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The Coarsening of Culture

Media executives and cultural critics discuss the changed culture in which kids are growing up today, and the forces influencing this change.

Brian Graden
head of programming for MTV

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There's been a striking edge to some of your programs. Was there a need to make programming pop to get the attention of the kids? Was that a conscious thing to have to do?

The programming absolutely had to pop. And the word "edge," while it's loaded with implications, has always been an important part of the brand promise of MTV. And certainly things like "Celebrity Death Match" and Tom Green and some of the other things that we've done have received due attention as edgy programming.

One thing we've tried not to do is to shock for shock's sake. There are definitely shows that are doing that now, and I don't have to name them for you to figure out what they are. That's not the right brand promise for MTV, and I don't think it's right exactly for this demo. ...

At MTV we are absolutely in a constant internal discussion about our role in the media. ... It is a non-stop discussion, because we take the responsibility very seriously to not put dangerous things out there. At the same time, the reason the audience trusts us in the first place is because we don't censor. We present their art in the most honest way. . . . We won't cross violence lines. We won't cross certain language lines. But otherwise, we will let the art express itself as purely as possible....

I have to ask you about..."Undressed." What is the genesis of that show, and what was the idea there?

The genesis of "Undressed" is interesting. We had a show four years ago called "Singled Out," which was a very hot show. And it ran its course. We said, "We have to be talking to our audience about relationships. Somehow we have to have that reflected on our air." We'd like to do it in a way that isn't "Singled Out" and isn't some sort of cheesy game show that was great in its day, but let's move on.

And at about the same time, Roland Joffé came in and pitched the show "Undressed." And his pitch was really interesting, because he is fascinated by these small conversational moments that ultimately really say volumes about a relationship.

His pitch was that you don't get honest until you get home at night and you start to get in bed. Once you . . . get undressed--which was his metaphor--that's when you start to get real.

. . . When we saw "Undressed," we realized that he went to a place that was deadly honest and that dealt with things like you would deal with if you were 21 years old. Most of the situations are organically provided by writers who were in that demo, situations that they either lived or friends had lived.

So we made the decision simply to put it on at 11:00 because it was perhaps racier than we originally envisioned. At the same time, that was the artistic vision. It was appropriate for after 11. And it's certainly true to the reality of what it's like to navigate sex and dating for this audience today.

So your assumption is that kids are not watching this.

That's our assumption, yes.

Mark Crispin Miller
a media critic and the author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV

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In a thoroughly commercialized environment, there is very little incentive to be careful of the sensibilities of particular segments of the audience.

Thirty years ago, a certain kind of commercial approach to children would have been unthinkable. Thirty years ago, children's TV programs were, by our standards, largely laughable in how slow and elementary and often sentimental they were. People marvel at the miracle that is Mr. Rogers, because he is such an unusual kind of figure in today's media world. Once the commercial logic takes over, children are fair game along with everybody else.

I can give you a very dramatic example from the world of book publishing. Bantam Books was the second mass market paperback company to be formed in the United States just after World War II. And it was conceived deliberately with large masses of young readers in mind. Books like The Grapes of Wrath, Shakespeare's Greatest Comedies, Jane Eyre, sold for 25 cents with the aim of making sure that young people who weren't rich could get hold of really good books. And it did very well.

Well, by now Bantam Books is part of the Bertelsmann empire, which is the largest book publisher in the world, a commercial entity based in Germany that dominates the American publishing landscape. A couple of years ago, Bantam came out with the Barfarama series for young male readers 12 to 15 with titles like Dog-Doo Afternoon and The Great Puke-Off. These are all brainlessly scatological books that were packaged just to make a buck. Now some of the people who do them claim, "Oh, at least we're getting young people reading." That's a very disingenuous thing to say. This is going deliberately and systematically for the lowest common denominator, and the logic there is purely commercial. It has nothing to do with literary quality or with introducing the joys of reading to the young.

The same kind of callousness, the same kind thoughtlessness, the same disregard for propriety and the same uninterest in what kids really need and like dominates throughout the culture industries. If you watch Saturday morning kids' TV, you can see it in programming that is unrelievedly frantic, hyped-up, hysterical, and, in its own way, quite violent and pervasively commercial. It's all about selling, and this, I think, is the primary reason why there is something of a crisis nowadays, a cultural crisis involving children. It is not because there are fugitives from the 1960s generation who are in control of the media. It's not a communist plot. It's not because bad people are involved in those industries. It's because of the inordinate influence of commercial logic and the commercial imperative overall.

... How does the concentration in a few companies fuel a kind of hypercommercialism and lowered standards?

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, they are going to do whatever they think works the fastest and with the most people, which means that they will drag standards down. They're not going to be too nice about what they choose to do. They'll go directly for the please center. They're going to try to get you watching and buying right away, and what this means is that they are going to do as much trash as they can, because that will grab people.

The word "trash" is old-fashioned, because this is a state-of-the-art, highly sophisticated venture that we're talking about. They're using all the most brilliant means of measurement and surveillance to figure out what we're all about. They focus group everything in a million ways. So we have a highly sophisticated enterprise that's engaged in a kind of regressive project. They're trying to sell as much junk as they can by appealing to the worst in all of us, but they do it some extremely civilized means.

Robert McChesney
a media critic and author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times

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.... I think music gets better and culture gets better when people engage socially and politically. The two go hand in hand. So I think if there's a broadening of interest in social and political issues among people, the music, even within the crummy commercial system, will get better, if you understand the relationship. There are other factors besides just EMI's research and marketing department that influence the nature of music.

When those factors are systematically removed by corporations, do you find that music and the sentiment around it coarsens?

You mean when it's more commercialized? I'm not a great culture theorist. I'm not even a bad cultural theorist. I'm not really a cultural theorist. So I'd be careful to give the answer to this, but my hunch--as sort of a political economist assessing these industries--if, in fact, the political critique of music is zapped out, the people want controversy in their lives. They want that sense of struggle and conflict. Then you replace it with sort of the Howard Stern-Eminem stuff, a lot of misogyny, a lot of violence, which gives the illusion of conflict and tension and excitement without the real thing. It's just picking on the weakest members of society. That seems very controversial, and it's commercially viable, but it's not the real thing.

Jimmy Iovine
Iovine is co-chairman of Interscope Records. His label includes cutting edge gansta rap and rage music stars such as Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre and Eminem.

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If I understand you correctly, you respect the kids' culture. You do try to understand it, but you don't try to moralize about it from the adult perspective. You sort of accept it and try to get to the bottom of it and service it as a record company.

We do a lot of things here. And I do a lot of things personally. There's just no way to stop a movement in popular culture. It's going to happen, with or without you. There's absolutely no way to stop that train.

Now, having said that, do I think that everything is for kids of all ages? Absolutely not. I don't believe that. I think that we need parental supervision. I think people should watch their kids. I think they should watch what they eat, watch what they drink, watch what they watch on TV, watch what they listen to--absolutely. People that work in stores or in theaters should pay attention to parental advisories and to ratings. Absolutely. They should pay attention. They should follow what the rules are. And if someone doesn't like the rules, they should change the rules. They should raise the bar or lower the bar, whatever suits their fancy.

... You're saying the culture can't raise your kids. . . .

It doesn't try to. Your kids are creating the culture, actually. It's not the other way around. The question you pose is a very interesting question, because I don't know the answer. I don't think anyone knows the answer. ...

One man's improper lyrics are other man's political message.

Or another man's sense of humor . . .

John Seabrook
a writer for The New Yorker and author of Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing--The Marketing of Culture

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 "," 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.

. . . 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.
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