Gangstas Without Borders

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Strolling through the Latvian capital, Riga, earlier this month, I had a "globalization moment" -- sort of a "senior moment," except that I remember it just fine, thanks -- induced by large billboards heralding concerts by the Backstreet Boys and Busta Rhymes.

If Florida boy bands and Flatbush rap acts are selling tickets in Latvia, my epiphany went, then modern youth culture really has gone global. There's no more East vs. West, no more First, Second and Third Worlds, no more post-this or ante-that for the planet's now-homogeneous young consumers. The Boys and Busta can move product anywhere but Pyongyang and Minsk, and not by drawing on some transportable fan base of Groupies Without Borders. The market is universal.

This simply hadn't registered with me -- until suddenly it did. When Busta raps in Riga, I realized, the revolution is officially over. I have seen the future and its jerks.

To be fair and balanced, Busta is now a jerk on probation, the Boys aren't jerks at all and these acts have as much to do with the past as the future. Let's take the past first, starting with mine.

I first visited Latvia on a field trip from Leningrad in 1975, before gangsta rap and suburban neo-barbershop were even gleams in a promoter's eye. Riga, alas, didn't offer much more for visiting American students to listen to than had Leningrad. From outlying Kamchatka to the occupied Baltics, the whole Soviet Union was formally hostile to "bourgeois" music of all stripes, with Western pop and rock groups leading the list.

True, 1975 was not 1955, when Soviet music lovers made bootleg boogie-woogie recordings on X-ray plates and listened doggedly for every un-jammed note of the Voice of America's jazz hour. By the mid-1970s, the Soviet state had grudgingly reached a tacit cultural compromise with its rising generation: If you don't rattle the cage too loudly, we will tolerate long hair, some indigenous pop groups and even throw you a bone once a week -- which they did. On Saturday nights at 11:30 -- when young people were likely to be out and about or out cold -- Leningrad radio aired a show called "Your Tape Recorder," offering Western music for young fans to copy however they could. It wasn't much, but it sure beat nothing and was aurally devoured like forbidden fruit.

Like millions of other people who spent (or did) time in the Soviet Union, I still have occasional flashbacks to Soviet deprivations like the pop-music drought. Sure, Chuck Berry has played Moscow four times, Paul McCartney has filled Red Square and Deep Purple is the nation's First Rock Group. Yet in some anterior lobe of my middle-aged brainpan -- no doubt the section that processes Proust and "The X-Files" -- there are still synapses convinced that in places where Russian is heard, Western pop music isn't. At least not loudly and certainly not in public. So my mind, as in Riga, finds itself playing catch-up.

But back to the future -- which is not Busta and the Boys. They are "relics of the '90s," whose appearances and album sales on former Soviet territory offer limited prospects -- or so say my English students from the music management program at Moscow's Gnessin Academy of Music. These kids take courses like Finance and Taxes for Cultural Enterprises, Statistics, and Strategic Management. They deride MTV Russia as clueless and Eurovision as tunnel vision, but they'll give you a working estimate of how many tickets various artists will sell in Moscow, from Blondie to Iggy Pop. See, that matters.

The Boys and Busta are marketable here, but to diminishing audiences. The next globalees will want the next thing -- not the Boys of '93 or your father's hip-hopper. But the good news for these performers is that they will always find a venue in Moscow, say the proto-managers. Acts that have had significant success in the United States will always sell tickets to Muscovites who have heard of them but never seen them live, apparently. Even Liza Minnelli.

To my Riga story, a senior student parried that what's afoot is less the globalization of pop music than its Americanization. As to whether this is good or bad, the same student -- who serves as press attache for a major Russian jazz artist -- simply shrugged. "It just is. Music evolves and you deal with it."

Fair enough. Only in my case, you deal with it a little later than everybody else.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.