29 November 2009

Disney's Grand Cultural Gambit

Disney is the behemoth of youth programing. Young children and tweens watch and talk about the programming on Disney's TV channel more than any other. Disney makes a large share of all movies available for this demographic, and captures a larger share of youth audiences. Disney's radio channel is even more dominant for tweens than their television programming. The Mouse has abundant commercial spinoffs.

Programming for kids operates on a vertically integrated, producer driven, studio system. Disney creates stars, and sometimes bands, and makes them big by putting them in its distribution outlets. Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers, the Cheetah Girls and High School Musical have all been engineered by Disney in a hands on way that the nation hasn't seen since the Osmonds and the Monkees. The inner circle of Disney stars are as tight as the Rat Pack were in their day.

Disney's top down, dominant player media model creates fans and decides at a producer level where kids programming is going to go, rather than simply following the masses as an increasingly fragmented, sales driven media model for adults does.

Disney is betting the farm on cultural fusion. You don't have to listen to the Disney's radio channel (1690 AM in Denver, for those of you who don't have tweens) for long to hear it. The notion that genres like R&B, country-western and bubblegum pop should be segregated into separate musical channels has been almost entirely abandoned by Disney. One follows after the other at random like an iPod shuffle (maybe that's the way they actually do their programming). The play list may not be long, but it is diverse.

Her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, made his path to superstardom by exemplifying his country-western genre. But, the latest hit single from Miley Cyrus, "Party in the U.S.A." has followed Disney's gambit on cultural fusion to its logical conclusion. The younger Cyrus brings country music vocal styles to a song heavy with R&B musical elements.

For adults, the unified national popular culture that emerged when we had three dominant television networks, small towns had only one or two movies playing at any given time, off Broadway productions stayed in New York, and Top 40 ruled the airwaves is all but gone.

Adult media programming has broken into minute niches fueled by the proliferation of cable TV channels, digital radio channels, Internet based niche marketing, the rise of the multiplex, the appearance of art house theaters beyond places like New York and San Francisco, legal limits on media concentration and prohibitions on payola. These niches are almost tribal. Disney's Selena Gomez movie, Another Cinderella Story mocks these dividing lines in a scene where a lost glass slipper is replaced by a lost MP3 player with a distinctive playlist that stereotypical teens in pursuit of the teen heart throb try to guess (the movie also consciously includes a diversity of dance styles from tango to ballet to break dancing to R&B).

Country crossover isn't unknown on the adult airwaves. Keith Urban's hit "You'll Think Of Me" (the defining chorus lyric is "Take Your Cat And Leave My Sweater") crossed the line recently, as have half a dozen other singles, often on stations with catchlines like "The Mix." But, it's rare for those crossovers to go further from country than mild adult contemporary rock. Country crossovers don't usually venture into the predominantly inner city black world of R&B which shares little cultural common ground with it. And, crossover songs are decidedly a fringe in the adult music world, not a concept that is driving the dominant media outlets in the market. Adult country crossover is aimed at the shrinking niche audience of people who have migrated from rural America to the suburbs, at a time when urban migration has almost run its course, not a broad national audience.

For whatever reason, however, Disney has managed to hold onto the older model for younger audiences, and is engaged in trying to build a genuine melting pot supergenre. This is not simply a case of the Beastie Boys or Eminem, where white singers have made in big in a predominant black genre, in the Beastie Boys' case as farce, and in the case of Eminem, as drama. Miley Cyrus isn't genre hopping; she's genre fusing.

Will Disney succeed in its ambition to create a genre fused national culture?

One suspects that this project began out of necessity, only tangentially considered as a cultural program. There wasn't enough new, "hot" material out there for kids in any one genre to support an entire media empire, particularly if Disney wanted to display the college guidebook diversity it was striving for to cement itself as a truly national media empire.

Disney's Mouse Pack may be doing what swing (e.g. Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller), bebop and cool jazz (e.g. Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie), and Motown artists did; bringing music with very specific geographic and ethnic roots to the general public in an accessible way.

The massive money pot that Disney is riding is sure to attract new players to the youth media market, displacing its dominance sooner or later. But, Disney is riding high enough now that this will take time. The genres it has fused may fade into irrelevance for the modern Disney generation before that happens. Or, the Disney generation may hit puberty overwhelmed by the blandness of their media youth and rebel against it by harvesting the relict outposts of distinctive cultural expression that resisted assimilation. For most of recent history, the fine and performing arts have rewarded those who establish their own unique styles, not generalists.

On the other hand, the experiences of our nation's youth are far more homogeneous than it was at the dawn of the mass media age. There are niches, but in the Internet era, they increasingly aren't regional niches that are easily and naturally reinforcing. Country music and urban rock are merging in part because the artists who perform them share the same Los Angeles haunts, rather than being divided in separate citadels of media power in New York and Nashville. Kids in New York and Tennessee increasingly read the same books, attend similar schools with identical textbooks, watch the same TV and movies, and grow up with similar, largely vacuous, ideas about God. The diversified economies of Atlanta and Chicago have more in common than they once did and increasingly draw their top professionals from a homogenized national pool that was uprooted when they went to college or the military.

New country music increasingly sounds more like rock. The Sunday morning hour remains segregated, but what happens inside those churches is far less distinctive than it was when I was the age of today's Disney audience. Almost all of the Christian denominations look more like the historically black churches of my youth than they did a couple of decades ago. In the 1960s, growing up with never married parents was a predominantly black experience. Now, it is commonplace for working class kids of all ethnicities. The black middle class is far less isolated from the white middle class at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. Invisible social lines and segregated neighborhoods still divide most black kids from most white kids in our schools, even when they are integrated, but there is a critical mass of mixed race kids who like Barack Obama and Tiger Woods, move almost effortlessly from one cultural sphere to the other. And, it takes only a small number of people who serve as a bridge between otherwise isolated social networks to dramatically reduce the number of degrees of separation between the people in them. Kids today are much more likely to have many friends of friends across racial lines than the first generation of kids in putatively desegregated schools.

The biggest advantage that Disney's bid at building a fused national culture has that its counterparts in the days of Motown and the Rat Pack didn't have is that a far larger share of the population is ideologically committed to the concept, whether or not they actually live their ideals. In the early 1960s, all but a couple of the casinos in Las Vegas and a good share of members of Congress were openly committed to racial segregation. Today, almost everyone believes earnestly in integration, except a few xenophobes driven by a fear for their jobs and the jobs of people they know, who are opposed to immigration, illegal or otherwise. We don't necessarily know how to make it happen, but for the most part, we are willing to let Disney make an attempt and overlook the fact that the world it displays often doesn't look too much like the more divided world where most of us actually live. We hope that, given a Disney script to use as a model, that a more grass roots level of integration might be an easier to achieve for our children.

1 comment:

Michael Malak said...

An early fusion of techo, rap, and country is the 1991 single "Justified & Ancient" by The KLF with guest vocal Tammy Wynette.