Matt Welch has another update on Romania in the October 2005 edition of Reason that reprises the theme of his 17 July 2004 essay in Canada’s National Post headlined “Rapping the Commies Away: A New MTV Generation in Romania Tries to Drive out Corruption.”
Welch’s current title is perhaps a tad overoptimistic: “The Second Romanian Revolution Will Be Televised: The TV show Dallas helped overthrow Ceausescu. Now gangsta rap and pop culture are driving out corrupt post-Soviet thugs.” But he gives a vivid account of developments in Romanian pop culture during and after the Ceausescu era. Here’s how it ends.
Pop culture, once beaten down to virtual nonexistence, has now become a valuable export. In the summer of 2004, the Moldavian-Romanian boy band O-Zone scored Europe’s No. 1 pop and dance hit, the unbearably catchy single “Dragostea Din Tei,” which topped the charts in at least 27 countries and sold more than 8 million copies. (You’ve probably heard it—think relentless Euro disco, and the phonetic phrase “Numa numa yay.”) And popular gangsta rap bands like Parazitii [‘The Parasites’], despite suffering greatly from domestic piracy and the censorious ways of the National Audio Visual Council (which banned one video simply for the reasonable couplet “alcohol is life/life is alcohol”), have still managed to sell nearly 1 million CDs since Ceausescu was shot.
Unlike the 1989 generation of anti-communist students, these twentysomethings didn’t taste the clubs of miners, didn’t help overthrow an odious tyrant, and didn’t worship at the altar of a 1980s TV show that glorified a morally corrupt business tycoon. “We were more into Seinfeld,” Parazitii manager Munteanu says. Not to mention foul-mouthed 1990s Compton rap sensation N.W.A. “You really need freedom to do this kind of music, you know?”
But their revulsion at corruption, coupled with a government that shares it, offers serious hope that post-communist Europe’s red-headed stepchild will finally emerge from its long, dark shadow and create a country far more free, successful, and interesting.
“On a recent and fairly rare venture into Bucharest’s club scene, I looked at the trendy crowd and felt for a moment that I could have been in Manhattan or South Beach,” said former U.S. Ambassador Michael Guest, who led a daily crusade against Romanian corruption during his three-year tenure, in an exit interview with the monthly magazine Vivid, one of nearly a dozen English-language publications in Bucharest. “Then a series of young people brought me back to reality, stopping one by one at the table to thank me for speaking [out]…. Those who think they’re getting away with corruption are just fooling themselves. A new generation is coming, and it will demand, and indeed create, change.”
And maybe some new wealth. But are the music and film industries really going to help eliminate corruption? Only by motivating voters without fostering cynicism. Otherwise, I would guess that straight-laced bankers are going to be a lot more critical in the fight against corruption than pop musicians.