Popular culture is part art, part commerce--a machine that feeds on grass-roots subculture like a South American clear-cutter. This year's feed is Asiana. But more than just a victim, Asian pop has its own proud machinery that feeds on Western film, music and fashion--creating such refreshingly distinct offspring as anime (Japanese animation), video games and Hong Kong genre movies.
"The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture" by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill, 343 pages, $22.95), tells of the rise of Japanese postwar pop through detailed entries on everything from the country's anthropomorphic infatuation with "animal friends" (pets) to the phenomenon of youth culture tribes, designated in Japanese by the suffix "zoku" (as in "boso-zoku"--motorcycle gangs).
The encyclopedia is a history as well as a guidebook to one of the freshest influences in the American popular stream. Read it here before you see it on the street, on MTV or in the theaters.
Popular culture often starts on the streets and rises to the runways, movie screens and, yes, publishing houses. Few have the culture industry wired as well as Douglas Rushkoff, author of several timely nonfiction books on such topics as Generation X, cyberculture and mass media.
Now he brings us "Ecstasy Club" (HarperEdge, 315 pages, $17.50), a work of fiction that surrounds itself with the subculture-of-the-moment: all-night dance parties known as raves, and the electronic music that accompanies them.
Rushkoff's narrative of drug-laden high jinks comes in the wake of the success of Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting"--a term in England that has come to mean trend-spotting, something Rushkoff does well.
Writing a novel, however, is not his forte.
"Ecstasy Club" comes off like a literary "Beverly Hills, 90210" (which, incidentally, once presented an episode enmeshed in the L.A. rave underground, complete with a drug called "empathy").
"Ecstasy Club" tries to capture the familial, cozy prose of Douglas Coupland, but it ends up reading like an outsider's novelization of club culture.
For an insider's look at the Beatles, check out "Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now" (Henry Holt, 654 pages, $27.50) by Barry Miles. A longtime friend of McCartney and John Lennon, Miles had hours and hours of exclusive interviews with McCartney, making this not only an authorized biography but an authoritative source on the spark and chemistry that ignited the Beatles.
This book recounts the tension between McCartney and Lennon, the battles for creative control and the history of such legendary songs as "Yesterday." McCartney details how songs were written, and who wrote what, word for word. It's one man's view of an unprecedented global pop sensation.
Before the Beatles, there was Ol' Blue Eyes. In "All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra" (Fromm International, 290 pages, $25.95), music critic Donald Clarke gives a comprehensive musical history of Sinatra, as opposed to pulp centered on his social life.
It is an important take because, as Clarke points out, Sinatra was one of the world's first true pop sensations, paving the way for Elvis and the Beatles. Sinatra ushered in the age of postwar popular music, not only with his masculine yet romantic voice but by presenting a photogenic and telegenic image--sometimes a bad-boy image--for the star machine media. "There were two Frank Sinatras," Clarke writes. This book is about the musician.
Director and producer Stanley Kramer's career spans the same era as Sinatra's. "A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (Harcourt Brace, 251 pages, $25), which Kramer wrote with Thomas M. Coffey, is a film buff's history of Kramer's postwar Hollywood.
Kramer's list of films is testament to the power of Hollywood to both reflect and encourage social change. One movie seems to stand out: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which featured the first on-screen kiss between an African American and a white.
(Sinatra, by the way, starred in Kramer's "The Pride and the Passion," and the book reveals that co-star Sophia Loren could hardly stand to be on the same set with the playboy crooner.)
* D. James Romero will review books on pop culture every four weeks. Next week: the current magazines.