worldview that your parents are creeps, teachers are nerds and idiots, authority figures are laughable, nobody can really understand kids except the corporate sponsor. That huge authority has, interestingly enough, emerged as the sort of tacit superhero of consumer culture. That's the coolest entity of all, and yet they are very busily selling the illusion that they are there to liberate the youth, to let them be free, to let them be themselves, to let them think different, and so on. But it's really just an enormous sales job.

Teenagers suffer from acute self-consciousness to begin with...This system heightens that anxiety by constantly confronting every kid with a kind of mirror in which you're supposed to look at yourself and like what you see or not like what you see How is corporate America now setting trends, instead of following them?

The corporate sponsors and the mass media now set the agenda, and this has a lot to do with the general way in which they have tended to appropriate all of the common spaces of life. You know, nobody really goes outside to play anymore. College students, for example, tend now to be marvelously cocooned in their dorm rooms. They're online. They have state-of-the-art televisions, and so on. They all have great Walkmans and all the rest of it. This material change, this sort of technological shift in the very structure of daily life has made it easier for those large interests to sort of keep track of what the young are up to.

And there's another development that I think is significant. If you look back at the youth markets of, say, the 1940s and the 1950s and the 1960s, you're struck by a very important difference, in that the figures who tended to be admired by those masses were somewhat older. Kids admired James Dean. Some like Brando. Elvis Presley looked like he was around 20. The Beatles were in their early 30s. The rock musicians of the 1960s and 1970s were a little bit older. They weren't peers of 13- and 14-year-olds. Now, the young tend to be presented always and everywhere with what is, in a way, the most seductive thing there is, and that's a mirror. There's a mirror held up to them all the time. It's the mirror as constructed by advertising and TV, but it's the mirror that tells you that you are all there is to be, or you could be, if you bought what we have to sell.

The teen delivery is so much more sophisticated. There's no separation between the space where marketing happens and a space where it's not. Reality and marketing are all one cocoon.

Let's remember that advertising is, above all, a form of propaganda. It's changed in a very significant way over the last couple of decades. If you go back to the TV shows of the 1950s that were pitched at kids, you're struck by the fact that the ads, the commercials in those shows stood out as interruptions. I can certainly recall a certain impatience when those commercials would suddenly appear. You run to the bathroom, you get something to eat, or you just wait until they're over. This was in the days before people had remotes, so you just sort of had to suffer through them. Sometimes they were amusing, but for the most part they were not the point.

Now that interruptiveness in advertising has disappeared. Advertising has now moved center stage. Consider rock videos, for example. MTV was the first 24-hour, seven-day-a-week commercial channel, because rock videos are ads. Rock videos are highly sophisticated, irresistibly seductive commercials for songs and also for clothes. They may not be as popular on MTV per se as they used to be, but there are tons of them on the cable channel VH1. The fact is that that development has brought us to a world in which the ad is not something you have to suffer through. The ad is not the price you have to pay in order to get to watch the show. The ad is the show. The ad is the point.

Talk about the depiction of parents in today's youth culture shows. How is it in the marketers' interest to have it this way?

Some might want to argue that the elimination of adults from the scenarios of teen TV is a profoundly realistic development, because, after all, there are no adults hanging around in teenagers' worlds. So it's really more grown-up in a way, more realistic to write them out of the story. But I think that, while that might be the case in some instances, the fact is that it serves other purposes.

I think there's a commercial logic behind that that elimination. For one thing, it is profoundly gratifying to feel like you and your friends, your peers, are the center of the universe. There is a kind of implicitly fantastic appeal here that you, in that vicarious way by watching TV, can live in a world where you don't have to be bothered by those figures. You also live in a world where those figures, when they do come up, are morons. They're insensitive, they're bullies, they don't get it, and so on, which is, of course, often true in life.

But the systematic and sort of repetitious, monotonous way in which that's the case in teen TV shows and movies serves a fantastic purpose. That is, it feeds a particular kind of fantasy on the part of the kids, who are not only the center of the universe in these fictions, but who are cooler than those who are, in reality, more powerful than they are.

Also, even though we might like to think that every teenager in the country has grotesque personal problems, the fact is that not everyone has such problems. But it suits the purposes of the advertisers and the media managers to concentrate only on the lurid, only on the most colorful kinds of problems. It serves a kind of pornographic function really, even though we often like to tell ourselves that it's simply a reflection of increased realism because there are such problems in the world.

Let's talk about what's "real." . . . Why not put social issues into teen television and let them play out?

There's nothing wrong with doing shows like this. There always have been such shows, and always will be. That's not the question. The question isn't should there be such shows. The question is, how real are they? I think what we have to do is interrogate that assumption that this is reality, that "Beverly Hills 90210" is a documentary show, it's a reflection of reality. And, indeed some Fox TV stations actually enter the name of that show in the log they have to keep for the government to show that they're doing public interest programming. They actually write "Beverly Hills 90210" as an example of educational TV because it teaches about social class in Beverly Hills.

Well, it's preposterous to say that that show is realistic. They're all far too good-looking. Their world is far too camera-ready. Most people don't live in Beverly Hills, too. I hate to have to tell the makers of the show as much, but it seems to be something they need to hear. It's not realistic. If it were truly realistic, it probably wouldn't move as many products.

Why this extreme shift in the way we feel . . .

We've gone from "Leave It to Beaver", "Father Knows Best" and "The Brady Bunch" to "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Sabrina, the Teenaged Witch." What is that? Is that is that progress or is that regression? Have we moved to greater realism? Well, that may be putting the question in the wrong way. I think one thing we have to recognize is that all these shows are fantastic. All of them are unrealistic. All of them were concocted for commercial reasons.

But one of the things that's different about the shows of the present is that we now live in a highly mediated society. We're all wired, we're all heavily hooked in. This means that we can no longer sit still for the fantasies that have dated for a number of reasons. And a lot of the pleasure of contemporary TV, not just for teens, but for adults, is the pleasure of feeling that you're really with it now. That's why these shows are pervasively ironic. That's why figures from the past are routinely ridiculed. That's why "Ozzie and Harriet" is just names in a punch line, you see. We laugh reflexively. That's a way of demonstrating that we're not nerds now, that we're alive, that we're today, we're with it, we're on the cutting edge.

MTV and, to a lesser extent, VH1, are enormously influential, which is a way of saying that Viacom, a transnational that owns them, is enormously influential. It has had an incalculable influence, not only on music, but on listening itself. It has had everything to do with changing rock 'n roll from a dance music that involves bodily activity to a spectacular music that is more a matter of sitting and watching. It's changed the nature of concerts, which have become more spectacular, more special effects-oriented, as they try more and more to replicate the experience of watching the music on MTV. And this has, in turn, contributed to a great increase in the emphasis on fashion. Now fashion awards appear on, I think, VH1.

So there's a more visual orientation, a more commercial thrust. It has more to do with commodity, with selling units. It has also vastly increased the size of the market so that an album that sells 5 million now is a failure. It has had the effect of helping to narrow the field of music in ways that are pretty depressing to someone like me, who is a proud old rock 'n roller.

Talk about the feedback loop that happens. What does that mean in this kind of environment?

The MTV machine does listen very carefully to children--in rather the same way, if I can put it controversially, as Dr. Goebbels, Hitler's ministry of propaganda, listened to the German people. Propagandists have to listen to their audience very, very closely. When corporate revenues depend on being ahead of the curve, you have to listen. You have to know exactly what they want and exactly what they're thinking, so that you can give them what you want them to have.

Now that's an important distinction. The MTV machine doesn't listen to the young so that it can make the young happier. It doesn't listen to the young so it can come up with startling new kinds of music, for example. The MTV machine tunes in so it can figure out how to pitch what Viacom has to sell to those kids. And this speaks to the inexorable narrowing of the range of content, despite the fact that so many champions of the status quo keep talking about all the choices that we all now enjoy.

Great music, like great cinema or really powerful TV or anything else, often takes us by surprise, comes out of nowhere. It's something new, because some really gifted, talented person had a new idea that big interests might not feel like taking a risk on. That's what made the popular music of the 1950s and the 1960s and some of the 1970s so exciting. That's what made some of the great movements in cinema history possible--that there was a space out of which something new could come.

Now, under the current domination of the corporate few, the music scene, for example, had changed tremendously. Now those four or five giant corporations will tend to sell only what they think has been selling lately. They're always looking for a new variant on what sold yesterday, when means that they don't take risks, they don't stick with artists through several albums the way that they did routinely 40 years ago.

How is this related to the lowering of standards in music, the emergence of this very crude stuff?

There are a lot of fabulous musicians out there. The level of musical talent in the world at large has not declined. We're talking about the kind of music that this system encourages, and it seems to me that this very narrow, highly commercial system allows for only two kinds of musical production. On the one hand, you have the sort of mass produced pap that you get from acts like Britney Spears and `N Sync, which is sort of like advertising set to a tune and a beat. And it all has to do with great-looking clothes and terrific hard bodies and all the rest of it. Musically, it's completely uninteresting. It's not exciting.

On the other hand, you can try to make it through shock appeal. Of course, as we become more and more jaded through decades of exposure, we will require a stronger jolt in order to be roused into something like receptiveness. This is true of the young as well as everybody else. So an act like Marilyn Manson doesn't really come out of nowhere.

What is it like for kids to grow up in this wall-to-wall media environment and the lowering of standards?

Democracy is based on the assumption that we are able and obliged to make up our own minds to pursue our own interests, to honor our own talents. Democracy requires that we always be able to keep at least one foot outside of whatever propaganda may come along. One of the frightening things about the so-called totalitarian systems is that that governments in those cases were all-powerful and could, as it were, seal off their entire populations through the use of propaganda and indoctrination.

Well, advertising and the highly commercialized mass media that we live with today do something comparable. They may not necessarily exalt the state above all, although they do tend to celebrate violence, and they may be more about selling than conquest or anything like that. But the fact is that that commercial propaganda also strives to be everywhere and contain all of our impulses.

Now, I think we have to appreciate the enormous difference between life for young people and life for young people a few decades back. Now kids grow up in a universe that is utterly suffused with this kind of commercial propaganda. And by that, I mean not only the ads per se, but the shows that sell the ads. What this system does is it closely studies the young, keeps them under very tight surveillance to figure out what will push their buttons. Then it takes that and blares it back at them relentlessly and everywhere, because these are interests with a tremendous amount of power and technological sophistication.

And these are kids who are, to an unprecedented extent, hooked in through their gimmicks, their toys, their computers, and so on. So there's really very little space that these giant interests can't completely fill up with this kind of message. The bombardment is amazing. It's hard, therefore, to keep that kind of crucial distance. It's hard to be critical. It's hard to think about what might be going on at the top, especially if the media doesn't tell you. It's hard to figure out who you are and what you really want. It's hard to make your own music because that thing is always there listening, watching, taking notes, and packaging something so that it can sell you more stuff.

How does the concentration in a few companies fuel a kind of hypercommercialism and lowered standards?

When you've got a few gigantic transnational corporations, each one loaded down with debt, competing madly for as much shelf space and brain space as they can take, they are going to do whatever they think works the fastest and with the most people, which means that they will drag standards down. They're not going to be too nice about what they choose to do. They'll go directly for the please center. They're going to try to get you watching and buying right away, and what this means is that they are going to do as much trash as they can, because that will grab people.

The word "trash" is old-fashioned, because this is a state-of-the-art, highly sophisticated venture that we're talking about. They're using all the most brilliant means of measurement and surveillance to figure out what we're all about. They focus group everything in a million ways. So we have a highly sophisticated enterprise that's engaged in a kind of regressive project. They're trying to sell as much junk as they can by appealing to the worst in all of us, but they do it some extremely civilized means.

What does this mean for the kid growing up in this world?

Kids feel frightened and lonely today. It's because they are encouraged to feel that way. Advertising has always sold anxiety, and it certainly sells anxiety to the young. It's always telling them that they are not thin enough, they're not pretty enough, they don't have the right friends, or they have no friends, they're creeps, or they're losers--unless they're cool. But I don't think anybody, deep down, really feels cool enough--ever. That's the nature of advertising, to keep you hungering for more of the stuff that's supposed to finally put you there, but never does.

It's so thoroughly about being on display. It's about how you look. We all imagine a million cameras facing us and recording everything. There's this acute self-consciousness that constitutes a tremendous psychological burden, because you can never really feel like you're alone with yourself. You can never really feel like someone's not overhearing what you're thinking. . . . Even in the deepest privacy of your own mind, you'll often find a team of them from some advertising agency. That's the most criminal aspect of this whole system--it seems to have colonized, or tries to colonize the very consciousness of its young subjects.

This sense of being in a mirror all the time, the exaltation of teenagers--what's wrong with this picture?

Teenagers suffer from acute self-consciousness to begin with. Their bodies are changing and they feel awkward and they often are awkward. So that's already a kind of psychological problem, a burden for most kids. This system comes along and heightens that anxiety by constantly confronting every kid with a kind of mirror in which you're supposed to look at yourself and like what you see or not like what you see, depending on whether you've bought the stuff that they're selling. That's what it's all about.

To be the center of attention is a tremendous pleasure, and we've always known this. It's fun to be famous. It's fun to have people paying attention to you. Well, since we live in a completely visual, completely spectacular culture now because of the pervasiveness of TV and the cult of celebrity, we now conceive of that kind of pleasure as the greatest good. The highest, finest thing that life has to offer is to be on TV, is to have a whole huge audience clapping for you, is to be a performer, is to win gold at the Olympics. That's it. That's the great pleasure, okay?

But the interesting thing is that there are a lot of pleasures that you actually cannot have when the whole world seems to be gawking at you. We close our eyes when we kiss someone for a reason, because that kind of pleasure involves a certain sort of surrender. Enjoying anything involves losing one's self in it. And that even includes the pleasure of using your mind, thinking your own thoughts, that you just aren't bothered by that din, that constant attention or the illusion of attention. I think that that there's something strangely destructive about this all-pervasive sense, especially among kids, that the whole world is watching.

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