“A Scout is trustworthy … loyal … helpful … friendly … courteous … kind …”
I’m watching my 12-year-old son Joshua and two dozen other Boy Scouts together recite the Scout Law at their weekly troop meeting. It’s a refreshingly hopeful and manly vignette in an era of wall-to-wall teen confusion.
As I stand in rapt attention – my eyes exploring the boys’ uniforms, searching out all the badges, patches, insignias and other colorful signs of their allegiance to Scouting’s high ideals – my mind wanders back a few years to a time when my son wanted to wear a different “uniform.”
Our family had traveled to Cape May, New Jersey, to vacation on a warm Atlantic beach with close relatives we hadn’t seen in a long time. Joshua hit it off great with his cousin Mark, several years his senior. A fun-loving and thoroughly decent kid, Mark didn’t have a mean bone in his body. One little thing, though. Mark wore a choker around his neck. Of course, Joshua had always regarded necklaces, bracelets, earrings and the like as strictly girls’ stuff, and wouldn’t dream of donning such gear himself and “looking like a girl” (or a “weirdo”).
You guessed it. By the end of one week, Joshua told me he really wanted to get a choker, like his cousin’s. He just … felt like wearing one, that’s all. No big deal, Dad.
I took him for a walk out on the jetty where we could be alone. Before long, I discovered that not only had my son developed this powerful desire to wear a piece of punk jewelry around his neck – something he had formerly despised – but he was also noticeably hostile toward me for some strange reason, even though he admitted I had done nothing to offend him. As we talked, it dawned on me what was going on. Obviously he wanted to be like his older cousin, whom he looked up to and had bonded with – hence the desire to wear a dumb-looking neck choker. But me? I now stood there providing an uncomfortable contrast, seeing as I represented his state of mind before he was captivated by this alien desire. I was a threat to his new allegiance, so he was rejecting me along with his own previous viewpoint.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to say too much: “Joshua, why are you mad at me? Is it because I don’t think that deep down you really want to wear a necklace? Tell me something. What would you have thought if, two weeks ago, before we came to Cape May, I had asked you if you would like to wear a clunky wooden necklace. Would you have wanted to?'”
“No way,” he replied without hesitation. The trance was broken. Realization set in. He cried briefly, gave me a hug, and assured me manfully he did not want to look like a girl and wear a necklace. When we went into the little gift shop on that beach, he even pointed out the choker he had wanted, displayed there in the showcase, and let me know once again that he wasn’t interested. So that was the end of it. But it sure as heck illustrated to me just how sensitive children are to peer pressure.
If Joshua felt the invisible pull to conform to his cousin’s fashion preferences, what was influencing his cousin? Indeed, what is exerting this irresistible pressure to conform (by “rebelling”) on most of today’s youth?
Just as the military and private schools and Boy Scouts have uniforms, so does the youth culture: baggy pants, backward hats, chokers and other jewelry, body piercings, tattoos and the like. But if uniforms symbolize values and allegiance, a loyalty to a higher (or lower) order, then in this case it’s an allegiance to an increasingly defiant musical, social, sexual and cultural world, a mysterious (to parents) realm that seems magically to be drawing millions of children into it.
For three years, journalist Patricia Hersch journeyed into this exotic subculture. She observed, listened to, questioned, bonded with, and won the trust of eight teens in the typical American town of Reston, Va., ultimately producing her acclaimed portrait, “A Tribe Apart: A journey into the heart of American adolescence.” The landscape she describes, as ubiquitous across America’s fruited plain as McDonalds, is troubling indeed:
In the latest exasperating challenge to adult society, black rage is in as a cultural style for white middle-class kids. As in the sixties, when the sons and daughters of the middle class tossed out their tweed jackets and ladylike sheath dresses for the generational uniform of Levi’s and work shirts and peacoats in their celebration of blue collar workers, “the Real Americans,” so today’s adolescents have co-opted inner-city black street-style as the authentic way to be. To act black, as the kids define it, is to be strong, confrontational, a little scary.
… “We are living in the gangsta generation,” one white high school senior wearing his Malcolm X baseball cap turned backwards explains. “It is all about getting it. I look at what these cool dudes do and how it affects other people. These people are doing more than any faggoty white kid who plays basketball and gets accepted at Duke and has been rich his whole life and maybe gets drunk on the weekend. These kids put their ass on the line every day.”
Hersch describes how hip-hop – a multimillion-dollar music industry filled with “the powerful political and sexual images of rap” – has captivated a generation with the drama of the ghetto and its daily struggle for survival:
So, is that it? Is today’s bizarre youth subculture just the latest “costume” for adolescent rebellion, like the long hair of the 1960s and other, if less conspicuous, rebellious phases of previous generations of youngsters? Is adult concern over today’s youth culture just the perennial hand-wringing of parents needlessly worried about their growing offspring’s experiments with independence? Or is something else, something far more sinister at work?
‘Merchants of Cool’
“They want to be cool. They are impressionable, and they have the cash. They are corporate America’s $150 billion dream.”
That’s the opening statement in PBS’s stunning 2001 Frontline documentary, “Merchants of Cool,” narrated by Douglas Rushkoff. What emerges in the following 60 minutes is a scandalous portrait of how major corporations – Viacom, Disney, AOL/Time Warner and others – study America’s children like laboratory rats, in order to sell them billions of dollars in merchandise by tempting, degrading and corrupting them.
Think that’s a bit of an overstatement?
It’s an understatement.
“When you’ve got a few gigantic transnational corporations, each one loaded down with debt, competing madly for as much shelf space and brain space as they can take,” says NYU Communications Professor Mark Crispin-Miller, “they’re going to do whatever they think works the fastest and with the most people, which means that they will drag standards down.”
Let’s see how far down.
“It’s a blizzard of brands, all competing for the same kids,” explains Rushkoff in “Merchants of Cool.” “To win teens’ loyalty, marketers believe, they have to speak their language the best. So they study them carefully, as an anthropologist would an exotic native culture.”
“Today,” he discloses, “five enormous companies are responsible for selling nearly all of youth culture. These are the true merchants of cool: Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Universal Vivendi, and AOL/Time Warner.”
The documentary shows how big corporations literally send “spies” to infiltrate young people’s social settings to gather intelligence on what they can induce these children to buy next.
“The entertainment companies, which are a handful of massive conglomerates that own four of the five music companies that sell 90 percent of the music in the United States – those same companies also own all the film studios, all the major TV networks, all the TV stations pretty much in the 10 largest markets,” University of Illinois Communications Professor Robert McChesney reveals in the documentary. “They own all or part of every single commercial cable channel.
“They look at the teen market as part of this massive empire that they’re colonizing. You should look at it like the British Empire or the French Empire in the 19th century. Teens are like Africa. You know, that’s this range that they’re going to take over, and their weaponry are films, music, books, CDs, Internet access, clothing, amusement parks, sports teams. That’s all this weaponry they have to make money off of this market.”
What about the cable channel that positions itself as champion of today’s teens and pre-teens – champions of their music, their rebellious free spirit, and their genuine, if ever-changing, notions of what is “cool”? Whatever else MTV might be, at least it’s interested in kids, right? Sure, just like the lion is interested in the gazelle.
“Everything on MTV is a commercial,” explains McChesney. “That’s all that MTV is. Sometimes it’s an explicit advertisement paid for by a company to sell a product. Sometimes it’s going to be a video for a music company there to sell music. Sometimes it’s going to be the set that’s filled with trendy clothes and stuff there to sell a look that will include products on that set. Sometimes it will be a show about an upcoming movie paid for by the studio, though you don’t know it, to hype a movie that’s coming out from Hollywood. But everything’s an infomercial. There is no non-commercial part of MTV.”
Rushkoff illustrates how the machine works by using the example of Sprite. What was once a struggling, second-string soft-drink company pulled off a brilliant marketing coup by underwriting major hip-hop music events and positioning itself as the cool soft drink for the vast MTV-generation market. Connecting the dots between Sprite, MTV, rap musicians and other cross-promotion participants, Rushkoff lays out the behind-the-scenes game plan: “Sprite rents out the Roseland Ballroom and pays kids 50 bucks a pop to fill it up and look cool. The rap artists who perform for this paid audience get a plug on MTV’s show, ‘Direct Effects,’ for which Sprite is a sponsor. MTV gobbles up the cheap programming, promoting the music of the record companies who advertise on their channel. Everybody’s happy.”
So what, you say? What’s wrong with that? Aren’t MTV and rappers and clothing companies and others just giving kids what they want?
That’s what they say. But it’s not what they do.
In reality, the companies are creating new and lower and more shocking – that’s your key-word, shocking – marketing campaigns, disguised as genuine, authentic expressions of youthful searching for identity and belonging, for the sole purpose of profiting financially from America’s children.
They hold focus groups, and they send out “culture spies” (which they call “correspondents”) to pretend to befriend and care about teens, so they can study them – what they like, don’t like, what’s in, what’s out, what’s cool and what’s no longer cool. They engage in “buzz marketing” (where undercover agents disguised as “one of the crowd” talk up a new product). They hire shills to interact with young people in Internet chat rooms, and “street snitches” (a roving group loudly talking up a band or other product in public to raise interest). They bring the entire machinery of modern market research and consumer psychology to bear on studying this gold mine of a market – to anticipate the next, and always weirder and more shocking, incarnation of “cool.”
This would be bad enough – if corporate America were just following and marketing the basest instincts of confused, unsupervised teenagers. But they are not following, they are leading – downward.
Exhibits A and B: the “mook” and the “midriff,” two creations of this corporate youth-marketing consortium.
The “mook” is a marketing caricature of the wild, uninhibited, outrageous and amoral male sex-maniac.
“Take Howard Stern,” says Rushkoff, “perhaps the original and still king of all mooks. Look how Viacom leverages him across their properties. He is syndicated on 50 of Viacom’s Infinity radio stations. His weekly TV show is broadcast on Viacom’s CBS. His number one best-selling autobiography was published by Viacom’s Simon and Shuster, then released as a major motion picture by Viacom’s Paramount Pictures, grossing $40 million domestically and millions more on videos sold at Viacom’s Blockbuster video.”
He adds: “There is no mook in nature. He is a creation designed to capitalize on the testosterone-driven madness of adolescence. He grabs them below the belt and then reaches for their wallets.”
A great deal of MTV’s programming features and markets to the “mook” in America’s boys. For instance, a major venue of the mook is professional wrestling – the most-watched type of television among adolescent boys in America today.
OK, what about the “midriff”?
Girls, says Rushkoff, “get dragged down there right along with boys. The media machine has spit out a second caricature. … The midriff is no more true to life than the mook. If he is arrested in adolescence, she is prematurely adult. If he doesn’t care what people think of him, she is consumed by appearances. If his thing is crudeness, hers is sex. The midriff is really just a collection of the same old sexual cliches, but repackaged as a new kind of female empowerment. ‘I am midriff, hear me roar. I am a sexual object, but I’m proud of it.'”
And what is the purpose of these debauched role models for America’s future, fashioned out of market research compiled by “culture spies” hired by corporations to predict what the likely next step down – the next shock wave disguised as authentic “cool” – will be for the MTV generation?
Why, to sell kids more stuff, of course.
“When corporate revenues depend on being ahead of the curve, you have to listen, you have to know exactly what they want and exactly what they’re thinking so that you can give them what you want them to have,” explains NYU’s Crispin-Miller. However, he adds, “the MTV machine doesn’t listen to the young so it can make the young happier. … The MTV machine tunes in so it can figure out how to pitch what Viacom has to sell.”
And how do they manage to bond kids – imprint them – with the next round of musical, clothing, and lifestyle choices they should be buying into?
“Kids are invited to participate in sexual contests on stage or are followed by MTV cameras through their week of debauchery,” says Rushkoff. “Sure, some kids have always acted wild, but never have these antics been so celebrated on TV. So of course kids take it as a cue, like here on the strip in Panama Beach, Florida, where high schoolers carry on in public as if they were on some MTV sound stage. Who is mirroring whom? Real life and TV life have begun to blur. Is the media really reflecting the world of kids, or is it the other way around? The answer is increasingly hard to make out.”
Then the really devilish part of the marketers’ modus operandi comes into view, as host Rushkoff relives his own epiphany:
And that’s when it hit me: It’s a giant feedback loop. The media watches kids and then sells them an image of themselves. Then kids watch those images and aspire to be that mook or midriff in the TV set. And the media is there watching them do that in order to craft new images for them, and so on.
“Is there any way to escape the feedback loop?” Rushkoff asks. Only in the kids’ minds, he reveals, noting that “cool”-seeking youths continually reach downward to a new, raunchier, more outrageous expression – something, anything, as long as it hasn’t been exploited and ripped off by the corporate world.
That said, Rushkoff rolls tape of a large, demonic-looking group of teens, faces painted, chanting and screaming obscenities in downtown Detroit on Halloween night, and explains:
A member of Insane Clown Posse explains the group’s attraction: “Everybody that likes our music feels a super connection. That’s why all those juggaloes here, they feel so connected to it because it’s – it’s exclusively theirs. See, when something’s on the radio, it’s for everybody, you know what I mean? It’s everybody’s song. ‘Oh, this is my song.’ That ain’t your song. It’s on the radio. It’s everybody’s song. But to listen to ICP, you feel like you’re the only one that knows about it.”
“These are the extremes,” intones Rushkoff, “to which teens are willing to go to ensure the authenticity of their own scene. It’s the front line of teen cultural resistance: Become so crude, so intolerable, and break so many rules that you become indigestible.” (To complete the mood, in the background Insane Clown Posse is rapping “Bitch, you’s a ho. And ho, you’s a bitch. Come on!” and other uplifting lyrics.)
Then comes the betrayal: “Merchants of Cool” shows how Insane Clown Posse and other “authentic” groups – untouched by commercialism – are ultimately bought off by the marketing “machine,” packaged and sold back to the youth market. Of course, when the shock value wears off, and the mantle of “cool” – untouched and uncorrupted by corporate America – moves downward to the next, even more outrageous level of depravity – MTV, Viacom, and the other corporate giants will be there to package it and sell it, once again, to our children.
Oh, but don’t bother trying to tell your kids about this fiendish game. You see, says Crispin-Miller, “it’s part of the official rock video world view, it’s part of the official advertising world view, that your parents are creeps, teachers are nerds and idiots, authority figures are laughable, nobody can really understand kids except the corporate sponsor.”
OK, so is that it? America’s teens are in the grip of a malignant marketing campaign by big, greedy, uncaring corporations? – and hopefully the kids will grow out of it and become normal sometime? End of story?
Not quite. To be sure, millions of youths are in the grip of something destructive, but the corporate aspect is just the visible part. Behind both the corporate manipulators and the youths caught in their selfish and shameful influence lurks another, much more formidable and all-pervasive “marketing campaign” – a malevolent dimension that has no one’s best interests at heart, and which is programmed to devour all in its path, from the highest to the lowest.
That “something,” which we shall unmask in Part 2, is literally intent on degrading this generation so totally that little hope would be left for the next generations of Americans.