WITH the slimmest margin for exaggeration, no currents have swept through the cultures of the world like those from the mass culture that is written, produced, and directed in the United States. For better or worse, and for the earning of billions of dollars, the US is the biggest star in the world, the major impresario in the realm of supplying mass cultures. Many cultures, in varying degrees, sustain their own identities, but the US, with unmatched creativity and sophistication of delivery, knows how to capture the attention of virtually any two-legged animal anywhere, hold it, and then make him or her want more.
America has become the popcorn of the world.
The entrepreneurial and marketing genius of the world's most-stable democracy does the following better than any other country:
* Creates irresistible images of mayhem, fun, and love on film and video.
* Deftly promotes mere soft drinks as vaunted elixirs of life itself.
* Sells billions of cigarettes regardless of the risks to smokers.
* Markets a happy, apolitical, anthropomorphic mouse named Mickey into a beloved world icon.
* Creates and feeds the world's love for denim jeans.
* Sells fried chicken and hamburgers like candy.
* Deftly earned $20 billion in 1989 selling American pop music and 70 percent of the revenue came from outside the US.
In short, what is hatched here squawks (or crows) over there too, no matter where the ``there'' is, on the black market or the open market. In a matter of days or perhaps hours, in some cases simulta-neously, the latest ``hit'' in the US - be it a new film, song, TV show, the escapades of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or a sports event - is heard or seen around the world by satellite or videotape.
To measure the reach of all this, Monitor writers around the world were asked to file dispatches about mass culture in their locales. We also asked our writers to measure the degree of US influence.
Along with these soundings, the following pages report that some countries with strong cultural heritages, political stability, and sheer obstinacy have resisted the sweep of US influence. In fact, the writers reveal a smattering of cultural crosscurrents, or imported ideas taking root in the US. Herein lies hope of deflecting the dreaded ``sameness'' of a world with only Western values.
According to cultural studies in the US, the worldwide cultural dominance of the US is challenging ancient traditions and values everywhere. Individualism, so highly valued in the West, is not prized in cultures where group loyalty and family cohesiveness have shaped life for centuries.
Pico Ayer's l988 book, ``Video Night in Kathmandu,'' identifies the impact of the cultural sea change under way. After traveling in the Far East Mr. Ayer concludes, ``Everywhere, in fact, dreams of pleasure and profit were stamped `Made in America'. . . and it was not the yen or the deutsche mark that had become the universal currency, but the dollar, even - no, especially - in the Communist bloc. The hymn of the East Side, as well as the West, was still `I Want To Live in Americ a.' ''
Well short of that, the following pages sample the changing currents of mass culture at flash points around a voluble world.
Increasingly, trends - and their potential influences - cross national boundaries. This is the third of four biweekly special sections that examine these `Global Frontiers.'
April 11: Frontiers in business
April 25: Environmental frontiers
May 23: The political frontier