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The Business of Culture : A Moral Crusade Better Aimed at Old Hollywood

June 11, 1995|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a fellow of Pepperdine University and business-trends analyst for KTTV

In their continuing campaigns against the entertainment industry, Sen. Bob Dole and former Education Secretary William J. Bennett have seized upon a convenient symbol--gangsta rap--to sharpen their moral arguments against the content of certain movies, television shows and music. But if their attack makes political sense, it also reveals a lack of understanding of both the entertainment industry and its marketplace.

Dole and Bennett, along with their sympathizers, apparently believe they can discipline cultural "deviancy" in Hollywood by pressuring a few top executives at studios and mega-communications firms like Time Warner. It is a strategy designed for a bygone era.

In the old days, dating back to the 1930s, Hollywood and broadcasting were controlled by a handful of entrepreneurswho could indeed limit the content and direction of mass entertainment. A group like the Legion of Decency could force studios to conform to relatively strict standards. Also, because the studios were mostly controlled by Jewish immigrants who were insecure in a country dominated by native-born white Gentiles, they were more responsive to cultural policing by those who purported to represent the "real America."

A similar pattern persisted during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. The presence of communists and other leftists in the industry embarrassed the studio bosses. As a result, mainstream Hollywood was successfully collared to follow what amounted to a right-wing version of political correctness.

Today, the major studios and networks have lost much of their individualistic, ethnic character. Increasingly, their owners are corporate types more responsive to the fundamentally amoral Wall Street culture than to the creative or entrepreneurial environment of entertainment.

As such, the assault on Time Warner for the destructive nihilism of some gangsta rap seems no more logical than to expect moral exhortation to persuade Philip Morris to halt cigarette production or Boeing to curtail overseas sourcing of its airliners. The fundamental social dysfunctions undergirding gangsta rap and other anti-social cultural products stem far more from the loss of jobs due to corporate relocations and retrenchments, particularly in large cities, than from even the vilest puerile lyrics.

Clearly, Dole et al. is practicing a selective corporate moralism. It is no coincidence, for example, that Time Warner and other entertainment companies are among the few reliable sources of corporate dollars for Democrats.

Yet, even if the industry "suits" could be persuaded to toe the moralist's line, it is doubtful that this would be sufficient to produce a product change in the current entertainment industry environment. For one thing, in sharp contrast with the past, most studios today serve mainly as marketing, distribution and financial adjuncts to the production process.

On the other hand, the vast majority of the business' creative side is outside the studios. In the 1930s, writers and actors were kept on contract and a studio's films were an in-house affair. Today, cultural products come from complex networks of independent production companies, specialty houses and an army of free-lance writers, actors and artists.

Although these units often seek financing and distribution from the major entertainment companies, independent firms and artists do not generally look to studio bureaucracies for artistic direction. Gangsta rap, just as more benign musical forms like "banda," did not spring full-blown from the minds of money-crazed entertainment executives, but from artists and entrepreneurs who found their inspiration on the street. They have no pressing reason to be with one label versus another. In fact, any loyalties they have are often to a particular executive, not to a company.

Similarly, their customers care little if a record is released by MCA Music, Warner or any other label. What they are buying is the music they want to hear. The assault on gangsta rappers may make their product, which chiefly feeds on a victimization mentality, even more attractive to the consumers.

In such circumstances, pressuring Time Warner to jettison gangsta rap, or even to get out of the music business altogether, would have little impact on entertainment product. Indeed, if all the major U.S.-based producers eschewed gangsta rap or sexually explicit lyrics, there are numerous, quite powerful overseas-based entertainment conglomerates that would be eager to step in and provide financing and distribution for such products. Indeed, many of the world's top music publishers--Sony, Thorn-EMI, Bertelsmann, PolyGram, MCA Music--are owned by foreigners and are less vulnerable to U.S. political currents.

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