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Trickle-Down Culture : Sharing, Sampling, Scanning, Recycling--Is It Art or Is It Memorex?

August 28, 1994|Itabari Njeri | Itabari Njeri is a contributing editor to the magazine. Her last article was on nihilism in America as reflected in films. She is currently working on a nonfiction book, "The Last Plantation," to be published by Random House in the spring

PCRV, the Pop Culture Recycling Virus, particularly plagued Broadway last season, leading some critics to carp that Stephen Sondheim's "Passion" won the Tony for best "new" musical by default. Nearly everything else was a revival. L.A. has already been served the musical transmogrification of Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," and this fall Broadway will get a super-hyped revival of "Show Boat," first seen in 1927 and now charging the highest ticket price in Broadway history ($75) as it vies to supplant the current Tony award-winning revival of "Carousel," first seen in 1945, as the finest restaging of a classic Broadway musical.

But more than musical theater is in the clutches of the virus. Hollywood, which suffers acute infections, seems to be in a chronic stage of PCRV with an endless run of movies based on TV shows: "The Addams Family," "The Flintstones," "Dennis the Menace," "The Fugitive," "Maverick" and so on.

And then there is the digital world, where you can directly appropriate an image or riff. Sampling has become a medium in itself, used by hip-hop musicians as the basis of their art. Rappers sampled so many jazz riffs from Blue Note recording artists that the company threw up its hands and told one group, Us3, to go ahead and raid the entire Blue Note library of music. This year's gold-selling album "Hand on the Torch" is the result, with its irresistible hit single "Cantaloop," a pastiche of samples of Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock riffs with fresh hip-hop touches. As a result of Us3's success, Blue Note profits have doubled on its back catalogue, thanks to the attention the group has brought to some of the best jazz of the mid-20th Century--certainly a salutary consequence of the virus.

But "Gilligan's Island: The Musical"? Has the recycling phenomenon devolved to mean we are literally just reusing what was junk to begin with? Are we so devoid of new ideas at the end of the 20th Century that the era has truly become a cultural wasteland?

THE NOTION HIT ME HARDEST ONE BRIGHT SUNDAY MORNING AS I CAREENED north on the Sepulveda Pass. With the top down on the silver Mustang convertible, hair jetting backward in a braid-packed ponytail, I howled as tears streamed down my face. I was too old for Pampers and too young for Depends, but there was going to be a major accident if I didn't pull over soon. I did. As they sped past, bewildered motorists glimpsed my bent, rocking form. I gripped my sides, trying to contain the roaring, incredulous laughter that the music in the tape deck had ignited: "Don't you know, Blue Eyes, you never can win," Bono squealed to Frank Sinatra. "Use your mentality, wake up to reality." When U2's great leader whimpered, "I've got you under my skin," I moaned: Et tu Bono? Accessory to yet another recycling of pop culture? I speak, of course, of the widely hyped platinum hit "Frank Sinatra Duets"--mostly schlock commercial pairings of the Chairman of the Board with younger artists singing classic American pop tunes.

The nation's current nostalgia for old songs, old movies, old Broadway shows, old TV shows--as well as postmodern critiques of certain of these cultural expressions (isn't that partly what "Beavis and Butt-head" is about?) adds fuel to a debate I've engaged in for years--first as a musician, now as a writer. What is the distinction between artistic reinvention and recycling? What's the difference between mere appropriation and syncretism?

I've been particularly preoccupied with these themes of late because of a novel I am writing: "The Secret Life of Fred Astaire." (Relax, Mrs. Astaire, the title's metaphorical.) As a dancer and singer, Astaire reflects a uniquely American synthesis of European and African forms. He was white and a jazzman and, to some, automatically a cultural appropriator--an early Elvis. To others, he is a dazzling totem to an inspiring syncretism that could not exist--as, indeed, contemporary U.S. culture could not exist--without an African presence.

At the road's edge, I recalled the pale, pimple-faced young salesman in the music store who'd convinced me to buy "Duets" against my better judgment, though I am generally a Sinatra fan. I probably relented because the "Duets" cut playing softly in the store at the time was the supreme one: Natalie Cole issuing a perfectly read and unerringly swinging version with Sinatra of "They Can't Take That Away From Me."

Popping his fingers and wobbling his head, the young salesman stood behind the counter, now singing along with Anita Baker and Sinatra: "that sly come-hither stare, leaves my conscience bare, it's witchcraft." And the harder he wobbled that head, the more he reminded me of the jazz drummer whom jazz critic Stanley Crouch once tagged the "secret enemy of swing." But I appreciated his appreciation of these great songs and told him so.

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