"Dancing In The Dark"
by Ryan C. Nielsen
As values, morals, and respect have decreased in America, the influence of television, movies, and music has increased. The generation that has been most influenced by the new forms of electronic media have been the adolescents of today. North American adults have a recurring sense that all is not right with youth. But, while the adults have continued to complain about the rebellion of youth, they have not provided them with any alternatives. As a result, numerous agencies have realized the search for values, identity, and belonging among today's youth and have responded. The three areas that have had significant effects on the values, morals, and identity of youth have been: Television, and more specifically MTV, Movies, and Media Marketing. These three areas of youth culture have made tremendous effects in the lives of youth.
When MTV started in 1981, they geared their entire programming for an audience between the ages of 12-25. MTV was "probably the most researched channel in history" (179). By 1986, 43% of American teenagers watched MTV. Today, almost 80% watch it. According to an MTV executive, "[MTV] doesn't shoot for the 14 year olds, [they] own them" (180). But this alone doesn't explain how MTV has been such an influence on teenagers today. Before MTV, television was geared to the older, family audience rather than the peer audience. Many teenagers were bored with this type of programming, and often put off by it. "MTV offered teenagers a channel designed just for them" (181). MTV offered programming where you could walk away from it, come back a while later and you still haven't missed anything. MTV went beyond being just a channel for entertainment to youth. MTV has become a potent cultural and economic force in the lives of teenagers. "MTV was not so much a new medium as a synthesis of styles and know-how from many media. And it relied extensively on the same lures of other mass media--sex and violence" (180). As a result it captivated the teen audience. Here was a television station that they could call their own. One MTV executive stated that many of the viewers of MTV see the station as being more theirs than it is his. This captivation has allowed MTV to influence teen's lives in many regards. It has "invaded nearly all of youth life...and increasingly shaped and reflected it" (181). While viewers of MTV form "intimate" relationships with the on-air personalities, an artificial sense of community has been created. The influence of both the veejays as well as the music artists presented on the channel has been strong. "Music tends to be a predictor of behavior and social values," explained an MTV executive. "You tell me the music people like and I'll tell you their views on abortion, whether we should increase our military arms, [and] what their sense of humor is like" (181). MTV has strongly inserted itself into the gaps between the generations and helped convey a cynicism about the adult culture. They have created a universe where mood and image are more important than narrative and dialogue. They have added to the stress and frustration many adults feel about youth having their own separate culture. MTV has also added to youth becoming "devoid of history, free from tradition and the realities of the past" (199). MTV has sought to provide youth with a lifestyle, not just entertainment. MTV does not really care about what type of impact it has on its viewers, only that they continue to watch. MTV provides the youth culture with no sense of home, and a world where they are receiving mixed messages concerning values: one message from MTV and another from the adult culture. Sadly, though, MTV is winning.
"MTV, with its emphasis on startling, provocative and disjunctive images, has been a major catalyst for the convergence of...film and video" (207). After World War II, the film industry declined and many film executives were puzzled as to how they could increase the market once again. Because of the decline in the movie industry, ticket prices increased, making movies affordable to only the upper-class; a class that had not been the primary source of income before the decline. In an attempt to regain control of the movie market, and to "offer potential audiences what they could not find on television, the film industry began to loosen the bonds of self-censorship" (215). In the 50's many of the films were about how youth might fit into the adult culture. These were known as "morality plays (215). In the later 50's, though, movie industries began to target a distinct youth market as opposed to a family one. Studies began to show that the majority of movie-goers were under 25 years of age. This spawned a rapid increase in marketing teen movies. "The beauty of teen films is that they could be quickly and cheaply produced" (217). While smaller studios were capturing the teen market, most of the major movie studios stayed away. When the major studios did catch on and produced movies specific for the teens of the day, this generation flocked to the theaters. The teen films produced at this time (the late 60's) "clearly reflected the social concerns, values, and aspirations of the postwar generation" (219). Adolescents quest for intimacy and identity, as seen with MTV, overlaps into the film industry as well. The movies sought by the teenage audience were also easier to make because they "didn't require great screenplay, great acting, or great direction" (222). The teen movies would "validate the 'felt ambiguity' of life as a teenager," and this is what attracted many teens to these films; teens felt as if they could empathize with what was on-screen, and it also gave them a sense of security knowing they were not the only one's going through these "pubescent" times (223). Teenagers often see different things in teen films than most adults see. "The films of life in teendom help give meaning, worth, and emotional context to experience in the youth culture" (225). In this sense, movies have played a similar role to MTV. They give the teen a feeling of false intimacy and grab the attention of the youth culture. Through these films, teen will often establish or base their moral ideas and their values similar to those of the stars in the films. These ideas then translate into a life-style which the teen lives, not fully realizing the false-hood of the movies. The portrayal of teens in the movies is so "real" to what teens are experiencing that the "fiction" aspect of the movie is lost. "A large part of the clout of teen films comes from the very familiar youth-culture or teen-ghetto setting, which gives the pictures a veneer of realism, no matter how preposterous the story" (247). With sex and rebellion being two of the most predominant characteristics in teen films, we still question where many of our teenagers are getting their ideas. Our hope lies in the adults making an effort to engage themselves with the world of youth, trying to understand, provide other resources, and most importantly being there for them.
With the rise of the teen market in both MTV and the movies, media marketers have gone wild. With media that is shaping the minds and ideas of the youth today, advertisers have seen an avenue to reach the teen market with amazing results. When there is such a captive audience, such as 80% of teens watching MTV, marketers have a greater chance to sell their product. And when you have celebrity stars who are displaying a specific product, teen will model this by buying the same product. "As long as families, schools, neighborhoods, churches, and the like do not help provide more inviting, healthy, and personal ways of meeting needs, the media will play an overbearing role in determining what youth deem worthwhile and significant" (6). The media will determine the fads; what is "in" and what is "out". The marketing media takes advantage of teen's insecurity and lack of a stable identity to influence them on what it takes to be "cool". They are able to capture the consumer market, and change just as quickly as teenagers change their minds. Marketing influences many aspects of their lives as well. It has been said that "consumerism thrives in societies that expect goods and services to fulfill significant drives for meaning, intimacy, and identity. This expectation colors how people pursue their desires, set priorities, view obligations, and make sense of their lives" (139). And it is this idea that marketers rely upon to continue to make money. Often times companies such as MTV exist "not for art, self-expression, or entertainment, but for sales" (187). Also, both MTV and Movies "[blur] the lines between advertisement, entertainment, consumption, and leisure" (191). It has grown to the extent that organizations such as MTV and the movie industry determine many factors about teen's lives. In a world of confused teens, consumerists are taking advantage of their insecurities and the availability of mass media to not only sell their own product, but to shape teenagers values and trends.
We are living in a time where there is a greater distinction between the youth and adult cultures. We have adults questioning why teens have gone so far astray, and we have teens questioning why the adults don't have enough time for them. Until the adults give up some time to develop relationships, the teens will continue to be captured by the "false intimacies" provided through the mass media.
© 1996 by Ryan C. Nielsen