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Metamorphosis — Forget the Stereotype: America Is Becoming A Nation of Culture

September 17, 1998

The U.S., Wealthy, Worldly
And Wired, Undergoes
`An Explosive Change’

`Madame Butterfly’ in Waco

The Wall Street Journal
By Douglas A. Blackmon

ALPENA , Ark. — At a crossroads Texaco station, where a strip of pavement curving through the Ozark Mountains meets Highway 62 on the way to Yellville, a flashing yellow sign beckons weary travelers.

“Two Hot Dogs $1,” reads the first line. “Propane Gas,” the second.

And the third, all in red capital letters: “CAPPUCCINO.”

Poured from a machine into the same foam cups used for Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew soft drinks, the steamed milk and java here doesn’t make the same impression as the stuff Starbucks sells. But the Ozark concoction in this town of 319 people is a humble harbinger, nonetheless, of a revolutionary transformation of American culture.

Americans are buying serious books in dizzying numbers. Scores of regional theaters and opera companies have popped up in recent years. The percentage of Americans attending the performing arts is rising dramatically, according to new National Endowment for the Arts research. Cinemagoers are turning movies based on classic dramas and offbeat storylines into modest hits. Tablecloth restaurants are thriving in areas where fast food has dominated for decades. Specialized beers and better wines are proliferating in grocery stores. Good coffee, finally, is ubiquitous throughout the land.

Indeed, historic levels of wealth, educational attainment and cultural exposure have converged over the past decade in such a way that the lowest common denominator of American culture is rising rapidly. Hardly any place is as remote as it once was. Contrary to the wails of many cultural critics, middle-class, mainstream Americans have become, simply put, sophisticated.

The oft-maligned archetype of 20th century America — a narrow-horizoned couch potato in a ranch house, proud of his disinterest in “boring” high culture — is being pushed aside by a new icon.

This youthful, turn-of-the-millennium American, unsatisfied by night after night of network sitcoms, switches to classic film noir on cable or watches documentaries on the History Channel. At least every so often, he heads to an art film at a shopping mall multiplex for a brocaded “Sense and Sensibility”-style period flick. He keeps specialty beer in the refrigerator. At the bookstore, he picks “Angela’s Ashes” or “Cold Mountain” from the cluster of serious works crowding the bestseller rack.

“There’s been an explosive change in taste . . . a shift in mores and in what it means to be an American,” says Murray Horwitz, vice president for cultural programming at National Public Radio. “People want things now that they didn’t even know existed before.”

Certainly some of these new American tastes are merely signs of conspicuous consumption in a gluttonous era. Yet measured by the actual definition of sophistication — to “become more complex, developed” . . . to be “experienced in the ways of the world . . .” — a host of indicators show an extraordinary shift under way.


Nearly 27 million people attended theatrical stage shows during the 1997-98 season — almost 60% of them outside New York-raking in a record $1.3 billion in ticket sales, according to the League of American Theaters and Producers Inc. Meantime, the number of nonprofit, professional theater companies in the U.S. has grown to more than 800 today, compared with fewer than 60 in 1965, according to Theater Communications Group in New York.
More than 110 American symphonies — including the Louisiana Philharmonic in New Orleans and the Northwest Symphony near Seattle — have been founded since 1980, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League.

Opera attendance, spurred by the use of computerized “supertitles” that translate lyrics, climbed to nearly 7.5 million in the 1996-1997 season, up 34% from 1980. There are now 110 professional opera companies in the U.S., 34 of which were founded after 1980. (One of the newest, the Lyric Opera of Waco, Texas, opened this month with “Madame Butterfly.”)

Public radio stations, broadcasting a once-exotic blend of classical music and introspective news, have more than tripled in number since 1980 to nearly 700.

Book sales are at unprecedented levels, with about 430 million more purchased in 1995 than in 1982, when 1.7 billion volumes were sold in the U.S. And highbrow magazines are no longer a bicoastal phenomenon: Bon Appetit sells nearly a third of its 1.1 million copies each month in heartland states, and more than a quarter of the New Yorker’s 810,000 copies don’t go to the East or West coasts.

“The very fact that somebody like me can survive writing 900-page history books in an era when people are said to be not ready for anything beyond a sound bite says something,” says Taylor Branch, the civil-rights historian. “The transformation from manufacturing to an information-and-service-based economy makes it harder for `redneckism’ to survive as a cultural doctrine, although some people still do their best to keep it alive.”

Of course, a case can be made that the same forces nourishing American taste at one end of the spectrum — growing disposable income and falling inhibitions — are fertilizing low culture at the other.

Auto racing pulled in nearly 17 million ticket buyers in 1997, up 29% in five years. Nude dancing clubs have proliferated in shopping strips and at interstate exits across the country; the 1998 “Exotic Dancer” directory lists 2,200 adult entertainment clubs in the U.S., an estimated 15% more than a decade ago. Wonder remains the single biggest selling bread brand.

On the media front, per capita hours of television watched — an estimated 1,610 hours in 1997 — continue to increase. And though the number of U.S.-produced independent films grew to 139 in 1997 from 40 a decade ago, this is still the nation that spent $20 million on tickets last year to see “Booty Call,” a bathroom-humored sex romp retitled by critic Roger Ebert, “Animal House Grosses Out.”

Provincialism prevails in many quarters: The “Dukes of Hazard Reunion Tour” made a stop this summer near Alpena ; a recent letter to Arkansas’ statewide newspaper reminded readers that, “Every time a kid turns on a TV, radio or tape player, or just goes out the door, Satan is teaching them his way.”

There is also little evidence that the wealth-driven trends marking the shift in cultural tastes have touched the enormous minority of the population who haven’t shared significantly in the U.S. economic boom. That gives some credence to the old Marxist saw that “sophistication” is simply a tool for holding down the dispossessed. “Taste is mainly class language,” says Allen Tullos, an American-studies professor who teaches pop-culture at Emory University in Atlanta. “If you’ve got the money, you’re going to widen your palette.”

Good or bad, fundamental economic shifts are indeed fueling the cultural transformation.

Of primary importance, wealth has grown significantly in the last two decades and permeated more deeply into the middle- and blue-collar classes. In 1996, 51 million households earned over $35,000 — more than double the $16,036 poverty level for a family of four. In 1980, 39.7 million families earned an inflation-adjusted equivalent. That represents a growth of nearly 30% over a period of time when the total population grew 19%.

Along with the increase in wealth, Americans’ spending power has grown exponentially with the availability of consumer credit, which stood at more than $542 billion in June, according to the Federal Reserve.

At the same time, there has been a partial reversal of the mass merchandising and production that characterized the U.S. economy for much of the century. The rise of uniformity-driven chain restaurants and retailers over the past several decades suffocated legions of coffee shops, cafes, single-screen cinemas and small-town stores. But in today’s saturated consumer economy, chain outlets of every stripe increasingly offer a broad range of niche products aimed at exploiting the very individuality of tastes that those neighborhood stores once fostered.

New bookstore chains, with their coffee bars and cafes, convey a sense of eclectic intimacy (in outlets that are nonetheless almost identical in every city). Grocery chains aggressively promote a diverse range of ethnic, regional and once-uncommon specialties: “Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning,” long available only in the southernmost parishes of Louisiana, now sits on store shelves in Nebraska.

Outlet malls at rural interstate exits have become the purveyors of designers Liz Claiborne, Geoffrey Beane and Jones New York to the distant masses. Pottery Barn units in regional malls reintroduce Craftsman-style furniture at middle-class prices. The newest units of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. dedicate significant shelf space to more fashionable clothing, cutting-edge kitchen appliances, 230-thread-count sheets and newly released books.

“Take some new fashion from Milan, Italy, those things that used to take some extensive period of time to be translated to the mass channel. Everything is accelerated now. All of a sudden our customers are able to buy something very quickly that has gotten hot,” says H. Lee Scott, president of Wal-Mart Stores, a unit of the retailing giant. “The girls in Princeton, N.J., are buying exactly the same products as the girls in Berryville, Ark., the same silhouette, the same colors, the same styles.”

Beyond the economic engine, significant cultural shifts are changing America’s tastes. Despite concern about the poor showing of U.S. students as compared to pupils in other countries, and laments about illiteracy, the educational attainment of Americans actually has risen sharply. Nearly 82% had a high-school diploma in 1996, compared with just over one third in 1950, according to the Census Bureau. Adult Americans with college degrees increased to 23.6% from 6.2% over the same period.

Ethnic shifts, though still small in most places, are subtly but broadly altering American perspectives. Chinese eateries, exotic to most Americans as recently as the 1970s, today appear in thousands of small towns, often as the only full-service restaurant. Similarly, Hispanic populations showed increases in 3,002 of the country’s 3,143 counties between 1990 and 1996, according to University of Michigan researcher William H. Frey.

The ability to interact directly with distant cultures is more within reach, largely because airline deregulation in the late 1970s triggered expanded flight schedules and lower ticket prices. In 1997, U.S. citizens flew 52.1 million international flights, up from 14.3 million in 1975, according to industry research firm BACK Associates Inc., Stamford, Conn.

Cable television and the Internet have brought an explosion of cultural influences. The number of households with cable service grew to 63.4% in 1995 compared with less than 20% in 1980. Nearly half of all U.S. adults under age 55 had access to the World Wide Web last year, giving once-isolated Americans instant access to every major newspaper, just-released books, complex financial analyses and long-forbidden taboos.

Consider how these forces have reshaped the northwest corner of Arkansasa place which until recently counted as a prime tourist attraction a theme park featuring hillbilly characters from the “Lil’ Abner” cartoon strip. Today, the economy is booming, and the bourgeoisie culture that once defined “city life” is flourishing.

“We’re exposed to things now that we never were before,” says Alyssa Robbins, a 27-year-old convenience-store manager in Mountain Home, a few miles from Alpena . She and her husband log onto the Internet nightly from their home deep in the mountains to check prices of stocks in family members’ retirement portfolios. “We tease my brother-in-law when his Kroger shares go down.”

With a TV wired to a Primestar satellite dish, Ms. Robbins’ family receives more than 60 channels. They watch almost no network shows, instead absorbing a range of sports and movies on HBO and the Arts & Entertainment channel.

“It’s not real unusual to sit down in some coffee shop with some shit-kicker who just sold some cattle and have him ask, `Did you watch the show last night on the pharaohs?'” says Robert Cockran, a folklorist at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Half a generation ago, the region around Alpena was paralyzed by deep poverty, poor education, atrocious roads and terrain too rugged for any use other than cattle farming. But over the past two decades, it has been transfigured by economic growth. Poultry processor Tyson Foods Inc. and trucking heavyweight J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., headquartered in Springdale, have created thousands of jobs. Wal-Mart Stores is based up the road in Bentonville. Scores of other companies have been drawn to the area by generous tax givebacks.

Not far from Alpena , in tiny Altus, is a new watering hole. On weekends and Monday nights, when live music is featured, crowds from miles around gather here at Kelt’s Irish Pub to quaff obscure Irish ales and listen to Gaelic music. “Arkansas is poor, but there’s a new middle class,” says Dan McMillan, a transplanted Californian with a bushy beard, who owns the bar with his wife. “They have to spend their money somewhere.”

The economic growth has allowed the arts to flourish. At a $35 million activity center in Springdale that was built with an endowment from the widow of a local trucking magnate, residents are given free access to a computer lab, no-tuition classes in Spanish, Chinese cooking and jazz appreciation and access to an ice rink and an Olympic-size swimming pool. In a place where ice skating a decade ago was as foreign as ice fishing, the newly formed Ozark Figure Skating Club is a hit with teenage girls dreaming of Olympic glory.

Alpena ‘s small sandstone school, built by Work Projects Administration laborers during the Depression, arranges for all its 500 students to attend at least one production each year at the Walton Fine Arts Center in Fayetteville, which was built in part with money donated by the family of late Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and opened in 1992.

“They go watch a group from South Africa doing a cultural performance and they’re going to be exposed to things they’ve never even imagined,” says John Hodges, the school’s coordinator of gifted and talented program.

Ozark Stageworks, one of five independent stage companies in the area, is planning its fall production at the Walton Center. The show? “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

“It’s a huge step that we could do something with that word in it,” says Lisa Parks, 30, an Ozark Stageworks board member.

“I had sort of resigned myself to producing second rate, `Hee-Haw’ stuff,” adds Ms. Parks, who wears her hair in a stylish flip, shops at the Gap and is busily working her way down the American Film Institute’s recent list of 100 Best Films, renting as many titles as she can at the local video store.

“We’re attracting a more sophisticated audience,” she concludes.

Barometers of Culture

The lowest common denominator is on the rise:


— Number of new fiction book titles published in the U.S.:
1995: 7,605
1990: 5,764


— Consumption in U.S. of red table wine, in cases:
1997: 58.2 million
1991: 23.2 million.

— Number of beer makers, including micro-breweries, in the U.S.:
1997: 1,250
1990: 211

— Percentage of 614 fine-dining establishments rated by Distinguished
Restaurants of North America located in rural areas:
1998: 27%
1993: 19%


— Number of U.S. students receiving credit for study abroad:
1996: 89,242
1986: 48,483


— Percentage of Americans who visited an art museum at least once in
the survey year:
1997: 35.0%
1982: 22.1%

— Percentage of Americans who listened to classical music on the
radio in the survey year:
1997: 41%
1982: 19%

Sources: R.R. Bowker Co., Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, Council on International Educational Exchange, Beverage Marketing, National Endowment for the Arts

(Copyright (c) 1998, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

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