In Prospect

Summer 1995

David Garrard Lowe’s utterly enjoyable article on the building of Rockefeller Center reminds us of New York’s key role in making popular culture. But how different a culture it was when the center’s anchor, the Radio Corporation of America, beamed Burns and Allen to the brand-new radio audience. What a different worldview shined out from the movies shown in the center’s new Radio City Music Hall: Top Hat or Bringing Up Baby—made by RCA—controlled RKO.

These entertainments radiated the same urbane, sophisticated values that Rockefeller Center’s architecture expressed; they helped forge an American culture that was optimistic, tolerant, and civil. Across Rockefeller Plaza was the old Time & Life Building, a beacon of middlebrow culture that embodied similar values in mass-circulation magazines.

New York is still the center of the mass-culture business, with Rockefeller Center itself still home to Time Inc. (now Time Warner), NBC-TV, and the Associated Press. So when our political debate brings mass culture to center stage, New York is deeply implicated. Indeed, both Robert Dole and William Bennett have singled out Time Warner as a target for their charge that rap music and violent movies are degrading America’s culture.

These criticisms are right on the mark. But New Yorkers who’ve spoken up so far have dismissed them, using three arguments worth examining. First, it is said, no studies show that violent, degraded entertainments cause people to do violent, degraded things. That view misunderstands how culture works. Culture is an entire environment of beliefs and customs, the medium in which we make sense of our experience. The cumulative effect of songs, ads, newscasts, and the like is what counts. If most messages you hear, from the streets and from the corporate glass towers, are filled with resentment, violence, licentiousness, contempt for authority, and materialism, how can the result be anything other than a coarsening of spirit that produces the barbarous behavior the tabloids report every day?

Entertainment millionaires often proffer the second argument: rap music is the authentic expression of inner-city pain, which they bring before the nation almost as a public service. This argument stands at the tail end of a 30-year transformation of our culture, in which we didn’t jettison morality altogether, as some say, but traded in one moral code for a new set of values. We learned to worship authentic expression: you must "be in touch with your feelings" and "let it all hang out." In the naive sixties, when all we wanted was sexual liberation, who knew that human impulses were as dark as they are, that what would "hang out" would be the wish to mutilate women that’s often celebrated in rap?

Our culture also came to believe that the environment, not the criminal, was responsible for crime. Since evil deeds are a symptom of something wrong in society, if rappers sing of killing cops or brutalizing women, society is lucky to have the early warning that it’s sick, before some acute disease (riots, say) breaks out. Ideas like these grew out of good intentions 30 years ago; now they are often merely a cynical rationale for making money.

Finally, the charge that rap music’s critics support some benighted policies—and so cannot possibly be right on any subject—recalls that the forging of our new culture went hand in hand with an effort to delegitimize the old. The formula of the seventies TV show All in the Family is a case in point: each week, Archie Bunker’s daughter and son-in-law taught viewers some lesson of the new culture while demonstrating that Archie’s own working-class views were unworthy of respect. The lesson took: Archie Bunker’s brethren—the hardhats the sixties generation despised as reactionary—have transmogrified into manual workers who resemble 1960s hippies, with long hair, calico headbands, marijuana breaks, alienation, and (thanks to the new sexual morality) increasingly disintegrated families. Progress?

In two generations, Rockefeller Center has gone from Fred Astaire to Snoop Doggy Dogg. That’s bankruptcy.