Mueller’s Musings on MTV’s VMAs

October 3rd, 2009

It’s 11:20 p.m. Thursday night, and I did what I always do on MTV’s annual Video Music Awards day—I watched and processed the show. My head is spinning from what I just viewed over the past three hours.

The Video Music Awards—like all popular entertainment—function in our culture as both a map and a mirror. As a map, the VMAs direct and shape the developing worldview of vulnerable children and teens who look to the music industry for guidance and direction. In that sense, viewing the three-plus hour broadcast put me in the same “classroom” as our kids. For those of us who want to know what the kids we know and love are learning from these teachers, the VMAs give us a front row seat. It’s imperative that we know what our kids are learning. That way, we can affirm or correct where necessary.

As a mirror, the VMAs allow us to gaze at ourselves to see what we look like and what we’ve become. Granted, the reflection I saw tonight wasn’t something I liked. Nor was it an accurate reflection of me as an individual. But collectively, I can’t argue with the fact that what I saw is a reflection of what our youth culture has become and what our mainstream culture is becoming.

What follows are some random and initial musings from this year’s VMAs regarding what we can learn about youth culture and how to minister within it.

“Bad” is good.

First, you’ve got Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera singing Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” while dressed in white wedding dresses—actually, they looked like they’d been purchased at Victoria’s Secret. Don’t forget that just three years ago these two were topping the charts as the reigning good-girl queens of formulated, generic pop music, and millions of parents were buying their albums and concert tickets for their seven, eight, and nine-year-old girls. Today, those young fans are three years older and not even into their teenage years. The Britney and Christina they’re listening to have been totally reinvented as bad girls. What are those young fans learning from these maps? Last night, Madonna joined them on stage. Dressed in groom’s black, she played the part of the man in the on-stage lesbian wedding fantasy. She broke into her song “Hollywood” and began to bump and grind with her two “virgin” brides. Somewhere near the end of the opening number, Madonna ended her song with the lyrics “I’m bored with the concept of right and wrong.” Those lyrics were sung in the context of engaging in an open-mouthed kiss with both Spears and Aguilera. I believe that as their lips touched, a symbolic bad girl of music torch was passed from one generation to another. That opening number set the stage for the anti-climactic appearance of the cast of the hit Bravo series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as presenters. Remember, map and mirror. What we saw is who we are.

The urban hip-hop style and ethos rule.

It’s stamped all over today’s youth culture. The genre is number one among children and teens. It has flavored the commercials; have you watched the ads on Nickelodeon lately? Our kids sing and dance to the gangsta lifestyle, and in our postmodern climate, there’s nothing wrong with that. Granted, not all hip-hop music and style promotes the thug life. But the thug life sells records, attitude, and lifestyle. I think VMA host Chris Rock was pretty insightful when he joked about 50 Cent’s success and the fact that nobody talks about the music. Instead, they talk about how he was shot nine times.

The rise of the distinctive urban lifestyle and music into the mainstream of suburban and rural white America begs another question—now that the truly urban owners of the genre and lifestyle have seen it move into the mainstream, what will they invent and adopt as their own? As all successful youth marketers and cool hunters know, you look for the edgy stuff, steal it from the inventor, and market it to the world. But once it becomes a fad, those who originally created and owned it start looking for something else they can call their own. Those who work in urban ministry need to keep their ears to the ground for what’s coming next. But that, too, will eventually be stolen, packaged, marketed, and sold to the mainstream.

When it comes to sex, there are no rules.

If you were an alien sent to watch this year’s VMAs from a sociological/anthropological perspective, what would you scribble on your notepad? What kept running through my mind is that the sex act and all things sexual are the reason for living—boundary-less and sacramental. Our kids are growing up in a world where the hedonistic and unbridled pursuit of pleasure is integral to life. When sex is seen as the reason for living, it’s no shock that those hungry for heaven will feast but never be filled.

Normal looking girls don’t have a chance.

If you taped the show, watch it again with that last statement in mind. The body image pressure continues and we’ll see more and more of our girls at younger and younger ages begin to self-destruct over appearance. Sadly, our guys are getting the message too. Did you hear the banter between Nelly and Murphy Lee as they lustily discussed females and their posteriors? And what about the clothing? A commonly held standard of modesty no longer exists to dictate taboos. Instead, modesty itself is taboo. The result? It’s no longer just the stereotypical construction worker on lunch break who sends out the wolf whistles as the ladies walk by. Today, our eight-year-olds have been taught to stare, harass, and not care. So don’t be surprised the next time you hear a third-grade boy “complimenting” a first-grade girl on the playground for her “nasty ass.”

What’s next for the Olsen twins?

They were there tonight and they’re also on the cover of the latest edition of Rolling Stone. Keep your eye on them. It appears they’ve been positioned as the next female media darlings and teen heartthrobs. At this point, they seem to have maintained some aspects of childhood innocence—at least that’s what we’ve been led to believe. But remember, that’s where Britney and Christina were just three years ago. How they grow up will set a pattern for our kids. Watch how they’re marketed and reinvented.

Postmodern self-rule rules.

In today’s world, there’s no objective, transcendent authority outside of self. The “I” determines all things ethical. “I” does what “I” wants to do. For a great example, take another look at 50 Cents’ performance of his hit song “P.I.M.P.” It oozed postmodern individualism. But he wasn’t alone. It all serves to remind us that when those of us in ministry who stand face-to-face with kids and begin sentences with “God says…” or “The Bible reads…,” well, you’ve already seen the “so what?” stares in response.

Women are ornaments for men.

The VMAs featured what we so often see in the music videos—singers, dancers, and women who just stand around doing nothing but being scantily-clad sexual objects for men. I’ve often used this crude analogy that isn’t very pretty…so much of the music today depicts women as nothing more or less than urinals hanging on a men’s room wall. As such, they’re objects males use to relieve themselves. But the VMAs also gave us a glimpse into something else I’ve been noticing over the last couple of years. That is, the ladies are starting to react. But rather than asking the men to stop, they’re simply doing the same thing. Britney, Christina, and Madonna offer just one example. Their lusty performance said to the men, “You want us to be your sexual toys? Okay, we’ll steam it up for you. It just won’t be with you.”

Pain is mainstream.

Who would’ve ever thought that Johnny Cash would’ve been a video star in 2003? And even more unbelievable is that he did it with a remake of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” from the 1994 Nine Inch Nails album “The Downward Spiral.” That’s one song worth discussing with your kids. The opening line—”I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel.” Those words capture the essence of the epidemic of teenage self-abuse.

As I head to bed tonight, my heart does ache. It’s the map and the mirror that I watched tonight that make me hurt. If you watched, you’re probably hurting too. Let’s use the map and the mirror as catalysts to respond as Jesus would. There’s not a kid in this world or a performer on that VMA show who’s beyond redemption. Our prayers and our ministry efforts need to be built on that conviction. We invite you to continue this dialogue atwww.youthworker.com/forums.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.