Friday, February 10, 2006

Merchants of Cool

First published 2-9-06

Parents worry sending their kids to middle school - not every one, but a lot. At soccer games, in the post office, at the supermarket, mothers hold fingers over lips and with wide eyes, say: “Susie will be in sixth grade next year.” It’s not like they’re telling me proudly, “Melissa is going to college next year,” or “Billy got an appointment to the Air Force Academy.” No. They tell me ominously. They worry that teenage culture is going to “get” their kids in middle school and their influence as parents will diminish rapidly. Often, they’re correct.

What is teenage culture? It’s not easy to define, but you know it when you see it. Outward signs include bare midriffs on girls and sagging jeans on boys, but it goes deeper. It’s an outlook on the world almost completely without roots. It blows in the wind. It has its own dynamic. It’s permeated by sex and attitude and it’s what you see when you turn on MTV.

What drives it? That’s another difficult question. Is there a sinister force out there conspiring to lead our precious children into temptation? Yes and no. One of the most insightful programs I’ve ever seen about this is from PBS’s “Frontline” back in 2001, called “Merchants of Cool.” You can still get it on Netflix, but you have to wait a while. Merchants of Cool zeroes in on MTV, interviewing the directors of programming, the market researchers they rely on, and the reaction of teenagers to what they broadcast. It claims MTV is a continuously-running commercial which it made its owner, Viacom, $1 billion in profit for the year 2000. It has the usual thirty-second commercials seen on other channels, but even the programming sells product. For instance Sprite, an advertiser, pays teenagers $50 per day to look cool while they hang around in a large room somewhere and respond to whatever they’re shown, like music videos by “artists” sponsored by Viacom. It’s all filmed and edited for MTV’s own programming and also used in standard commercials for Sprite.

Nearly all their programs feature clothing and other merchandise their advertisers sell. Tuning in over the weekend, I saw a show with black men hanging around a barbershop. Interspersed was music from someone called “Fifty Cent,” another Viacom product. The dialogue was punctuated by “beeps” as salacious language about women was censored. The camera zoomed in periodically on the face of a five or six-year-old getting a haircut in the company of the foul-mouthed men. It was sad to watch his expression and consider that the boy is growing up with them as role models.

Though my middle school students have tried to educate me about the alleged distinctions between rap and hip-hop, such “music” will always be just angry-sounding noise pollution to me - abounding in degradation toward women, police, and life in general and worshiping gangsters. Generations of young men, white, black and Hispanic, emulate rap “artists” in dress as well as attitude. Viacom’s biggest white role model is Howard Stern. Enough said. Is Viacom a driving force in teenage culture? It’s one of them.

Frontline’s cameras recorded MTV’s staff as they worked. Most looked to be in their twenties and thirties, but appeared no more mature than the teenagers they targeted. They seemed vicariously titillated watching teenagers gyrate salaciously. When Frontline asked if they felt any misgivings about what they were doing, one woman shrugged and said, “Umm, it’s my personal opinion that teenagers shouldn’t be having sex, but they’re, ahh, confronted with it in terms of advertising. They see it on television, on nighttime shows and on daytime shows.” She shrugged her shoulders again as if she just goes with the flow. A young man said, “There’s no way to stop a movement in popular culture - it’s going to happen with or without you.” He had no qualms of conscience either. It was all out of his control. Might as well make a billion while you’re carried along. During spring break in Florida, Frontline says, “teenagers are followed by MTV cameras through their week of debauchery.” I watched as MTV got hours of free programming while teenagers exaggerated their wild behavior in the presence of MTV’s cameras. “It’s a giant feedback loop,” said Frontline.

So, back to the question: what drives teenage culture? Teenagers claim they do. Viacom says it doesn’t, but only rides the wave. Frontline’s “Merchants of Cool” concludes by saying: “Makers of MTV argue that they’re only reflecting the real world - sex is a part of teens lives so it better be in their media too. Media is just a mirror after all, or is it?”

Americans, not wanting to appear judgmental or intolerant or, heaven forbid, uncool, must then endure the swill Viacom feeds our teenagers. Even if children never watch MTV, they’re influenced by it. We all are, like it or not.

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