4 Observations from the 2011 MTV VMA's, & What They Teach Us About Pop Culture
The 2011 MTV Video Music Awards have come and gone. If you watched the annual show, you caught a glimpse of pop culture at its grittiest. But what do we do with those observations? How do they impact us as we raise and lead teenagers?
We’re glad you asked.
The Moments of Culture
Our Youth Culture Window articles have covered the MTV Video Music Awards before; we’ve dissected this annual show every year for the last several years. This show generally serves as a good reference point for the biggest moments in culture. In fact, this particular TV show often produces the biggest moments in culture! Earlier this week, Yahoo’s Music Blog did a pretty good job looking back over the past VMAs and chronicling The Wackiest VMA Moments Ever. They make the point that we’ve made for years: it’s not about “who-wins-what.” It’s about “who-does/says-what.” (But, just in case you want to know which artist took home which Moonman at the 2011 VMAs, you can find them here.)
This year’s live show was held in Los Angeles and was “sort of” hosted by Kevin Hart, standup comedian and small time actor (Fools Gold, Death at a Funeral). We say “sort of” because he was introduced as host, did an opening monologue (that BOMBED!), and then was only seen in a few short funny clips throughout the commercial breaks.
We gotta say, for the most part – and we stress “for the most part” – this was one of the tamer VMAs in recent history. (We’ll elaborate on the few exceptions later.) Also setting this awards show apart from the past were the coolest live performances in recent memory. Lady Gaga opened the show with a strong performance of her hit song, You and I (No question, Gaga is a very talented performer). Taking the stage throughout the remainder of the night would be Pit Bull, Adele, Kanye West and Jay Z, Beyoncé, and Young the Giant. Chris Brown also did a cool dance medley, and Bruno Mars sang a tribute to the recently deceased Amy Winehouse. Finally, Lil Wayne performed at the show’s end. (Umm…he’s one of the exceptions we just mentioned.)
All in all, MTV seemed to place the emphasis on – wait for it – music. Yeah, we were surprised, too. As we watched this year’s music awards show that actually centered on music, we observed four inescapable realities about youth culture. Here they are:
1. Bleep! Bleep! Bleep!
The F-bomb made its appearance during Lady Gaga’s show opener. Dressed as her male alter ego Joe Calderone, she/he spewed expletives like the geysers of Yellowstone. In the first two minutes of the show, the F word was bleeped four times. Throughout her later appearances in the show – all as Calerdone – she continued using course language.
You’ve probably guessed that she’s one of the exceptions, too.
For example, during Gaga’s introduction of Britney Spears for The Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, she admitted that posters of Spears hanging on her bedroom walls as a teenager caused her to sexually touch herself. She then commanded the crowd: “Everybody stand the f--k up!” Later, during her reception of Best Female Video Award for Born This Way, she referenced her other award for the same song, Best Video With a Message. She nonchalantly claimed, “Every video…has a f--king message.”
But, she was only getting us warmed up for Lil Wayne.
When the tattooed rapper finally took the stage to close the show, he started off by singing a low-key, highly auto-toned version of How to Love. While it was difficult to discern the heavily automated vocals in this song, it was absolutely impossible to discern any lyrics of his next song because of the bleeping.
Lil Wayne started his second number by ripping off his shirt…and every semblance of human decency. He was bleeped for vulgarity (on average) once every three seconds. He was literally bleeped over 20 times in the first minute!
It was ridiculous, and quite honestly, silly. Perhaps the patrons sitting in the arena got a show; for the millions watching via cable TV, it just sounded like we were having continual technical difficulties.
These two were the major offenders for the night, as well as Tyler the Creator, who dropped some heavy language while accepting his award for Best New Artist. All in all, this year’s awards show proves just how important satellite delay and the bleep button truly are.
2. “I’d Like to Thank God”
Throughout the night we witnessed something we see a lot in these award shows, four of the winning artists thanked God for their award nomination and reception. Britney Spears struck first with a win in the Best Pop Video category for her hyper-sexualized Till the World Ends. After taking the mic, she said, “First, I’d like to thank God for blessing me so much.”
She wouldn’t be the last to drag the Almighty into the debacle.
Nicki Minaj (for Super Bass) followed suit in her speech for Best Hip Hop Video (a racy video where she and her dancers give lap dances of sort to male dancers), first with an excited, “Ohhhh myyyy Goooooodddddddd!” quickly followed by a blurted-out, “I wanna thank God.” She also thanked Lil Wayne, or as she calls him, “the best rapper alive.”
When Kanye West won an award for his collaborative efforts with Katy Perry on E.T. (a song many of you heard Jonathan’s 13-year-old daughter Ashley testify about in one of our recent parenting clips), he didn’t hesitate to begin his thank you speech with a confident, “Thank you to God.” Part of his lyrics for that song goes like this:
I want to disrobe you
Then I’m a probe you…
But Justin Bieber went several steps further in his public gratitude of God when his U Smile won Best Male Video. He began his speech by saying, “I just want to say thank you so much, not only to God, but to Jesus, because, you know, I wouldn’t be here without Him. He’s really blessed me. He’s put me in this position. So I wanna say thank you so much. Also, I wanna say thank you to all the other nominees. They’re amazing!”
In case you didn’t know it, he was talking about Bruno Mars (Grenade), Cee Lo Green (F—k You), Eminem (Love the Way You Lie), and Kanye West (All of the Lights). Bieber concluded his speech by saying, “I’m a true fan of all them, so I want to share this award with all them. You guys are amazing.”
Are these frequent nods to God surprising in a nation where only 1.6% of people are atheists? Face it; we live in a country where people don’t find it hypocritical to give God a polite nod for performances that are overtly promiscuous, hyper-sexualized, or profanity-laden. While the prolific use of God’s name might open doors to spiritual conversations, it also greatly hinders the important task of teaching young people what holiness looks like in life.
It’d be great if celebrities would get their theology correct.
3. Coming Attractions
MTV has never wasted an opportunity to self-promote. Each year, a running subtitle to this awards show could be, “Look at all the new shows we’re launching this season.” This year was no different. Here are five shows that MTV is launching immediately.
I Just Want My Pants Back. This show is probably the coarsest, most vile show MTV has ever aired. That’s saying a lot, given that MTV is known for A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila and Skins. But we can back up that description: in the first five seconds of the show, which was aired immediately following the VMAs, the main character pops a masturbation joke. The next scene shows him meeting a female friend in a bar where the two of them talk about his current “dry spell.” In other words, it’s been six weeks since he last had sex. She claims he’s a “born again virgin.” Later scenes show sex depicted, etc. MTV promised only one airing of this episode, but you can look for the series again, full time, in 2012. Can’t wait….
Ridiculousness. This show, hosted by Rob Dyrdek, is very much in line with Comedy Central’s Tosh.O with Daniel Tosh, and E!’s The Soup with Joel McHale. A guy stands up, plays videos from the internet, and cracks some jokes. It airs Monday, August 29th, at 10pm EST.
New Season of Jersey Shore. If you don’t know what this show is about, let us sum it up for you: hair gel and sex. Lots of hair gel and sex! This show airs on Thursday nights at 10pm EST.
The Real World (San Diego). This is another TV show for which simple descriptions suffice. “Mansion + a dozen twenty-somethings (hetero and homosexual) + partying = big ratings for MTV.” The constant commercial for this show featured a young girl who mentioned that she enjoys “flashing her boobs.” This “Real Word” series is older than every single teenager in your youth ministry that will watch it. The formula is still working. Sad.
Death Valley. This show puts you in a police car with the highly trained officers tasked with arresting and/or killing the vampires, zombies, and werewolves that run loose in the San Fernando Valley. This comedy premiers August 29th, at 10:30pm EST, following Ridiculousness.
But new TV shows weren’t the only forms of visual creativity released this year; several companies turned heads with the debut of brand new commercials for their products. Here are a few that caught our eye.
Pacsun said, “Dress irresponsibly.” This commercial, featuring music by Michael Buble, shows girls cutting their pants off dangerously close to their booties. It later shows the same girls taking off their tops during a car ride…top down, of course. It ends with “dress irresponsibly” written across the screen as a girl falls into her bed.
Plan B said, “Here’s emergency contraception.” This morning-after pill was touted as the reason girls can “be calm” even when they wake up the next morning after their birth control fails. After all, “Sometimes, the unexpected happens.”
I’m sorry. When was pre-marital sex “unexpected”?
These commercials teach subtle, but dangerous, messages to teenagers. Most of these TV shows will just come right out with their filth. Undoubtedly, several of these shows will be featured in upcoming Youth Culture Window articles. We’ll wade through this junk, so you don’t have to.
4. Move Over Elvis – Hip Hop is King
If the 2011 VMAs proved anything, it’s that hip hop still rules the masses. Many of you recall us noting this genre’s dominance over the years. Not only does MTV have a special category restricted to hip hop, but looking at winners from the other categories easily shows how big a factor this genre is in pop culture. Best New Artist was taken by Tyler, the Creator, a hip hop upstart. Best Choreography was snagged by Beyoncé, a hip hop icon. Best Collaboration was half pop and half hip hop, as was Best SFX (for the same song).
In fact, hip hop is so big, members of the indie pop band Foster the People noted during the pre-show that they were one of just a few rock bands there that night. They also joked that their next album probably should include some hip hop elements so their chances of winning are improved.
On the surface, this final observation doesn’t carry any spiritual significance. But buried underneath the vibes of this popular genre is a buffet of profanity and degradation of women. Here is an example. Here’s another. Our biggest advice on this is to be extra leery when it comes to this genre. We don’t want to come off as picking on one certain genre, but we’ll be happy to back down when the genre provides even a handful of examples of artists who rise above the above stigma.
Making Observations…and Plans
It does little good to make observations and then refuse to incorporate them in your life. For example, if you’re driving from Texas to Nebraska and notice mountains outside the car…that little nugget of reality should lead you to pull over and ask for (better) directions! (I’m recalling a line from Dumb and Dumber about John Denver.)
The same principle is true here, as well. We need to understand how these observations impact how we lead and love teenagers. Here are two simple action plans that scream for attention based on this year’s awards show.
- Don’t allow culture to define teenagers. Yes, this is incredibly difficult, but actually accomplishing this has huge rewards. We know they wade through a lot of junk every single day of their lives, but they don’t have to be defined by the rants of Lady Gaga, the lyrics of Lil Wayne, or the innuendos of Katy Perry. For a moment, think about what it will look like if culture defines truth for today’s teens. For a moment, think about what it will look like if culture defines right and wrong, sexual purity, relationships, and every other important aspect of life. Yeah, we shudder, too. In Acts 17:6, we’re told that the Christians of the day had a phenomenal reputation; they were known for “turning the world upside down.” They defied the pagan, sexually immoral, and sinful influences of that era and lived lives defined by God Himself. As a result of the way they lived, culture was defined by them! This could happen again. It’s just gonna take lots of work.
- Teach the things that please God. Granted, God, and even Jesus, might get lip service in a room filled with celebrities whose net worth tabulates into the billions, but do we really think God is pleased with sex-laden lyrics? Do we think He smiles when we turn love into lust? Do we believe He approves of filthy language today when His Word clearly denounced it 2,000 years ago (Col. 3:8)? Do we genuinely think that God is happy when His Name becomes synonymous with entertainment…and raunchy entertainment at that? No! So we have to teach the truth, no matter how counter-cultural it is. In Philippians 4:8-9, the Apostle Paul outlines a terrific set of God-pleasing criteria for our lives. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
Watching 15 minutes of this show greatly impacts how we plan on leading our personal small groups this week. Watching just 15 minutes of this show strongly encourages us to have conversations with the kids in our own homes this week!
What will these observations cause you to do?
David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org. David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.