New Kings of the World

From The Wall Street Journal:

It becomes quite clear, in the first few pages of “New Kings of the World,” that Fatima Bhutto doesn’t care for America. The 37-year-old granddaughter and niece of two Pakistani prime ministers— Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir—she is pugnacious (and sometimes eloquent) proof that the leftist elite of the non-Western world is alive and kicking. Ms. Bhutto, a novelist and nonfiction author, sets out to chart the “vast cultural movement emerging from the Global South.” This movement is, she says, “the biggest challenge to America’s monopoly of soft power since the end of the Second World War.”

Hollywood, with its “white fantasies of power, wealth, and sex,” is Ms. Bhutto’s bête noire (or bête blanche), and she anoints three Eastern phenomena as its most serious competition for the world’s cultural attention: Indian cinema (which goes by the nickname “Bollywood”); Turkish television soap operas (called dizi in their land of origin); and the popular music from South Korea (called K-Pop) that enjoys an extraordinary popularity not merely in the cognate countries of the Far East but also in Latin America and the United States.

There is no question that the genres that beguile Ms. Bhutto have made the globe a more lively and varied place. In her telling, they have brought an end to the American hegemony over the world’s cinemas, living rooms and headphones. America is no longer, she says, “the undisputed paragon of modernity, the exemplar of political liberty and cultural supremacy.” Instead, globalization and technology have “flattened” the cultural playing field, even as non-Americans have grown disenchanted with the “neo-liberal” economics of the U.S. and Hollywood’s lack of “empathy” for the world at large.

t is possible to find much of interest in Ms. Bhutto’s descriptive survey without accepting her sweeping theory of domination and rivalry, much less her politicized sense of popular entertainment, whether it comes from America or from the realms of the “new kings.” Of the “new arbiters of mass culture,” Bollywood receives her greatest attention, and for good reason. The Indian film industry, she tells us, produces between 1,500 and 2,000 films per year, more than any other country. India sells twice as many cinema tickets as Hollywood and exports films to more than 70 countries, an astonishing number when you reckon with the fact that the films—almost all musicals—are in Hindi and pursue themes that are “deeply entrenched in the history and fabric of Indian life.”

Yet these films appeal to an audience beyond the vast Indian diaspora. Having once been the most popular foreign films in the Soviet Union (whose people had little access to Hollywood’s fare), Bollywood productions are enjoyed all over Asia, in much of Africa and even in Latin America. The loveliest parts of Ms. Bhutto’s book are those where she takes us to Peru, where Bollywood films are known as cines Hindu. In a country with few historical ties to India, Bollywood fan clubs abound. “Each club,” Ms. Bhutto writes, “has its own codes, insignia, and rules and they maintain a fierce rivalry between each other.”

. . . .

By comparison to her account of Bollywood and Turkish TV, Ms. Bhutto’s treatment of K-Pop is almost cursory, which is a pity, for it is the most intriguing of the three genres in her book. At a time when a Korean-language film has won the best-picture award at the Oscars, many Koreans would take issue with her sniffy assertion that their culture “is little more than American culture repurposed.” Still, it would be fair to say that K-Pop is more Westernized than either Bollywood or dizi, featuring as it does music and stage-dancing whose fizzy routines are not unlike those of the more tinselly European and American pop acts.

With typical emphasis on grand theory, Ms. Bhutto describes K-Pop as “a perfect storm of colonial history, heavily Americanized culture, and neo-liberalism.” The last put-down is a reference the Korean government’s active role in the export of K-Pop immediately after the 1997 Asian currency crisis, which hit South Korea particularly hard. The truth is that K-Pop is a genuinely hybrid musical form that attracts listeners turned off by the coarseness of so much of contemporary popular music.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

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