Let's Not Kid Around About Pop Culture

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DAVID GUTTENFELDER/AP

A member of Spain's Olympic team celebrates during the opening ceremony

So, the Federal Trade Commission tells us, pop-culture moguls are peddling "adult" entertainment to kids. To borrow a cogent phrase from today's youth: Well, duh. People who are shocked (shocked!) must also be members of the Flat Earth Society. They haven't heard of a little movement called capitalism.

The distributors of entertainment are not creators; they are vendors. Their job is to sell things to people — sell anything to anybody. In an unguarded moment, they'd probably tell you that that is their corporate responsibility. They know that you increase the potential proifitability of any product by increasing its potential audience. If a 12-year-old will and can buy their violent movie or CD or video game, they will sell it to him. If the kid wanted beer and could buy it, they'd sell him that too.

I'm of two minds on this issue. As the last of about six liberals in the United States (and, yes, we're all in the media), I continue to assert that there is no reliable evidence proving that entertainment impels kids to commit violence. If that melancholy proposal were true, violent crime would be rampant in Japan and Hong Kong, where the most violent films are produced (Japan also makes, in great quantities, violent cartoons and gaudily sexy films); yet both places have low juvenile crime rates. One would thus have to argue that American children are more susceptible to violent entertainment — that they are somehow different from, and stupider than, kids elsewhere. What politician would care to make that case?

But I am disappointed that it seems nearly the only kind of entertainment available; the roiling sluice of sass and anger is the mainstream. If pop music, TV and movies teach anything, it's attitude; and the prevailing attitude is one of crudeness, cynicism and sass. Since these attitudes are endemic to pop culture, kids are likely to learn from them. And unaccustomed (and uncomfortable) as I am agreeing with politicians, especially when they are in righteous find-a-scapegoat campaign mode, I'm annoyed that this "adult" culture is aimed at the young — both because kids need a few years to be kids, without being burdened by having to understand the punch line of every dirty joke, and also because this culture debases the true definition of the phrase "adult entertainment."

When was the last time "nice" was the dominant trend in pop culture? Maybe when I was a kid, in the '50s. Back then, the mainstream was bland, solemn, reassuring, and I was a part of it. I thought that "Father Knows Best" was a documentary — that its ethos of domestic civility was the overwhelming norm. But I was also exposed to, and invigorated by, lots of what would now be called "transgressive art" — popular works that exceeded or demolished the official standards of probity. I attended horror movies, read vivid comic books, gorged on a diet of rock 'n roll. (And what was the most extreme TV genre of the decade? Wrestling.) Somehow I survived; miraculously, so did my parents, nice conservative Catholics who monitored but chose not to restrict a boy's outlaw tastes.

There were a few differences between then and now. One was that the culture of vulgarity was still a minority one. Another difference was that the content of '50s anti-art, however loud or lurid, was harmless. (OK, except for comics like EC's "Vault of Horror," with its ripely illustrated cautionary tales of deceit and dismemberment.) And a third was, well, me: a kid who was as naive as he was curious. When Little Richard wailed, "I saw Uncle John with bald-head Sally/ He saw Aunt Mary comin' and he ducked back in the alley," I'm not sure I knew he was singing of an adulterous quickie; and if I did, I'm not sure I thought it had anything to do with my uneventful young life. I did know enough, however, to understand that I didn't have to emulate the behavior I heard or saw in popular culture.

How was each aspect of pop culture marketed in the '50s? Usually, through its own medium. Kids learned about new things where they found the old things. They sampled comic books at the magazine rack in the local pharmacy (a word, and an institution, that vanished long ago); they heard music on the radio or at the record store; they saw previews of coming attractions at the movie theater. Newspapers ran movie ads, but TV networks didn't.

For me, the infallible guide to transgressive art was the Legion of Decency list posted in our local church. The Legion was a Catholic organization that rated movies for content and tone, from "A" for unobjectionable (good) to "C" for condemned (eeeeevil). For me, the "C" rating was a movie's most persuasive marketing tool. After Mass each Sunday I would check out the list, and I can say without irony that it stoked my teenage interest in foreign films, from Ingmar Bergman's "Sawdust and Tinsel" (known in the U.S. as "The Naked Night") to Luis Bu˝uel's "Los Olvidados." I would sneak off to see dirty films and — the joke was on me — discover classics of the cinema.

Perhaps, five decades from now, we will look back at today's culture and see that it was classic. We will find Eminem's lyrics in college poetry texts, and museum exhibitions on The Art of Doom. But for now, and from this crabby perspective, it looks like junk. Junk passing as bold popular art. Violent entertainment, from WWF to Howard Stern to the sleazier rap music, is not adult. It is, essentially, infantile — the expression of a caterwauling baby whose main pleasures are breaking things and playing with his caca. And the child of the '50s that still lives inside me wonders whether I would have been as eager to devour the scraps of this culture as I was to consume the bounty of the one I grew up on.

Once upon a time, in the late '60s and early '70s, there was something that deserved the term adult entertainment. It delved responsibly into mature themes for a wide, grown-up audience. "Midnight Cowboy," which won the Oscar as best picture of 1969, was rated X; if you weren't at least 18, you couldn't see it. Same with such excellent films as "Medium Cool" and "The Devils." I don't remember mass complaints that kids couldn't see these movies. The idea then was that some things — intelligent films and, for that matter, the profits that came from them — were worth waiting for.

We now live in an age of instant gratification. The kids can't wait for their adrenaline fix, and the moguls can't wait to peddle it to them. What this gives us is violent entertainment for the young. What it deprives us of is mature entertainment for the mature.