Outlook: Exporting American Popular Culture

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Martha Bayles
Author, "Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music"
Monday, August 29, 2005; 1:00 PM

From the beginning, the United States has used its rich cultural resources to promote its national interests overseas. But today, with America's reputation around the world in decline, most Americans seem unmindful of the negative impression that we have been making with our popular culture. Since the end of the Cold War, funding for public diplomacy has been cut, while Hollywood has aggressively expanded its exports. The result is that we are super-sizing to others the very cultural diet that is giving us indigestion at home.

Martha Bayles , author of "Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music," was online Monday, Aug. 29, at 1 p.m. ET to answer readers' questions about her Sunday Outlook article, Now Showing: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Americans .

The transcript follows.


Vienna, Va.: Ms. Bayles,

Your article "Exporting the Wrong Picture" (The Washington Post, Sunday, 8/28/05) made me think a lot. I agree that popular culture presents a distorted image of American way of life: there is very little in pop culture about compassion of Americans, patriotism, and family oriented values. However I find it natural that in our politically correct and law obedient society, popular art searches for expression of darker, suppressed sides of human nature. It is also inevitable that our manufacturers of popular art produce only what could be sold. I'm sure you also teach your students that sublimation, aesthetisation of perversion and sin are also functions of art.

And yet I do not believe it would be possible to export "doctored" (if you feel shy about "censored") popular art. In fact it would be even counterproductive because such an attempt would convince intellectual elite in other countries that we are indeed a rather hypocritical society engaged in plain propaganda. It is better to admit with humility that our popular culture pervaded almost every society on Earth, rather than to invite new accusations that we are a cynically pragmatic society that does not object to eroding values of other cultures when it comes to political or financial gains.

Even if you managed to revitalize USIA or to create a new more culturally refined institution that would beam abroad an adequate image of our way of life, it would hardly help us out of the current miserable situation: What painting, song, movie can overwrite photographically accurate pictures of torture at Abu Ghraib?

Martha Bayles: Tough questions. First, I agree with you that serious art can and does deal with the darker side of human nature. If we censored all such work, we'd lose everything from the Oresteia to MacBeth, and be left with Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Or to put it in the context of popular culture, we'd lose Tupac Shakur and "The Wire" and be left with ... well, Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

But we have a problem, because our ever-so-prolific producers of trash enjoy the same freedom as our artists. And many of the people now attracted - and repulsed - by our trash do not share our all but absolutist ideal of expressive freedom. I agree with you that there is no going back: any attempt at government censorship would not only fail, it would also (given the commitment of contemporary culture to "transgressing the boundaries) pour gasoline on the flame.

Finally, cultural diplomacy is a long-term strategy whose underlying principle is not just to talk but to listen. The refrain of every USIA veteran I have read and talked to is that the most important part of the job is keeping open a two-way channel of communication. Maybe if such channels had been properly maintained in the last 15 years, we wouldn't be reeling from such spectacular misjudgments as the one that (at whatever level in the chain of command) approved the interrogation tactic of sexually humiliating Muslim prisoners.


The Hague, The Netherlands: Ms. Bayles- as the vast majority of American media productions, both good and bad, are for sale globally, and as it seems the vast majority of foreign media chooses to purchase and run specific content which portrays America in the worst possible light; to what do you attribute their decision to overwhelmingly purchase content most negative the American image- the fact that poorer quality shows are usually cheaper to purchase, or that the content re-enforces the image in which those countries and their national media outlets seek to propagandize America? Or could it be argued, using Europe as an example, that the specific content aired about American on those same foreign outlets reflects exactly what their European media customers want to see about America; as it reinforces their long held, historical negative images of America and also fulfills their need to see America as an inferior country culturally, historically and politically to their own?

Martha Bayles: Thank you for the thought-provoking question. I stand corrected by another reader that the "Harry Potter" films are largely British productions (it's high time the Brits went in for a little cultural protectionism!). My point is simply that the most popular films internationally tend to be blockbusters; "Titanic" still tops the list. And most of these do not depict American society directly. (Of course, interpreting their indirect symbolism is a cottage industry in academia.)

For the rest, I defer to the respondent. DO television viewers in the Netherlands demand, and get, only the shoddiest representations of America? This is a question that urgently needs to be addressed with some serious research. That is why I raised the issue.


Washington, D.C.: I lived for some time in Brazil, a country with substantial media capabilities of its own, but at the same time a wide variety of American programming available to those who choose to watch or listen to it. In my experience, it seemed that Brazilians (especially the younger generation) who had greater exposure to American pop culture tended to have more favorable attitudes toward the U.S.

I wonder what your thoughts are as to whether American pop culture is always viewed negatively abroad.

Martha Bayles: Oh no, not at all. Much of it is positive. And certainly there will be different patterns of response, not to mention selection, in different countries. I am very interested to hear this about Brazil.


Paris, France: Dear Martha,

I'll be in the middle of a dinner with friends when your event starts and won't be able to participate. I may not have been clear in saying that I live in Paris and the six hour time difference puts me in the evening here.

What I wrote in response to your article was that as an ex-foreign service officer with USIS, and former director of the American Cultural Center in Paris, I was in the middle of the long controversy over culture that resulted in the government closing down most cultural activities. For this reason I left the government after my Paris tour.

An attempt now to start up a slick advertising campaign to convince people to love us is as misplaced as was closing down everything 30 years ago. Culture is a longtime affair and changing cultural attitudes can't be accomplished overnight through a media campaign comparable to selling a new soap. We can throw as much money was we want at it and it still won't work.

The major reason culture was stopped in the 70's was that the so-called "realists" convinced the politicians that culture was artsy fartsy and that government money should not be spent on it. The political goals demanded something different. And, of course political goals are always short-term and few of the policy people are willing to wait for the long-term results to take hold. So, blind to the positive things that had happened through years of at least decent cultural programming, they took it all apart.

Just one small example of the myopia of the political side: In 1975 I predicted that the Socialists would be in power by the end of the decade - a simple cultural observation that I felt was obvious. The political side of the embassy was all over me, a cultural type who obviously didn't know what he was talking about. When I came to collect my bet after Mitterand's election, nobody remembered it.

I'm not sure governments are capably of working in the long-term or that politicians or bureaucrats can defend such projects. That's why I am sure the present effort will fail.

Good luck with your discussion.

Martha Bayles: It seems evident that we cannot simply recycle the tactics of the Cold War. But there are some lessons worth remembering - most notably, the need to loosen the reins on good people who are talented and know what they are doing, even if they don't toe the party line of the current administration. This is especially true regarding our approach to elites, and contrary to the ratings-chasers at Radio Sawa, elites matter.

The Congress for Cultural Freedom was roundly condemned in the late 60's and 70's for being (more or less) covertly funded by the CIA. But the outrage of that time obscures an important fact: it did a pretty good job of countering the influence of the pro-Stalinist left in Western Europe. And it did so by recruiting intellectuals and writers who did not exactly "stay on message" with the U.S. government. In fact, most held to the politically incorrect (in the United States, at least) perspective of democratic socialism.


Anonymous: I have just arrived back home in North Carolina from volunteer work with an NGO in South America and today I see your article in The Washington Post. "Now Showing" describes my feeling that much of the good work by NGO's and organizations such as Rotary International is drowned out by the violent, immoral popular culture depicted in movies, music, video games and TV that we export. In regard to public diplomacy, as Pogo said, "we have met the enemy and he is us".

I am reminded of Sanford F Ungar's article in May/June 2005 Foreign Affairs entitled "Pitch Imperfect". We must fully utilize our "secret weapon", VOA and media in order to win against terrorism. We have the highly successful model used during the Cold War. The question is: How do we rapidly implement it NOW? Where is the strategy to develop the policy and commitment for winning in public diplomacy?

Your good work is appreciated!

Martha Bayles: As I just wrote to another respondent, I do not think a simple re-application of Cold War diplomacy will do the trick. Indeed, one of the points I tried to make in the article is that popular culture might have been "America's secret weapon" back then, but no longer. It is not only much more pervasive, it is also much more perverse.


Laurel, Md.: Ms. Bayles, your article personifies one of the problems I usually have with people who complain about our culture -- you've defined it solely in terms that right-wingers would complain about.

Last week, a prominent clergyman called for the assassination of a national leader. Three years ago, the most culturally conservative U.S. president in a century called on us to invade a major Middle Eastern nation on false pretenses (while not exactly making clear that the motivation was not 9/11 or oil.) Anne Coulter actually answered that converting the Middle East to Christianity should be a goal of our foreign policy there.

I've always held a dim view of William Bennett for (rightly) maintaining that young people's emphasis on expensive clothes and sneakers was a problem of moral values; but he didn't seem to think that the manufacturers who made money selling these items to an inappropriate target market shared any of the blame.

Haven't you left a lot of the responsible parties out of your analysis?

Martha Bayles: Hmmm, I thought my critique was aimed largely at the current administration's handling of public diplomacy! Many of the emails I've been getting reproach me for letting the Democrats off the hook. (And in fact, they are right with regard to the decision to shut down the USIA: it was made not just by Senator Helms but also by Senator Biden and Secretary of State Albright.) Furthermore, the last I checked, the left was not too happy with the aggressive encroachment of American culture on the rest of the world.

Martha Bayles: As for objections to the in-your-face tone of popular culture, they are not confined to "right-wingers." Last spring the editors of Essence, an upscale magazine for African-American women, held an online symposium about the image of black women in rap. And according to former editor Diane Weathers, strong comments were received from countries in Africa: "They are disgusted by what their African-American brothers and sisters are doing in entertainment," she says. "They wonder if we've lost our minds."


Anonymous: I worked in public diplomacy as a Foreign Service with USIA and the State Department for 20 years, and was distressed to see so much focus on whether or not our programs, such as VOA, should focus less on pop culture (and be less like typical Americans?), and not even give one single mention to the question of how much foreign attitudes towards the U.S. is influenced by our actions and attitudes towards other countries. The feeling of "I like America and Americans but not the American government's foreign policies" is widespread around the globe. The current distrust of the U.S. is due more to our foreign policies than it is to the influence of pop culture, even if some fundamentalists (Christian as well as Muslim) are distressed by the perceived decadence of our culture.

Martha Bayles: Your impression is reinforced by a lot of poll data indicating that people dislike our policies but basically like our culture. What I am suggesting, though, is that this may be changing. More focused studies like the one I mentioned in the article might produce a different picture.

You are right to note the parallel between religious reactions here and abroad. But by putting it that way, aren't you dismissing as "fundamentalist" the genuine feelings of disgust of millions of ordinary people who are not prudes or philistines, but who do not enjoy being bombarded by depictions of gratuitous violence, exploitative sex, and gleeful criminality?


Kensington, Md.: You seem dismayed that we are exporting, among other things, violent culture. But isn't that an accurate depiction of what America fundamentally has become? Despite freely available information that a sovereign nation had never attacked us - and plenty of evidence at the time to counter the presidential disinfo campaign to convince them there was a threat - over half the country fervently supported invading Iraq. Even now - just as with Vietnam-the only qualms many can manage are that "we might not win". Face it, we are basically a belligerent, ignorance-worshipping tribe. Let's at least be known by our true colors.

Martha Bayles: This seems a counsel of despair. There are three statements I cannot accept: 1) that popular culture is 100 percent trash; 2) that America is 100 percent trash; and 3) that there's no point in criticizing culture because it merely reflects society. Culture and society interact and influence each other, and unless we have given up on both, we need to criticize both.


Kennesaw, Ga.: Ms. Bayles: another question if I might. In your column about cultural diplomacy you managed to avoid mentioning the new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes. Perhaps this was just coincidence.

It occurs to me, though, that the last two administrations' focus on a cultural diplomacy emphasizing the pop culture young Americans like is oddly complimented by a head of public diplomacy whose career to date has emphasized campaign messages Americans like. In short, I don't see much hope for improvement in the things you complained about in The Post yesterday, certainly not improvement driven by the State Department. Am I wrong?

Martha Bayles: We shall see. But your question touches the right nerve, in my opinion. Instead of feeling dispirited, though, I'm energized by the many perceptive responses I've received, yours included.


Knoxville, Tenn.: Greetings. Certainly there are American cultural exports that are disgusting to others, e.g. explicit rap lyrics and the utter nudity and objectification of women in hip-hop videos. However that is not unique to U.S. and many other countries have similar negative exports. Do you seriously think this harms the image or security of the U.S.? I believe American pop culture is still a lot more decent than European pop culture.

Martha Bayles: Very interesting! It is true that American-style pop culture is now international, and a zillion cultural theorists ply their trade analyzing the ways in which other cultures modify and appropriate forms of expression, like hip-hop, that originated in the US. But in terms of diplomacy, I wonder: isn't there a tendency to take credit for the good stuff in a way that forgets its American origin, and still blame America for the bad?


The Hague, The Netherlands: Ms. Bayles in response to your question, may I respond with a question? Why would you think that Dutch television aired "Jerry Springer" at 8 p.m. prime time with the intro that this is "the real Amerikans" and airs "West Wing" at 00:15AM on Sunday nights?

Martha Bayles: I would take that example and stick it into my next article.


Arlington, Va.: It is clear enough how to improve the export of positive American culture (reviving the USIA, State Dept. Jazz tours, etc.)but how do we control the export of the bad?

Martha Bayles: I do not think we can control it very effectively. But we can criticize it! And perhaps it would help to export some of that criticism, so others can see that Americans disagree about this and use their much touted freedom to express that disagreement.


Maryland: Ms. Bayles, thank you for your timely article! A question and a comment. My question is this: do you think there is a correlation between today's prevalent lack of civility and simultaneous rise of pop culture? Everyone wants to be a celebrity. With our glut of makeover shows and reality TV, it's no wonder to me that our children are failing in education. I mean, who wants to be a scientist or a mathematician when it's so much cooler to be the latest fad? Why try to be smart? You can be beautiful and popular. But it's not Hollywood's fault; it's ours. We buy it, listen to it, watch it. Your article is a serious wake-up call.

Martha Bayles: The relation between art and life works both ways. Plato described the artist as holding a mirror up to nature (and was not impressed). Oscar Wilde said "Life imitates art" (and was impressed). They are both right, of course.


Baltimore, Md.: I don't think we can control our commercial exports, and I think people overseas often recognize that. But when I think of acts that have served America's long term interests overseas they are things like the Marshall Plan. Do you think, half a century on, the U.S. is prepared to make that sort of commitment to other countries?

Martha Bayles: If I had the answer to that one, I'd be secretary of state. I would note that the Marshall Plan contained a number of provisions aimed at prying open European film markets to Hollywood - indeed, some of the aid was tied directly to the elimination of import quotas. In those terms, we are still very busy around the world.


Jerusalem, Israel: Many empires have come and gone away along with there cultural hegemony. Do you you see America's hegemony in a state of decline now, or you feel it is going to last for years to come?

Martha Bayles: My crystal ball is in the shop.


Takoma Park, Md.: I was struck by the comment from the Netherlands. It seems to me that the media product which casts America is the most unfavorable light is, sadly, the news.

To what extent is the reservoir of good will created by most of Hollywood's products (where research shows that foreigners distinguish between U.S. culture and U.S. policy) being dissipated by U.S. foreign policy? The positive view of the U.S. seems to be eroding because of the actions of the U.S., not because people are upset by Hollywood.

Martha Bayles: It's not either-or. Probably there is a connection between America's recent indifference to foreign opinion and the post-Cold War triumphalism that led to the closing down of serious public diplomacy. We have been too sure that the world loves us no matter what.


Kennesaw, Ga.: Ms. Bayles: Good day and thank you for doing this chat.

Do you think foreign and especially Muslim audiences might have drawn some connection between the popular culture issues you write about and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal that became frontpage news about a year and a half ago?

The coincidence of that scandal's details and the increasing popular toleration for degeneracy with regard to sex seems so obvious as to scarcely require comment. I have to say the feeling I had last year -- that our supposedly less morally elevated ancestors of the World War II generation would have been less likely to abuse prisoners as was done at Abu Ghraib -- was not a comfortable one.

Martha Bayles: I saw a connection between Abu Ghraib and the current porn vogue that (among other things) pervades college campuses. (I should add that Harvard recently decided to pull the plug on "H-Bomb," its previously approved porn magazine featuring nude photos of undergraduates. Of course, none of them were being led about on leashes. The Ivy League still stands for something.)


Turkey: Art reflects life. If American popular music is lacking beauty and meaning, that most probably could be taken to mean that American life is devoid of the two as well. Not so shocking considering the lengths Americans go to purge life of meaning and thought. Have a nice broadcast.

Martha Bayles: I would give the same answer to this question as to the one from Kensington. But I would add that when I use the word "criticism," I do not mean broad-brush denunciations of the lives and character of 290 million people.

Martha Bayles: I would give the same answer to this question as to the one from Kensington. But I would add that when I use the word "criticism," I do not mean broad-brush denunciations of the lives and character of 290 million people.


Washington, D.C.: Ms. Bayles, would you say that the depths we have reached in pop culture are an inevitable result of secularism? I'm not religious, and I am glad not to be forced to accept religion in this country, but without the Church, who will guide us morally?

Martha Bayles: Yes, in part. But to really make the case you have to go back a couple of centuries. There are other sources of restraint besides religion, however. In my other work I argue that much of what has been happening in popular culture stems from currents in elite culture that go back to the late 19th century. But maybe I should not go into all that right now!


Dallas, Tex.: I believe the world can clearly distinguish between entertainment and reality. I grew up in Pakistan and there were many who frowned on certain American shows and artists for nudity/language/promiscuity reasons. However people also knew that was just entertainment and to this day what Pakistanis admire about U.S. is the economy, legal system, tolerance and openness of American culture. Certainly cultural exports can create a good image for the country, but policies and the internal shape of a country are far more important than that. Do you agree?

Martha Bayles: How old are you, I wonder? It sounds as though you grew up with some access to information about the other dimensions of American culture and society. What seems troubling now is that these other sources of knowledge flow less freely.


Anonymous: Ms. Bayles, I agree with Jerusalem's point. Our family discusses the current fall of our civilization. I think we ARE Rome. But does every generation say that? I grew up on 70's music, older friends tell me there was nothing original there. To them it was the 50's musicians et al who really created Rock & Roll. I am amazed by how well these American Idol winners and runners up seem to be doing with record sales, etc. They're not real musicians to me. They're brands and products. Where is the creativity? I don't consider much of pop culture today to be art. Do you?

Martha Bayles: On a good day, yes. Especially films and the occasional fine TV show. Music...well, on that topic I have more bad days than good.


Washington, D.C.: Ms. Bayles, would you say that our pop culture is an inevitable result of the American formula? That is, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc?

Martha Bayles: I hope not. Recently we have lost the trick of balancing popular taste with its inevitable tendency toward vulgarity - and sentimentality, I would add - with more substantial artistic values. We might regain it, if we were left to sort this out among ourselves. But with the whole world watching, I'm not so sure. On the other hand, maybe we will eventually wake up and see ourselves reflected in the eyes of the world, and react not with belligerence but with healthy self-criticism!


Dayton, Ohio: Thanks for a wonderful article. Could you comment on the role government has on promoting pop culture. I have noticed that a lot of popular culture artists from Europe mention that they received government grants during their "starving artist" periods (think J.K. Rowling). I can't help but wonder if our current economy and lack of support for young artists is creating the type of cultural vacuum existing today. We seem to have a re-staging of old is new again material (think "Bewitched", or "Hairspray", three CSIs, four Law & Orders). This means money is more the driver than new and interesting material.

Martha Bayles: I am struck by you question, which suggests that government assistance is needed, with another that warns of the harmful effect of government meddling. This is the perennial question in American culture. My own view is that public and private sectors tend to work off the same stock of ideas about culture, so I find it more useful to zero in on the ideas.


Bethesda, Md.: Send more jazz groups? We used to send symphony orchestras around the world, and the State Department stills ends jazz groups. But when people around the world have instant access to any entertainment they want electronically, such activities will have even less impact than they did in the past (and I've not seen proof, other than anecdotal, that they impacted foreign policies). We've closed most of the libraries we ran around the world. We've focused more on terrorism and less on poverty reduction (e.g., proposed amendments at the U.N. reported last week). We have politicians and others proud of the fact that we go it alone and don't have to listen to others when embarking on our policies, and who publicly denigrate other countries, cultures and religions. We are restricting civil liberties and increasingly see dissent as un-American. Perhaps we need to look in the mirror more before saying how we're going to convince others of our greatness.

Martha Bayles: See previous comment about our capacity for self-correction.


McLean, Va.: Dr. Bayles, Thank you for your excellent piece, which supplements your writing in the recent Wilson Quarterly. In that (longer) piece, you recommend a number of specific projects aimed at portraying the U.S. to the world in a more full and sympathetic manner.

All of them seem reasonable to me, but I have trepidations about entrusting these efforts to government agencies. Given the proclivities of government minders in the past and present: politicization of VOA newscasts; blacklists of "unfit" Americans for public diplomacy missions; and failure to engage elite populations abroad in favor of mass entertainment ventures like Radio Sawa, how do you envision a division of both labor and funding to enable the U.S. to make significant progress in revamping our public diplomacy efforts?

Specifically, in the modern "broadband" era, should we be pouring millions into discredited efforts such as Radio Marti, Radio Sawa, alHurra, etc?

Martha Bayles: See comment about public vs. private. They do not work from such radically different perspectives that their efforts led to radically different outcomes. That is, as long as government efforts are not hobbled by the demand that they hew to the policy "message" of the moment.


New York, N.Y.: If you had to pick one characteristic to summarize America's negative image abroad, what would it be? Arrogance? Wastefulness? Ingratitude (for our good fortune to be living in this resourceful part of the world)?

Martha Bayles: This is a wild guess, but I would say obliviousness.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the efforts of public and citizen diplomacy groups and how can they achieve more effective results?

Martha Bayles: Wish I could answer this in the remaining time. I do have ideas about what should be done, most of them along the lines of trying to place a counterweight against the impressions given by the worst popular culture. But this might well include efforts to export the best! And to assist other countries in developing their own film industries, etc.


Martha Bayles: My head is swimming a bit at the moment, so let me close with a passage from something I am writing about the nature of culture in a democracy. Many thanks to the Post and its readers for a stimulating Monday!

The passage is about Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous 1837 essay, "The American Scholar," which contains a seeming contradiction: in one passage, he praises modern literature for paying attention to "the near, the low, the common"; in another, he condemns "the mind of this country" for being "taught to aim at low objects."

For me, this seeming contradiction is resolved when we consider what Emerson means by "low." In the first passage, he means humble people pursuing their daily round in the local community - as opposed to aristocratic heroes performing exalted deeds in far-off lands. In the second, he means the vices and failings of human nature. To survive, democratic culture must encourage the former and discourage the latter.

If this interpretation does not leap out at us today, it is because the two meanings of "low" have become confounded. We think of our society as democratic, yet increasingly we have come to believe that democracy means debasement. Between popular culture at its grossest, the received wisdom of journalists and critics, and much of what passes for higher education, the lesson is continually taught that the sensibility of poor and working-class people is necessarily crude, and that equality consists in privileging that crudeness over anything resembling refinement - because, after all, the latter is just a fig leaf covering the greed and power of elites.

This logic is strikingly similar to that of the old aristocratic view that the "lower orders" are morally inferior to their "betters." Emerson took strong exception to this view, and held up the ideal of America as a country where virtue and cultivation could abide among those at the bottom of the social ladder, and vice and vulgarity could be recognized and corrected among those at the top. Unfortunately, this ideal is in danger of being lost, and with it any hope of an effective twenty-first-century cultural diplomacy.


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