NEW YORK -- NEW YORK -- From her office at the foot of the street of dreams, No. 1 Madison Ave., Faith Popcorn can see a few years ahead. That is why BrainReserve, the company she founded 13 years ago, is coining money. She is a trend-detector, and today she sees a future full of women with hips, men with martinis, and microwave meatloaf.
If Popcorn is right, and she has prospered by being so in the service of corporations eager to anticipate consumers' whims, the heartbeat of America is fluttery. She paints a melancholy picture of the national mood as revealed in consumption.
We are, it seems, nearly neurotic about the supposed fragility of our health, fatigued to the point of making a booming industry of pizza deliveries, starved for self-expression yet so out of practice that wearing denim and cooking with mesquite seems expressive, hungry for tradition but with such an attenuated sense of the traditional that the hunger is satisfied by eating macaroni and cheese, eager to rebel against constrictive circumstances but satisfied to rebel by saying, ''I'll not face another piece of fish; give me beef.''
Popcorn has unwittingly pioneered the complaint theory of capitalism. By conducting thousands of interviews and scrutinizing hundreds of publications, she helps corporations connect consumer products with people's anxieties and grievances.
In flight from shoddiness, people will spend $2 for a Dove Bar, an upscale ice-cream bar. In flight from sterility, they'll pick products identified with striking personalities (Lee Iacocca, Frank Perdue). A Popcorn sunburst of inspiration is that people express themselves by identifying with such product personalities through consumption, and therefore what the fish industry needs is a ''Frank Perdue of fish.'' A desire to express anger accounts for the popularity of Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue, ''60 Minutes,'' capital punishment and 800 numbers connecting callers to people they can shout at.
A nagging sense that the environment is unsafe and our behavior even more so -- first herpes, now AIDS -- has produced a grim preoccupation with ''wellness,'' even unto theories connecting particular foods with the well-being of particular organs -- broccoli for the respiratory system, brussels sprouts for hearts.
Not even the water is safe, but bottling the stuff can make the mundane an instrument of status: A ''water bar'' in Beverly Hills sells 200 brands of water. Popcorn says that because AIDS is giving thinness bad associations with a wasting disease, and because working women are eating more to sustain the energy burned up by stress, women increasingly are, if not Rubenesque, at least more ample.
''We've blanded out,'' says Popcorn, showing a way with verbs that earns her a place with honor on Madison Avenue. Down with white things, be they wines or veal, and up with beef. An oppressive sense of the everydayness of everyday life leads people to seek adventure and a sense of indulgence by buying jeeps, shopping at Banana Republic, sipping mixed drinks, even going to Australia to hang out with Crocodile Dundee. Among trend-detectors, Australia-chic is a sure bet.
On the other hand, the harassments of daily life -- looming nuclear incineration, rude waiters -- have driven people to ''cocooning.'' They have gone to ground in their dens with their VCRs and compact-disc players, snug in their Barcaloungers equipped with stereo headphones, the better to keep at bay the modern world, the discontinuities of which have produced a longing for tradition. That longing is so superficial, it is assuaged by '50s ''mom food'' like macaroni and cheese, and microwave meatloaf. Even crinolines are coming back.
Popcorn says the pace of modern life and the perpetual exhaustion of couples who have become parents for the first time in their thirties, leads to ''grazing'' -- taking little bites off the surface of life. There is a desire for snippets of experience, hence People magazine, USA Today, and restaurants serving only hors d'oeuvres. Take-out food is selling well; every kitchen appliance but the microwave is being used less than it was four years ago.
Critics of capitalism have argued that in societies such as ours, all ''natural'' needs and desires have long since been satisfied, so capitalism will collapse unless manipulative marketing manufactures fresh appetites. The critics say our material progress depends on our moral degradation to manipulated creatures.
But if Popcorn (''We use products to cheer up our little boring lives'') is correct, capitalism can be kept cooking by people who regard consumption as therapy for the disappointments and aggravations they suffer in a capitalist society. Given the guidance of trend-detectors, capitalism is not doomed by internal contradictions. It is powered by an internal dynamic of aches assuaged by creative products, such as microwave meatloaf.