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JOSEPH N. BELL

Wanted: Heroes for Today's Children

December 21, 1990|JOSEPH N. BELL

I didn't know Milli Vanilli from the Righteous Brothers, so I don't know why I consumed all the stories about the scam these two men ran on a lot of doting fans and the pop music industry. But I did--rather, I guess, for the same reasons I look at freeway accidents or cop stops. Curiosity.

The same curiosity led me to interrogate the young persons I drive to, and from, school occasionally about Milli Vanilli--and the later peccadilloes of the New Kids on the Block. I don't get the driving duty very often--only when my wife is unable to fulfill her car-pooling job. The kids talk among themselves on these rides, steadfastly ignoring me. Sometimes they talk about music--or sing it.

If I try to interject conversation, I'm usually regarded with a kind of startled surprise that I'm sharing the car with them. And the surprise turns quickly to resignation if I tell them--as I usually do--that I used to walk to school, frequently in deep snow, a greater distance than they are driven. And that riding the school bus is a form of character building from which they all might profit.

They sigh and wait until I'm done, apparently accepting this as an occasional price for being driven to school. Sometimes they ask if someone else is going to pick them up. Then they go back to their own talk--or significant silence--ignoring me again.

For these reasons, my driving companions were tough to interrogate about Milli Vanilli. It took me a while to get their attention and persuade them I wanted to talk about a topic that might be of at least marginal interest to them. These were all seventh-graders--two boys and a girl. Admittedly a small sample, but I can project as well as the next pollster.

First of all, they dismissed the New Kids on the Block out of hand. "Nobody," my stepson told me, "listens to them except kids in New York and Texas." This seemed a curious juxtaposition, and when I asked him where he had acquired this insight, he was vague about the source but certain of its validity. And the other two supported him absolutely, dripping contempt for the New Kids.

The contempt, however, didn't grow out of recent allegations that the New Kids plagiarize music, have management ties with the Mafia or punch out people on airplanes. My interviewees had no interest in these extracurricular activities. They just don't like the New Kids' music and assured me, without reservation, that no one else in their school did either.

Milli Vanilli, however, was another matter. All admitted to listening to their music, and my girl subject, name of Katy, likes it a lot. So, I asked them, did they feel angry, outraged, betrayed when they found out that Milli Vanilli was a fraud, taking credit for the skills of two anonymous singers?

None of these reactions applied. Katy called what Milli Vanilli did "stupid." My stepson, Erik, said it was "wrong" but he felt neither betrayed nor angry. Katy doesn't listen to Milli Vanilli recordings any more but said she would listen to the people who actually did the singing if they were to record. The joint reaction could best be described as a shrug. They were a very long way from the paper boy with the hole in his stocking and the tearful face who said, "Say it ain't so, Joe," to Shoeless Joe Jackson after baseball's Black Sox scandal. A very long way.

Luke said the Milli Vanilli scam didn't make him mad because "I could do the same thing they did. I can't sing either." Would he? "No." Why not? "Because I'd have to give my Grammy back."

Outrage and betrayal can only be felt toward people to whom you have entrusted love and endowed with at least a small sense of nobility and high expectations. Clearly there was no such feeling here, so I asked them who their real heroes were. Or heroines. And once again, I drew a blank.

Katy said emphatically that she had no heroes and has no wish for any. The boys were a little more hesitant, apparently feeling they should have heroes but unable to think of any.

Erik finally named Michael J. Fox "because he's doing what I want to do." Pressed further, he allowed that maybe some of today's environmentalists were heroic, but he couldn't think of any names. Luke, in the same bind, finally came up with "my dad and Walter Payton because he was the kind of football player I'd like to be."

It was clear the subject had never occurred to them, and that they felt no sense of loss because they couldn't conjure up heroes. We drove in silence the rest of the way to school, and I pondered the wealth of heroes who were very much involved in my life at that age. Charles Lindbergh. Jim Thorpe. Lou Gehrig. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Douglas Fairbanks--just for starters. Bigger-than-life people to whom I looked up without reservations.

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