issue 177 - November 1987
by Michael Jackson
So here's the global soundtrack for the next four years... Records generally have to carry some overt political content to get reviewed here but this is an obvious exception, It's been impossible to escape Michael Jackson's Thriller over the last few years. Walk into an embattled Nicaraguan town or even a remote African village and you'll be in severe danger of hearing about Billie Jean's pregnancy. In the slums of Jakarta the sparky local pop is scorned in favour of 'Mukl Jiksn'.
What is it about this music that strikes a chord in such diverse breasts? Hype and global marketing, US cultural imperialism - these things prepare the ground but why this voice, this beat in particular? For a start it's body music, essentially non-verbal. The words here are eminently forgettable, simply vehicles for the voice. Listen instead to the vocal punctuation, the way Jackson fills in the gaps with yelps, howls and moans. Ugh! Aaow! Uhh! Hoo! This is the triumph of disco language and can have an exhilarating effect on even the most weary old bones. You know this man can move, even when you can neither see him nor understand a word of English.
Nothing has changed since Thriller or, for that matter 1979's Off the Wall - Bad is just as good, or as bad as those - but devoid of surprises.
Except ... one of only two songs not written by Jackson, Man In The Mirror is extraordinarily good, with a 'change yourself to change the world' lyric that actually means something and a call-and-response gospel finale that is quite breathtaking. Now if Whacko Jacko can escape from his insulated billionaire's world to discover gospel music, is there just a chance that he might throw his skin bleachers in the bin and discover some black consciousness, some awareness of the plight of the brown-skinned people he's managed so effectively to reach? Then we could really watch him move.
Talking Book - Introduction to Asia 1
by Various Artists
The World of Music, Arts and Dance series of Talking Book albums is now gathering pace, with their introductions to world, African and European music now followed by the first Asian collection. This concentrates on India and the countries to its west (a Far Eastern compilation is to follow). And it is as diverse as you might hope, devotional instrumentals co-existing with Muslim pop. Some of these gestures towards a wide-range backfire - the Hindu temple music included, for example, was never really intended to be heard independently of the ceremony and is unattractive enough to prove it.
But the general effect is still fascinating, especially when it comes to the pop music - whether from the Israeli star Ofra Haza, who looks back to her Yemenite roots, or from India's greatest popular singer Asha Bhosle, whose voice is dubbed over all the heroines in Bombay's famous movies and who has made over 10,000 recordings.
Alien musical sounds and traditions need some introduction and the 20-page booklet which accompanies the record is an admirable guide to this internationalist foray.
This and the other albums in the series are available from:
WOMAD, Third Floor, 85 Park Street, Bristol 951 5JN, UK.
Prices (including pAp) £7 UK, £9 overseas.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
1991. The city state which is all that survives of white South Africa threatens to use the neutron bomb. Mexican rebels still hold Acapulco Airport. And the city of Detroit hands over control of its increasingly embattled police force to a giant corporation.
Dutch director Verhoeven's new film is the story of the company's latest weapon to use against criminals - a half-human, half-robot cop. Murphy, a policeman brutally killed by hoods, is rebuilt as the supercop and let loose to make the streets safe for the public and for the corporation to raze and redevelop the old city. But, helped by his old partner, a tough female cop, RoboCop slowly rediscovers his identity. He hunts down his killers only to find them working for one of the corporation's directors.
This isn't quite as silly as it sounds. RoboCop retains the fast action and brutal violence of modern police thrillers but adds an ingredient rare in the genre - political awareness. The near future is convincingly imagined. For once the bad guys aren't all black and the story centres on RoboCop's struggle to reclaim his humanity from the technology that created him. Technology without responsibility is the real villain of this movie.
Meanwhile a Star Wars laser fires accidentally, devastating Santa Barbara. Among the dead are two retired US presidents...
directed by Elaine May
You can almost see the Hollywood executives smiling over this one - Ishtar has boffo box office written all over it. It has all the ingredients for silly-season success: two big stars playing vacuous but well-meaning heroes; exotic far-flung locale (in this case the mythical country of lshtar somewhere in North Africa); sultry, street-smart heroine (French actress Isabelle Adjani) caught in a jam; and a few dozen songs tossed in along the way. A Crosby-Hope 'road movie' for the late 1980s, no less.
Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play a pair of compulsive, bumbling New York singer-songwriters with more chutzpah than talent. Searching for their big break they take a booking in Morocco. Before long they are tangled up in the power politics of neighbouring lshtar, where the corrupt CIA-supported Emir faces a leftist guerrilla force. A lot of the humour is slapstick. The plot twists and turns and there are a lot of spies chasing spies.
But what makes Ishtar interesting in this day of Reagan-influenced, right-wing Hollywood film-making is the basic premise: the CIA is up to no good. In Ishtar they are bigger bumblers than Beatty and Hoffman and more evil than the Emir. At one point the suave CIA agent sends a helicopter gunship into the desert to kill the songwriters while confiding to the Emir that if two Americans need to die it has to be 'unofficially'.
Charges of racism have been raised by Arab groups but they are surely misplaced. lshtar is a predictable, cliché-filled cartoon. But it is very funny and anything that sets out to tear a strip off the CIA can't be all bad.
The Politics of Food
by Geoffrey Cannon
You have to respect Geoffrey Cannon: respect his knowledge of the processed food industry, his investigative probing into industry's influence, his concern with good health through nutrition and, not least, his ability to write in an entertaining fashion. Whistle blowers are an endangered species, likely to be squashed by corporate behemoths. Cannon refuses to be.
There are more additives and weaker controls on foodstuffs in Britain than in any other major industrial country. For example, a bright red food additive banned as potentially carcinogenic in the US, USSR and even some Third World states like Malaysia - El 23 amaranth - is still used in yoghurts, jams, cakes, soups and soft drinks. Even Cadbury's famous chocolate would be considered imitation in Europe because it doesn't contain enough cocoa solids. And in the wake of this processed and mucked-about food comes increasing dental decay, cancer of the colon, appendicitis, eczema, asthma and hyperactive children.
The Politics of Food documents the food industry's sweetheart relationship with the medical establishment it cultivates through grants and sponsorship, with the media through a well-oiled public relations machine, and with the Government itself. Margaret Thatcher herself was once a food scientist employed by Lyons to devise swiss roll fillings. The industry's $1.8 million contributions to the Conservative Party's election war chest between 1979 and 1984 must have helped it's cause, as must the 202 Tory MPs who had links with the food industry. This kind of lobbying helps explain Government attempts to suppress four expert reports on food and health which recommended reducing saturated fats, starches, sugar, salt and additives.
There is certainly a national flavour to the book and Britain may be the worst offender among our readers' countries. But the same factors are at work everywhere - and many of the same processed products worm their way all over the world.
The Hidden Persuaders
...being the book that first exposed the power of advertising
Not so long ago a friend who goes to film school told me a story that was pretty hard to swallow. He asked if I'd seen the latest Levi advertisement - the one where the guy lies in the bath in his jeans to make them shrink. Of course I had - I'd even rushed out to buy a pair. Well, at college they'd watched the ad in slow motion, dissecting it frame by frame, and there at the end, superimposed in the crotch of the wet jeans, was a naked erect penis. I still haven't worked out whether this was some kind of out of season April Fool.
After that I was bursting with curiosity to see the ad again, but it had clearly been withdrawn. Of course even if the penis had been there I wouldn't have noticed it. It was, my friend told me, a 'subliminal image' - one that flickers on and off the screen so fleetingly that we're not aware of seeing it.
So what would be the point? Well consciously the image hasn't time to register, subconsciously it can have a very powerful effect. In the cinema there was a time when images of ice cream or, more subtly, of deserts, were flashed across the screen throughout the film. The result, come the interval, was that the audience drooled for an ice cream and sales rocketed.
The use of subliminal imagery in advertising is illegal - and rightly so. To have our behaviour modified in someone else's interests without our knowledge or consent, is tantamount to being brainwashed. Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders to expose the 'anti-humanistic implications' of this kind of technology in the US advertising of the mid-1950s. It was then fashionable for industry to employ social scientists and psychologists ('depth probers') to ferret out the unconscious motivators of consumer behaviour and manipulate them. The use of subliminal images is only one example of this technique at work. Nowadays the depth-probe approach is fundamental to the entire philosophy and practice of the global advertising industry.
Packard recounts an experiment to show how easily shoppers could be manipulated into impulse buying in supermarkets. A movie camera was set up to record the number of eye-blinks per second of the average shopper- this being an index of their anxiety. While the shoppers were wandering round with their trolleys the rate dropped dramatically, indicating that they had fallen into a 'hypnoidal trance' (many were so dazed that they tripped over boxes and failed to recognize friends).
In this lackadaisical mood they reached out for anything that caught their eye by virtue of its shelf position or packet design and colour. But when they reached the check-out (and especially when they heard the cash-till bell) the blinking rate rose alarmingly. They were terrified of paying - paying for the seven out of ten products that they'd bought on impulse; that in their rational minds they neither wanted nor needed but had been cajoled into buying by the subtle persuasive power of the manufacturers.
One of the main tasks of advertising is systematically to create dissatisfaction. If, for example, we buy, in our thirties, a hi-fl, a fridge and a typewriter, the chances are that these consumer durables will last us all our lives. But we aren't allowed to rest satisfied. New models are created, glamourized in magazines and on TV and, after five years, three years, one year, we yearn to discard our still-serviceable machine and begin again. Thus profits are maximized and we're shunted into the materialist rat-race,
This 'psychological obsolescence' is most insidious in the fashion industry. As soon as we've bought the latest design the fashion changes and advertisements remind us that we're out of line. Which brings us back to jeans. In the last 20 years I've worn bell-bottoms, hipsters, straights, drainpipes, mid-calf, stone-washed, 'original' and black ones - probably all at the wrong time, of course.
As Packard says, we can refuse to be influenced by the pressure of advertising - but only if we're aware of the ways in which it is being exerted. His book is an interesting introduction to these subtle processes. Of course, times have changed since the 1950s. We're now encouraged to complain if an advert is sexist, racist or 'untruthful' - though a huge percentage still are. There's also a board of censors who check for subliminal images but, when I contacted them, they told me that they only stop-frame check if there is 'reason for suspicion'. Clearly Levi's sales increase of approximately 900 per cent was not sufficient reason.
The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard (original US edition David McKay 1957, then various Pelican editions).
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7