THE MERCHANTS OF COOL
control room
The TRL Control Room�
home
watch the program
what teens think
themes
Interviews
media giants
discussion
Interview: John Seabrook

John Seabrook is a writer whose articles appear regularly in The New Yorker. He is the author of Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing,the Marketing of Culture.

What's it like walking through the doors of MTV.

The most striking thing about MTV is how many televisions there are, and how every sight line has one in it. You're constantly bombarded by the visual information and the quick cuts and the ffcolors and that visual energy, while at the same time, you're trying to get your bearings in this real space. And it's two different discourses going on. One is much faster and more information-soaked; that's the TV discourse. Then there's the real place, which is an office building.

But after that experience of taking in a lot of visual information, I find that when I left MTV and walked back out into Times Square . . . I had a temporary moment of aphasia, where I couldn't quite get my bearings. Was I watching this on TV or was I in Time Squares in reality? There was a blending and bleeding-over of boundaries in terms of real life and TV life, which is very much what MTV does.

What does MTV call its audience?

MTV refers to its audience as "the demo." Being "in the demo" means being in the demographic sweet spot that advertisers want their programming to hit, which is ideally between 18 and 24. Now, though, somewhat like the baseball strike zone, it's expanded to include 16-year-olds and 28-year-olds. But the demo proper is 18 to 24. That is thought to be the age at which young people have a lot of disposable income and they're also brand-sensitive. They haven't quite made up their minds yet about from which brands they are going to spend the rest of their buying. And there's a certain amount of research which suggests that, if you get the young person at that age when their minds are still unformed commercially, you can brand them, as it were, and then have their allegiance for the rest of their consuming lifetimes.

What is the attitude at MTV toward the demo--those young people--who actually work at MTV?

What we're seeing on MTV is a slice of life which has been calculated and positioned in a way to sell certain products, clothes, music, and a sort of lifestyle Well, one of the other things that struck me as interesting about MTV was the way the corporate structure worked internally. Because of the importance that everyone places on the demo, the people who are actually in the demo have this magical authority that their bosses don't have. There's this emphasis on the young person and on reading the young person in almost an anthropological approach to what these young people are thinking,

So, on the one hand, they often are doing menial jobs for small pay, and in terms of corporate structure, are low man on the totem pole. But within an anthropological MTV zeitgeist, they have this special authority, in that they are part of this demo that these old guys aren't. And the old guys know that. The old guys are smart to realize that if they personally like something, if it hits them instinctually, it's probably not a good idea for them to go with that, because they're too far out of that demographic to understand what's really going on. That is pretty unique, really, when you think about how programming decisions are made.

Most programmers do go with their gut; traditionally, that's been the way the producer in a commercial culture situation operated--by his or her gut. And at MTV, the gut is taken out of the whole equation. It's replaced by market research, and then by just asking people who work there what they like, or going out in the street and seeing what the kids like.

How is the demo consulted at MTV?

When I was there, I was spending time with Judy McGrath, who's the president of MTV. We were riding up in the elevator, for example, and this was a time with Lisa Loeb was being promoted as a nerd-rock icon that Judy thought would sell to an MTV audience. And the kids in the elevator were just absolutely trashing Lisa Loeb, as you can imagine a certain music lover would trash Lisa Loeb, who has a highbrow approach to rock 'n roll. I was just watching Judy's face. And Judy was stricken--you could tell she was taking it in. She wasn't saying anything, but when we got out of the elevator, she said, "Gee, I hope my idea about nerd rock is not totally off base."

The people at MTV are encouraged to be very confrontational and declarative about their tastes. So when you go to a programming meeting about which videos should be put into heavy rotation and which should not, you have the hip-hop faction, you have the heavy metal faction, you have the goth faction and you have the pop Britney Spears faction. And all of those factions are encouraged to debate their positions, actively and vigorously. Then it's up to the people like Judy McGrath to filter in the other factors--what's selling, what's hot, and what's not in terms of the Billboard charts--and put that all together into programming choices.

But they do encourage the conversations that young people have about music, which tend to be very heated. If you look on the internet, you've got the hip-hop people flaming the heavy metal people and back and forth endlessly. They encourage that environment.

But if you're in the demo, you're listened to with extra interest?

I don't mean to romanticize being in the demo. If you talk to the people who actually are in the demo, they say, "We wish we were paid more." In a way, MTV is exploiting them to a certain extent-- giving them a lot of editorial say--but they aren't actually giving them a whole lot in terms of institutional control. And another aspect of MTV that is important is that, as you move out of the demo and as you get older, instead of being promoted up through the organization, many people leave. After the age of 26 or 27, they go on to other more traditional programming jobs, because they're no longer quite as useful. It's a bit like "Logan's Run" in that regard.

. . . The environment of MTV is very much what you see on MTV in terms of the zany, kooky stuff. There are a lot of young people there who are dancing in the hallways. A song comes on and somebody says, "This song rules," and then someone says, "This song sucks," and it's very much like "American Bandstand" used to be. But "American Bandstand" was on-camera and staged, whereas with MTV, we're talking about the real people who work there. It's off-camera and it's not staged. But the whole feeling of it is very much like a stage. Now they've actually set up the studio in Times Square so that you can watch the VJs and their guests through the window on the second floor of 1515 Broadway. And every day, every afternoon, there's screaming fans on the other side of the street. So the whole feeling has spilled out, outside the building, and is now also part of 44th and Broadway, that feeling of, "Is this a TV set? Is this real life?"

That breakdown between real life and TV life is a central truth of MTV. And when you talk about the cultural significance of MTV as a whole, you keep coming back to that notion that there used to be a proscenium arch, and the audience was on this side, and the television life was on this side, and you knew the difference. You sat on the one side and watched the fantasy on the other side.

MTV has deconstructed that area. Shows like "The Real World" are very much to the point, in that it's a real life, but it's also TV. It's a TV show, and it's edited together. Of course, that has now informed shows like "Survivor." And now we have actual news events that seem more like TV dramas almost more than news. So that whole ethos has spread way beyond MTV. But when you trace it back, the significance of MTV comes into play.

As a general proposition, what's the place of market research at MTV?

Market research is key for the executives who are outside the demo, because they cannot rely on their instincts to make programming decisions. They have to rely on market research and on what they can glean from the underlings who actually work for them. So market research takes the place of taste. In the old world, in a less youth-oriented environment, producers or people making decisions can rely on their own taste. Hence, we have this phrase "tastemaker," which was the person who set the standards and used his own instincts to inform the tastes of others. With MTV, you have a situation where the so-called "tastemakers" cannot rely on their own taste, because their taste is not the taste of the demo. So they need market research to take the place of their taste, and that's the role that it plays, which is a very significant change in terms of how producing decisions are made.

Why?

When you take the individual out of the equation, then you're making programming based on some marketer's idea of what will sell, and not based on the idea of what an individual would like. Therefore, you can see many movies or television shows which seemed to have been designed with all the best market research available, but are absolutely soulless, because no one ever thought, "Would I, as an individual, like this? Would this move me?" That's an important thing about how art works, as opposed to how advertising works. And art does tend to move people on an individual level and evokes their humanity in some way, whereas market research--which is really designed for advertising purposes, not for programming decisions--is really made for selling things. That's a very different objective. And so when you design programming based around market research, you often do get these soulless shows that seem to be the right demographic, but that don't actually have any art or humanity in there.

Let's explore this. What's the difference between programming produced by an artist and programming produced by the dictates of market research?

In a crowded marketplace, where everyone is trying to be heard and there's an amazing number of choices, the loudest, coarsest, most shocking voice does tend to be the one that at least grabs your attention for a moment. What I mean by "soulless" is partly the idea of creator's input. I feel that when I watch a film that I enjoy like "American Beauty," for example, I feel that I can understand that the creative process for the individuals making this film was challenging and difficult in some way. Perhaps they were inspired by certain images, the rose petals falling, and then they stayed with those images and struggled to find a dramatic form and content that matched that imagery. Their creative struggle is part of what I enjoy about that film.

But a soulless work would be one in which there was never any great struggle on the point of view of the people making that, in terms of trying to get a difficult emotion, or just something that's glimpsed out of the corner of the eye that they're not really sure what it is--and trying through the work to bring that into focus, share that with the audience, and articulate an emotion or an idea that has never really been thought or felt before. And that is art. Programming that's based on market research and on the cynical manipulation of consumer tastes just in order to move product is not art. It doesn't move you and you know it. And everybody is aware of that, whether you're an older person with a certain amount of experience, or whether you're a younger person who decides to go to this movie rather than that movie. Young people have a good radar for this stuff, too.

It's important to keep in mind, as we talk about this, that the audiences for these shows are not the dupes that perhaps we older people think they are. Because they grow up in this environment, they have this built-in radar for what is entirely cynical and manipulative, and what is in some way fresh or human in the ways that I was describing.

Sunday on MTV is at a very crude level and the music mirrors this. In general, does the overthrow of the tastemaker tend to depress quality in that way?

Yes. The traditional role of the tastemaker was, in part, in keeping a certain level of proprietary in place in terms of the television that everybody watched. We think of the Walter Cronkites ... people who represent as much tact and politesse and decorum and a gentility that seems very much a part of a different age than the age we live in today.

I do think that television, in its early years, played a significant role in that standard-setting, enforcing a certain decency among people. They took their role seriously, and the people behind the camera took their role seriously, too. I do think that is something that's really changed in our world today--that so-called tastemakers or programming executives are not using those standards anymore in deciding what to put on the air. It's not important anymore to reinforce some notion of propriety for an MTV audience. I think if you asked them, they would say, "We don't think it's important at all." They would say, "We just think it's important for the family to do that, and it's not our job."

That is often the argument that, for example, Eminem makes, when he's asked how can he put this level of coarseness into his music. His argument is, "Well, it's up to the parents to see to that. If they don't want their children to watch me or listen to me, then they should not have the television set on." But in reality, that's not possible for a lot of families, because they have one television set. It's in the central area. It's on because they want to watch the news or they want to watch the latest election count or the latest compelling docudrama. And so the kids want to watch MTV. How can the parents say, "Well, we want to watch Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton," and maintain that that's somehow a level of decency and propriety that's much higher than what the kids are watching on MTV? It's hard to make that argument. So it's probably not just MTV that this . . . promotes this coarseness. It's part of the world of today. It's just that the barriers tend to not be there anymore.

Is there something about the hegemony of today's marketplace that leads to that coarsening?

In a crowded marketplace, where everyone is trying to be heard and where there's an amazing number of choices, the loudest, coarsest, most shocking voice does tend to be the one that at least grabs your attention for a moment. And since moments are the currency within which modern media trade, that's all that really matters.

Now that we have the web, where there are plenty of websites like "darefordollars.com," where you can pay someone to do something really gross, like cover themselves with dogshit. It puts together the audience with the people that are willing to do that. And so there you see something beyond MTV. . . . I don't think it's entirely driven by the needs of programmers to get people's attention.

I also think that it's part of the reality TV, the aesthetics of reality that people want to hear--people speaking the way they speak on the street, or they want to watch sports and they want to hear what the guys actually say in the huddle, or they want to hear rappers rapping how they really rap and not how they rap for TV. A lot of people are fed up with the attempt to filter out by tastemakers and they say, "Just give me the real stuff. Give me what the real language is, and I'll be the one that decides whether it's coarse or not coarse." So that's another element in that, too.

You wrote, "MTV dramatically closed the feedback loop between culture and marketing, and made it much harder to tell one from the other or which came first." Please explain.

This is another important part about MTV, the closed feedback loop between culture and marketing and the breakdown between what we would have previously set apart as culture and set on the other side as marketing. . . . Videos are the central form of programming on MTV, but are video cultures in the sense of editorial, or are they marketing in the sense of advertising? Well, they're both--because they're visually stimulating, often quite brilliant in their use of dream-like narrative, with the level of surrealism that hadn't been seen for years. Had it been done by . . . some great avant-garde filmmaker, it would have been hailed as real breakthrough filmmaking.

So, on the one hand, it is culture. But, on the other hand, it's an advertisement for the CDs. That's who pays for it. The record companies pay for those videos to be made, or the artists pay for them out of the money the record company gives to them. And the record company is putting them on MTV in order to sell CDs. That breakdown between culture and marketing is quite new, when you think about how television was traditionally constructed. You had the advertisements, and then you had the programming, although in the very early days of television, it's true you often would have a sponsor on the show to remind you that this was being brought to you by Lucky Strike or whoever it might be. But at least there was a significant break.

Then, in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s . . . there was this crunching together. There's another aspect of that closed feedback loop. . . . The gist of the videos, especially in the rap videos . . . is full of gestures, secret language, and signals in clothing. . . . MTV takes that from a very underground subculture which, without MTV, would never really get very far beyond that little underground subculture. But MTV takes that and puts it on MTV and spreads it everywhere, so that the kids in Kansas and the kids in Los Angeles and the kids in Tokyo and the kids in London are all seeing this little underground subculture language. It's happening very quickly, and then they're starting to wear those clothes or make those gestures or use that slang. That is a very remarkable new thing.

Another thing that's very important about MTV is that it breaks down the time that it used to take for these things to filter out. Then, by putting them in the street, it shows the filmmakers their ideas in the street after they put them on MTV--perhaps a matter of weeks--which then further influences their ideas in terms of what they do their next video as. So that feedback loop is very, very tight.

. . . But on the other side, these videos are advertisements for music. The record companies pay for them or they're paid for out of the band's budget. They're given to MTV for free and they're put on in order to move product. So you can't say whether they're culture on the one side, or marketing on the other side. If you take that as the ground zero for the MTV experience and widen it out, it gets more consistent the further you go. And then if you look at the world we live in today and talk about how people seem to use advertisements for example, the Budweiser advertisement, the "Whas'sup" thing. Now you hear a lot of people saying, "Whas'sup" to each other, which they're not saying because they're trying to market anything. They're saying "Whas'sup" but they're referencing that Budweiser commercial, because that's something that they have in common, and that's their little shared piece of culture in that community moment. So you can't really draw the line clearly the way you used to be able to.

So what?

So what? It's not that important in terms of how we interact with each other, I don't think. But it is important in that it represents further inroad of commercialism and consumerism into our community, into our culture, into the space that was not commercialized. It's that all of this MTV culture is commercial culture. And to the extent to which kids internalize it and make a fundamental value in their own lives, they're bringing commercialism into their lives. It's reaching them on a fairly profound level, and at a very formative age that those of us who are a little bit older were a bit more sheltered from. It follows that it's somewhat of a harsher reality, because it is all about commerce, ultimately. It is all about selling and buying. And there's a harshness to that, as a way of relating to other people. . . .

There's also the point of the importance of visual information and reading things--reading purely visual information--and how that's different from a literary culture that is based on reading print. When you read and when you understand print, you do tend to make distinctions about, "Is the intent of this commercial, or is the intent of this somehow beyond commercialism? Is it cultural in a non-commercial sense?" And when you're reading literature, it's easier to make that distinction than when you're taking in visual images, because visual images can go both ways much more easily than words can go both ways.

Visual images can strike you as very beautiful and very uplifting. But at the same time, they can be used in a commercial context without really losing so much of their beauty as language. When you strip out William Burroughs' words and put them into a Nike commercial along with William Burroughs himself speaking the words, William Burroughs' work loses a certain amount of integrity, because language just is harder to appropriate in that way.

What about "TRL?"

"TRL" is the feedback loop at its very tightest. What you're seeing there is supposedly all about the audience, what the audience wants. But, in fact, MTV is using that platform as a way of introducing videos that they want to put into heavy rotation, of having hosts that they think are future MTV stars, and doing it all under the umbrella of, "This is what the audience wants." What you've got with MTV is this constant relationship between the audience that's constantly getting smarter and more clued into the manipulative techniques that MTV is using. And then, you've got MTV, that's constantly got to be better at manipulating the audience to get them to watch what they want them to watch. With "TRL," you're seeing the flashpoint of those two desires coming together.

What about mass culture and subculture?

Well, let's talk about hierarchy and the importance of hierarchy in culture in the first place. We come from a world where there was a sense of a high culture that was occupied by the few. Then, the mass culture was looking up to the high culture, and it hopefully filtered down in a trickle-down theory of culture. That high culture has now been exposed as an elitist, narrowly focused culture of only a few privileged people, and that whole system of high and low has tended to fall apart.

What's taken its place is this hierarchy of subculture and mainstream culture, where the subculture is on the top. And the subculture has an integrity, because it has a reality. It's based on ethnic practices; or it's based on community values; it's based on specific neighborhood areas and the practices of those neighborhoods. And that gives those particular styles or ideas of motifs, whatever they may be, an authenticity, an integrity.

Then they are expanded and, through media, are made mainstream. For a moment, the mainstream is refreshed and uplifted by those authentic subcultural values. But then they're quickly mediated and become no longer subcultural or no longer authentic. And that leads to the constant desire for more authenticity and more subculture. It becomes like a big strip mine, where you're just desperately feeding this ravening maw of mainstream culture with the more and more valuable, but increasingly rare, authentic culture that people crave.

...Which leads to countering the drive among people for authentic things?

Remember, I talk about in terms of two grids. I talk about it in terms of the big grid and the small grid. The small grid is the subculture and the big grid is the mainstream culture. There's a dynamic going on between them. Everyone who lives in a subculture, if they're truly deep in that subculture, might not have a whole lot of points of reference in common with another subculture. So they look to the mainstream culture for things in common, and the mainstream culture has the big blockbuster movies and Britney Spears. You can either like them or not like them. But you can be quite sure that if you express an opinion about one of those things, someone else will know what you're talking about.

But the opposite side of that dynamic is that, as everyone spends time in this mainstream culture where everything is false by definition and mediated almost into a homogenized state, you're driven, in turn, to desire that subculture, because you desire authenticity. You're sick of the mediated state of mainstream culture, where everything seems fake. And so you turn back to the subcultures in search of some reality, some authenticity. So the small grids and the big grids reinforce each other, and together make commercial culture as we know it today.

Someone described it as an arms race of sorts.

Well, it's complicated. It's very complicated, because what we call authentic culture is perhaps not really authentic culture. Even the subcultures, of course, are made up of commercially received messages that they themselves have appropriated and used in a different way, which then they get worked into the folk practices of that particular subculture. And then they're appropriated back by mainstream culture. So there are two or three feedback loops going on inside this larger dynamic that I've sketched out.

I would challenge the notion that we need to be careful when we talk about authenticity and we assume that what we mean is something that's never been touched by the hand of any marketer. If you think about rock 'n roll and the folk tradition of rock 'n roll, that was always construed to be authentic--more authentic than machine-made music, than metal-made music. When Bob Dylan plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival, everyone was outraged, because they saw him as selling out to this more commercial mainstream form, which was electrified rock 'n roll. But, in fact . . . the rock 'n roll version of folk music was always about the idea of authenticity as much as the reality of authenticity. . . . Very few artists actually are experiencing the emotions they're singing about. There's always the mediated jump at some point along the line.

Point well taken. What about group culture? How things are emptied of content and dumbed down?

MTV goes to places that no other television programming goes. Gangsta rap is probably the most prominent example. Gangsta rap in the 1980s was scary and marginalized, and if it was listened to by white people, it was only by either the very adventurous or the connoisseurs of hip-hop in the roots of hip-hop. But MTV came along and saw in gangsta rap something that made great television, which was rage and also a violent attitude toward power, which, of course, is a core value and rebellion for young people. It was the most visually and musically expressive form of rebellion available at a time when rock 'n roll, which used to provide that rebellious feeling, had become very big, very 1980s. We all know what that was like.

So gangsta rap was used by MTV to connect to kids at that very rebellious stage, and they've continued in that tradition. Gangsta rap has gone on and mutated. And Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dog have come along and, as the big stars of the 1990s they were right there and they helped make those people stars. It's a difficult line to tread, though. Snoop Doggy Dog, of course, was accused of being an accessory to murder. There was a trial going on at the same time that he was being promoted by MTV as one of their chief stars. That made a lot of people nervous. Even the people at MTV were made nervous by that, because it is, after all, a corporation entity. It's owned by Viacom. It has shareholders and it could be hurt if it were perceived to be promoting too much violence.

But violence and rage is attractive subculture.

Well, rage is authentic. You talk about authentic emotions and how we can tell whether or not we feel that they're authentic. Rage is something that people can relate to right away. It hits them on a very visceral level and it is real. If it's rage, then it's real. If it's love, it might be real, too, but it's harder to show visually. Rage is pretty easy to show and it's dramatic. We're talking about a visual culture, and that's a very visual emotion.

Then something happens to it. . . .

Well, the huge appropriation that's taking place, of course, is that when this emotion begins, it's African-American youths who really are living in a desperate situation. They do have to worry about being assaulted, being victims of violence and also being victims of police brutality and injustice. And that's what they're rapping about, and that is real. It's something that we don't really know enough about in our society.

But what's incredible in terms of cultural appropriation is that those emotions and that rage is being taken by middle class and upper-middle white kids and adopted as the style with which they represent themselves at school. And it's no longer about, of course, police brutality and violence in the neighborhood, because a lot of these kids don't have that to worry about. But it is about the style of the violent outlaw. It connects to older American heroes; cultural heroes like cowboys and Jesse James and bad guys. And it connects, of course, to the rebellious rock 'n roll figures of the 1960s.

In American culture, rebellion is such a very important core value for teenagers, even if you don't have anything to rebel about. You could be totally set as far as having the television in your room and the phone and the computer and you're like getting laid and you're smoking dope and everything is groovy. But you still need to feel that you're oppressed in some way, because that's part of how we form our individuality in this culture. And so gangsta rap and its variants come in to fill that void and is used for that purpose.

When something is "real" and it's put through the commercial process, isn't it changed from being real?

Yes. There has been a real significant change in rock 'n roll in the last ten years or so, and that is in the audience's attitude toward a performer who is seen as being explicitly commercial. Part of the ethic of rock 'n roll--particularly of punk rock, the era that I grew up in--was that you were seen as turning aside from any obvious commercialism and going and taking a path that at least appeared to be quite uncommercial. Then, of course, it turned out to be very commercial, because everybody loved it. But that wasn't necessarily the intention of all the punk rockers when they were doing it.

Today, you look at bands like the Verve, which is a good band from England that sold their last hit single "Bittersweet Symphony" to Nike, only a month or two after it was on the charts. And actually if you look at Fatboy Slim, who is a techno act who is popular today, his song, which was a Volkswagen ad, became popular from the Volkswagen ad and then was a hit song in itself. Moby is another example of that. Moby is hailed by a lot of people, white people, as being a breakthrough artist of our time, but not many people listened to Moby until his songs were used as soundtracks for commercial vehicles, both movies and ads. And then people heard the music and liked it and then they started buying the album.

So the need no longer exists for the performer to remain at least apparently outside the trappings of commerce, which used to be a source of integrity and fame for that performer?

And quite the opposite. People look at Fred Durst and they see that he is skilled as a marketer and that gives him, if anything, more authority in terms of his ability to be a spokesman for young people, because young people are very savvy about these things. They're often interviewed on television themselves, and they often find themselves forced or called upon to represent what they're thinking about. And they value the ability to do that in a way that doesn't seem forced, but doesn't seem hostile to the desire for that.

What's discouraging about this is that these appropriators of "authentic culture," quote, unquote, are taking situations which are complex and in which rage or bathroom behavior is only a small part of a much larger and more complicated cultural mix. And they're teasing out the bits that make sensational shocking television, and then they're representing that culture as only composed of those bits. And so for those of us that are receiving that culture through what we see on MTV, we're not really getting the real thing. We're getting content that's been emptied out. Several shocking elements are teased together and replace that emptiness. But it's not the real thing. It's fake.

It's a caricature; it's a commercial version of a non-commercial entity, which had been confected for the purpose of selling. And what makes it particularly discouraging is that the people watching it then think, "Oh, well, that's how I want to be. That's the life that I want to lead, and if I lead that life, then I'll feel good." And they won't.

MTV says, "We listen to the kids and give them what they want."

It's very cynical for MTV people to think that it's the kids' programming. It is true that MTV has created a relationship with its audience that is more intimate than network relationships. People do watch MTV with a sense that it's their MTV, and that was, of course, the original marketing strategy. "My MTV. I want my MTV." And they've been very successful at creating an intimacy in the relationship of the audience to the programming.

But it's really quite cynical if anyone at MTV believes they're giving the kids their own real authentic culture. They're just showing the kids the lives that the kids themselves lead. That may be true of a very few kids, and it's maybe a fantasy of a lot of kids. But the reality is that kids' lives are composed of doing homework and going to school, visiting their grandparents and worrying about their parents' relationship and worrying about growing up--and there are a lot of worries when you're a kid. And it doesn't look that way on MTV. It looks like it's pretty smooth ride. And as all of us who were kids once know, it's not.

Then what are they giving to kids?

Well, there's a lot of sex, obviously. That's no surprise. There are a lot of people feeling comfortable with their bodies. I'm always impressed or amazed by how comfortable the kids on MTV feel about sex, or how free and easy it all seems. I don't know. Maybe it's gotten a lot free and easier, but it never was all that free and easy when I was a kid. I don't think it's all bad in that regard. There are a lot of anxieties around sex, and MTV does get it all out there. And they do have shows that are not the videos. They have programming where people are talking about sex situations that trouble them, and if you're a kid, you can get something out of that,

But, anyway, sex is one thing. There's fashion and looking cool, having the right hockey jersey or the right sneakers and knowing what the right thing is--MTV really promotes this whole world of kids that somehow just know all this stuff. They just magically seem to know it. I don't really know if that's quite true in our youth culture. I'm certain that there's a lot of desire for that knowledge. But there are a lot of kids that don't look cool and that don't know what to wear and don't want to know what to wear and don't want to feel like they should know. And MTV tends to tell them, "You should know this stuff and if you don't know it, then, you're not cool and therefore something is wrong with you."

Someone said that MTV gives stuff to kids so as to sell what Viacom wants to sell to them. Do you agree with that?

I totally agree. I agree that kids are the target audience on MTV. They're a target market as well as an audience. So there's a dual purpose in what MTV is doing. They're studying kids' values and they're anthropologically researching how kids react to each other; but they're using that information to sell them stuff, which is not what the kids themselves are doing when they're reacting that way. Two different things are going on there. And to the extent that MTV is representing their programming as reality, as a glimpse or slice of life--and then their ulterior motive in doing that is to sell kids stuff through that glimpse of life--then it's cynical, and not to be applauded in any way.

We watch MTV. We think what we're seeing is a slice of life that these "programmers/anthropologists" have gone out there and researched and delivered to us unmediated. But that's not true. What we're seeing is a slice of life when has been calculated and positioned in a way to sell certain products: clothes and music, and lifestyle, weeks in Fort Lauderdale. All that stuff is only a slice of a slice of life, but it's represented as the whole slice, and it's not true.

Yes. We all still crave the quiet, non-commercial spaces in our lives. We treasure them. And whether we're aware of it as adults or whether we just do it spontaneously as kids, there are still those distinctions made in everyone's life that this is all part of MTV and that this is not. If you think about the progress of MTV through the years, it's been to gradually push that boundary. The quiet, non-commercial space is shrunk more and more. Now kids' social life is made up of commercial culture to a very large degree, whether it's, "Oh, I see you're wearing Tommy Hilfiger," and "Why are you doing that and not wearing Polo?" Or, "Did you see the Limp Bizkit ad video on MTV?" These are the reference points. It's no longer, "Do you want to go down and see if we can see some turtles at the lake?" Those kinds of experiences are discouraged, partly because they're not as exciting and fun and not as many people engage in them, and also because you don't seen them on MTV.

And so when we talk about the feedback loops there, it's very clear that people are seeing what they think of as life on MTV. And then, they're going out and trying to live that life, which would be a cultural non-commercial version of that. But because what MTV shows you is very limited in terms of the choices that you can make, the life that you try to lead based on MTV becomes very sterile, homogenous and boring. And then all you have to do is watch more MTV, and the loop gets tighter and tighter. . . .

It becomes an enclosure.

It does seem very suffocating. MTV does represent African-American and white culture side-by-side in a way that few networks do, where it's more either black or white. And although on MTV you do see people of different races together and that's good, the versions of African-American and white life are so narrowly constrained in terms of what MTV chooses to show you about those lives, that in a way, it's not as diverse as it seems. It seems like a picture of diversity, but the reality of it is fairly homogenous.

MTV does represent a fairly mainstream view of music. And if you only get your music from MTV, then it's almost like Top 40 radio, AM radio, used to be. But at the same time, look at what the internet has done in terms of providing access to radio stations that are tiny and very, very narrowly targeted. Those would only exist without the internet if you happened to live in the college town where you were within the antenna's reach. But with the internet, you can get all those stations all the time and, of course, with Napster, you can download all kinds of different kinds of music.

And so again, go back to that big grid-small grid dynamic. And there, MTV represents the big grid, which is the giant mainstream that gets more giant all the time. But it then repels people away from it, and they seek out the more and more narrowly targeted, tinier and tinier little music stations or music outlets that the internet has made available. So those two things are happening at the same time.

But it also interesting that, in that environment where people can get music for free, it does force the bands themselves to take a much more aggressive attitude about owning their property and being explicitly commercial about it than bands have ever had to take in the past. And it's probably a big shock for a lot of kids to have Metallica basically accusing their fans of theft, because they like them so much that they download their music for free. That's a very unusual relationship for a band to have with its audience.

I'm not sure what will happen. But I would guess that it'll be harder for these huge commercial bands to maintain any aspect that they are outside the mainstream, when they're on the side of the record companies and the huge multinational media companies in wanting ownership for their music. They're almost being used as representatives of the multinationals in that regard.

What is the "marketer within?"

The "marketer within" was a core concept for me when I was writing Nobrow. It's a really, really important distinction, and it's a generational distinction. I feel like I'm slightly on the far side of it. On one side, you have people who see marketing as an essentially external manipulative force that's trying to get you to do something that you wouldn't ordinarily do. It's the voice of the pitchman. It's the blaring radio hawker. It's the billboards that you're surrounded by. And you don't really feel that is part of your folk culture. You feel that what's authentic and what's true to you is not that. You're not quite sure maybe what it is; but it's not that.

Then, on the other side of that, you have a group of people who grew up mainly through television, absorbing a marketing voice, absorbing that pitchman's voice almost before they knew language. Studies have shown that that two-year-olds can recognize the difference in volume and tone of the commercial voice on television, and know it intimately in a way that they don't respond to the editorial voice. And you internalize that voice, so that marketing no longer seems like an alien external manipulative force; rather, it's just part of your world. It's part of something that goes on inside you and outside you.

The "marketer within" is the artist who realizes that he doesn't need to use some external advertising to sell his product or his art; that his art can be made out of that voice, that voice that's somewhere still rattling around, the voice of the pitchman. It doesn't necessarily need to diminish the art. It doesn't necessarily need to be something that's grafted onto the art, that it becomes part of the art, and that the artist of the future will make their art with that voice in mind.

Is something lost?

Well, something's lost, because I stand on the other side of that commercial divide. And I find it very hard to accept that someone can make art with the notion of selling it, be intimately involved with the creation of it, and not make some diminished form of art. But I am willing to accept that that is perhaps an old-fashioned notion, and that there is another way of looking at art that comes from a another relationship to marketing--one that sees marketing as a valid form and as an integral part of the making of art. It's true that almost every artist that makes something wants people to experience it, and many of them actually want to make money on it, too. So we can't say that there are all these pure artists that never thought about it, and then there are all these compromised artists that think about it all the time. It's a world in which that distinction is broken down, and we'll see more marketers within.

Why, in your view, is pro wrestling so popular with young men today?

If you look around at cultural forms that are as transparent and as little influenced by content as you can find, you can find wrestling, and perhaps auto racing, too, as two forms in which there's really almost nothing except what you see. There's power, there's xenophobia, there's speed, there's violence, there's anger, and there's pity.

But it's all very empty in terms of its reference to anything that goes on outside that spectacle. It's almost pure spectacle. And that's why it's such a successful form of television, because it hits you at a level that you don't really need any other references to understand. It's almost like pure rage with just the slightest trappings of humanity wrapped around it.

It's very successful, and not only with teenagers. It's one of the forms that actually is very successful with six- or seven-year-olds. I have a friend who has a seven-year-old boy, and he's constantly pulling wrestling moves on me, body slams and drop-sits . And the over-the-top rhetoric, the insults and so forth that wrestlers engage is very appealing to seven-year-olds.

And there's another reason why wrestling is such a massive cultural phenomenon. You're dealing with a form where you can get the kids and begin branding them, not when they're 16, like MTV, but when they're six years old. And so by the time they're 16, you've already got them, whereas MTV can't really kick in until a little bit later, because they're still listening to Raffi at that age. But they're into professional wrestling.

What about the Nirvana story?

Grunge was the last resistance for those of us who had our first seminal pop experience with punk in the mid-1970s, and then everything seemed to get mediated and false. When grunge came along, it was like, "Yes, this is a lifeline. This is a way back to what's true about rock 'n roll." And Nirvana seemed like one of the prime representatives of that, in that they are just simple emotion, and also in the beauty of Kurt Cobain's voice. The story of Nirvana is the story of how an underground band, a cult band, was turned into a mainstream world-beating band. It . . . sold so quickly that it ended for all time the notion of the underground as a separate entity that has a life apart from the mainstream.

And in a way, Kurt Cobain was the victim of that. He just could not deal with the speed with which he was turned from this marginal figure in Seattle to this world celebrity. It tapped into some of his other problems, and he ended up committing suicide. He is a martyr to the end of the underground.

The end of the authentic subculture?

Yes. Kurt Cobain is a martyr to the end of the authentic subculture....



[Jimmy Iovine] is a major appropriator of underground culture and of the whole gangsta rap thing.

Yes. He's huge. . . . I saw Geffen as the older generation of those guys. Geffen was like the first. He appropriated more traditional, white rock 'n roll, folk, country, rock. He took bands like the Eagles and made them huge. And he put together Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and made much bigger things out of something that was fairly small. But he never really went beyond the white people thing.

Jimmy Iovine started with Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac. So he had a whole career of doing that. But then, in the 1980s, he got into gangsta rap. And now he does Eminem, right?

This new rap metal thing is almost entirely his creation.

. . . I find Eminem to be remarkably gifted, verbally. I'd almost call him a poet, but like a verbal performer. As a writer, I find the way he uses language and rhythm to be very inspiring. But at the same time, the content of his music, of his words, is extremely troubling. And people my age wrestle with that. How can you like the performer if you find the message to be so disagreeable?

And then I think to myself, well, maybe this is another difference between people our age and younger people. They do grow up in this environment saturated with these angry messages, many of which are concocted for marketing reasons alone. They have a radar and an ability to make a distinction between the performer and his style, and the words and their meaning. And so they can like the one without necessarily buying into the other. Or they can even recognize when the other is playing a game with them. Eminem's lyrics are so over the top that perhaps one can see him as parodying the violent content of a number of gangsta lyrics. But then other adults will say, "Oh, but you're being a Pollyanna about this. You can't for a moment allow people like Eminem to be an influence on our kids. We have to keep this out."

I do think that kids have developed a more sophisticated ability to filter out some of the anger and rage and see it from what it is, which is just manipulative or even a joke. They can take what's good about the music, and they do that much more efficiently than we do.

Another thing that's different about today is that there are so many more channels for music and for culture and art than there used to be, but there's not necessarily that much more talent. Talent, rare talent, is a constant from age to age, and there just aren't that many people who are truly gifted.

But today we have much more space to fill up with the not-so-gifted people than we did before. So you, as an audience, become the filter that the technology and media used to provide, just in terms of having a limited number of channels. Now you have a massive number of channels and, therefore, you have to have content on all of them. So you have stuff that's really total dreck and is pure marketing, and then you have stuff that actually does have a kernel of some artistic integrity inside it. But it's all smushed together and thrown at you, and it's up to you to make the choice. And that's different from the way it used to be.


home · watch the program · what teens think · themes · interviews · media giants · discussion
landscape · inside trl · getting close · cool hunting · eminem
synopsis · douglas rushkoff · producers · tapes & transcripts · press · credits
FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbs online

some photos ©joel page
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS