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After a long day of driving we stopped for the night in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and decided to see a movie. It was a Thursday evening, so I figured there wouldn’t be a crowd at the theater. Was I ever wrong. A line, which seemed to be made up entirely of girls, filled the lobby and snaked out the front doors.
“What’s going on?” I asked the ticket seller.
He rolled his eyes and said in a tired voice, “We’re showing a premiere tonight of a concert movie of a boy band these girls like.” The ticket seller looked all of 22, but he was a jaded 22. He’d been there and done that, and had no patience with the teens and tweens filling his theater. The movie, for those of you guessing at home, was One Direction: This is Us.
I marveled at the power of the entertainment industry to create an event in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on a random night at the end of the summer. For that evening, that movie was usurping parents, church, school and state in the hearts and minds of those girls. Local life was put on hold while these teens and tweens attended to the flickering images of the boys in the band. This is not a new phenomenon, just the latest incarnation of it. The Twelve’s own James Bratt, writing with a group of scholars at Calvin College, documented the power of electronic media to usurp local authority in their book Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture and the Electronic Media over two decades ago. One of the many quotes offered in that book by the then-President of MTV has stuck with me over the years: “We don’t shoot for the 14-year-olds, we own them.”
After three decades in youth ministry and a couple of years at a seminary that prepares future ministers, the question of who owns the 14-year-olds still fills my mind.
All of which makes me want to say a few words now about Miley Cyrus’s performance a couple of weeks ago at the Video Music Awards. Why should we pay attention? Why does Miley matter?
Believe me, I wish she didn’t matter. I vaguely know that she’s the daughter of the Achy Breaky Heart guy and that she was a huge star on a Disney show. I know she is old enough to declare to the world that she’s not a Disney girl anymore, and she did this by cavorting around on stage mostly naked with Alan Thicke’s son. (If you really want to shock the world, imagine the fathers doing this . . . but I digress.) I became aware of the VMA event because my Facebook page was filled the day after with “Open letters to Miley Cyrus.”
It’s those letters that puzzle me. In a culture where Life is a cereal, Glad is a trash bag and Joy is a dish soap, we shouldn’t be surprised that Miley knows she is a consumer brand. The worst thing that can happen to a brand is irrelevance, and Miley Cyrus vaulted her brand back to relevance at the VMA’s. What’s changed since Bratt and the others wrote DITD is the advent of social media and the rise of the microcelebrity culture. How many millions of times was Miley mentioned on Facebook and Twitter immediately during and after the VMA’s compared to the day before? In our world, everyone has access to the same social media tools, and we all imagine ourselves as little celebrities, commenting on other celebrities. Average people (like me!) opine with the authority of a Washington Post op-ed writer.
But all the “What I told my daughter about Miley” blogs only feed the real celebrity’s brand machine. All publicity is good publicity, and bloggers and tweeters need to realize they are being used. Public silence is the best way to express disgust, because silence would keep Miley irrelevant. Miley isn’t shocking, she’s boring. Let’s treat her as such. (It would have been shocking if she’d kept her clothes on and wowed us with her talent.) How I wish the universal response of those tired of seeing celebrities sexualize themselves was indifference.
Popular culture is the proverbial current kids are raised in and most are unaware of the current. It takes genuine effort to swim against it. Popular culture over-sexualizes kids, but that’s not the heart of it. The heart of it is consumption. Most kids have money (or access to their parents’ money). There’s a theater full of girls in Eau Claire proving that point. Those who genuinely care about young people need to pay attention to popular culture, because popular culture has kids’ wallets rather than their best interests in mind. In that sense, Miley does matter. She means something to young people raised on Hannah Montana. When she grinds away on stage, those who care the most need to actually talk to their sons and daughters about what she’s doing instead of posting blogs about imaginary conversations. Want to own the 14-year-olds? Scrap the tools of marketers and use the one thing the marketers wish they had. A real relationship.