The art of hype

Culture | The Dalai Lama's American PR machine, the death of a British PR man, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "The first straw," Aug. 28, 1999

The Dull-y Lama
The biggest tour of the year may be Tenzin Gyatso's summer visit to the United States. He doesn't dance, rap, or play the guitar. He's the Dalai Lama, who came to America for 16 days of talks about Buddhism and Tibetan politics. Booted out of his homeland 40 years ago by the Chinese Communists, this religious superstar is the Mother Theresa of Eastern religion. Even though he bills himself as "a small, ordinary Buddhist monk," his star has skyrocketed during the 1990s. The Dalai Lama is the subject of several movies and an Apple Computer ad. Richard Gere sponsored his latest American tour. His message is a mundane mix of meditation and what he calls compassion. It's mass marketed and inoffensive to anyone who isn't on the Communist Chinese payroll, yet it lacks the zip of America's homegrown New Age wackiness. Even though his face is known around the world, his teachings sound like contemporary platitudes. In his bestseller The Art of Happiness (Riverhead), he says: "Being religious isn't important. What matters is being a good person." He said in a $75-a-head New York lecture, "I'm not here to convert people. I think it's better to keep your own tradition.... Everybody has the potential to make a contribution to human development." Central Park was packed out to hear such sweetness. Spice Girls' creator dies
When Bob Herbert lost control of his car in a London rainstorm and died in a mid-August collision, few noticed. Yet he pulled off a cultural coup that still haunts the world's shopping malls and record shops: He invented the Spice Girls. Ever since the monster success of The Monkees in the 1960s, numerous manufactured pop groups from Menudo to New Kids on the Block have been cooked up with aggressive marketing campaigns to tap teenagers' allowances. Mr. Herbert decided to get his own piece of the pie. So in 1994 he bought an ad in the trade magazine Stage seeking "streetwise, ambitious and dedicated" young women. From a pool of over 400 respondents, he picked five to manage to stardom. He and son Chris then spent a year turning the obscurities into singers and dancers with a "Girl Power" shtick. Thus were born Scary, Ginger, Sporty, Posh, and Baby Spice. The prefab personalities were intended to show the "diversity" of life in the UK. Instead, adolescent girls look to them because they looked like walking Barbies. (Adolescent boys took to them for the same reason.) "With the Spice Girls, we thought we could teach them enough to get by because we didn't consider talent to be the most important thing," Mr. Herbert said in a 1997 story in The Independent. The band made a killing, but Mr. Herbert was shoved off the boat as another manager snapped them up and escorted them to the top. The father and son Herberts went back to the drawing board, bought another ad, and created an all-male group called Five, which stormed the British charts. The saga of the Spice Girls, whose star is now nearly fallen, shows the sheer crassness of pop marketing to teenagers. The women who play the parts might as well have been computer generated. Since so much adolescent socialization goes on among peers, isolated from parents and elders, such commercialized cheese is sure to carry on. You're getting sleepy, very sleepy
One hundred years ago Sigmund Freud published a book called The Interpretation of Dreams and launched his assault on the Western mind. This Viennese neurologist developed psychoanalysis, the king of counseling methods and the priestcraft for the priestless. "Nothing can be brought to an end in the unconscious; nothing is past or forgotten," he said in that early book. Everything about us is shaped by our experiences. Unlock the past and you unlock the person. That's where the good doctor with the couch comes in. The great talking cure competed with Marxism to be the court religion of celebrities and bohemians. Freud's ideas leaped out of the ivory tower and quickly conquered mainstream cultures, peaking during the 1960s and 1970s. New York intellectuals filled journals with prose about id, ego, and superego. Moviemakers used his ideas about the unconscious mind as a bag of tricks to shock audiences. Today, imagining a world where people aren't manic, compulsive, or downright oedipal is hard. People live their lives in denial, projecting their fantasies to the world. They need to talk about their feelings, preferably to someone who accepts their insurance cards. Even people with no education might say someone is "insecure," "needy," or "should go talk to someone." After a century of Freud, debates about his methods' effectiveness continue. "Even if people get better, that doesn't mean they get better because of the treatment," said Adolf Grunbaum, research professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. Others say that psychoanalysis is an improvement over the "madhouses" that existed before his time. Freud led us to think about ourselves as neurotics needing therapy rather than sinners needing redemption. Yet he himself has fallen out of favor, as endless pop psychologists peddle their own version of the talking cure.

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