We got cable in my house when I was in high school, and I was perhaps most excited to have MTV.
Granted, this was the ’90s – when bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were captivating and expressing the angst and fury of a million teenagers who felt enslaved in their suburban prisons.
While I never grew my hair out or sported a flannel shirt and combat boots, I felt that music expressed something of what I felt – anxiety about the future, frustration with what seemed at the time to be a predetermined life path – all of the emotions associated with basic American adolescence.
In fairness, I did love the music, but I loved even more the feeling of being in the know.
I still get this same buzz when I tell a friend about a great new artist or band and they come back talking about it. MTV gave me that feeling, but it was giving me something else in the process.
What I didn’t know at the time was that even in the ’90s, I was not just a member of the angsty teenage hordes – I was, in fact, a prize to be won – the most single valuable demographic to all of Madison Avenue.
One advertising report states that this year teenagers will be responsible for more than $190 billion of economic spending – $80 billion of their own and another $110 billion by persuaded parents.
As I watched the Video Music Awards Sunday night – with Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Chris Brown, Lil’ Wayne – I couldn’t help but wonder what and who was being bought and sold.
Though it’s no longer the ’90s, MTV and Madison Avenue are still marketing to the same audience.
In short, MTV is still trying very hard to figure out what teens want, then convince them they want it and sell it back to them.
This year as Britney Spears received a lifetime VMA tribute, it became all too apparent: the stage that was once Madonna’s alone was then claimed by Britney, then by Lady Gaga, and next by some ingenue watching the spectacle and thinking “that will make me a star!”
The truth is MTV does something very well that the church often does not. It takes the greatest potential of teenagers – their indefatigable hope, feelings of resilience and paradoxical awkwardness – and it stirs them. But to what end?
The punchline of shows like “Jersey Shore” (or any “Real Housewives” show, which is MTV for adults) is: “These people are pathetic – pitiable, even. Aren’t you glad you’re not them?”
Beyond the meanness of that thought is an ethic that plays on our own insecurities, our own lack of imagination.
One writer I know says, “All sin is a result of our own profound sense of dissatisfaction with the life we have already been given.”
And so we look to culture (MTV, television, magazines, the Internet) to find the life we wish we’d had – that someone has or will create such a place and we can go there, or in the meantime rejoice in the train wreck of those who are worse off than we are.
While watching the VMAs, I read a blog by one of my former youth about Imagination.
The writer longs for a time when we felt we were limitless – that reckless belief that dreams can indeed become reality – and not the kind you see on television.
I couldn’t help but hear echoes of Lloyd Dobler, the seemingly aimless protagonist of the film “Say Anything” who, when interrogated about his life plans by his girlfriend’s father, says simply:
“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought or processed, or repair anything sold, bought or processed.”
Only the unreasonableness of youth can see through our silly societal structures. Our culture thrives on creativity and innovation – we live, in a very real way, on artistry, as ones who create as their Creator created them to do.
So often this human potential for good and for peace is bought, sold and processed and packaged back to us and our children as a commodity to be traded.
What wonders would we see if as people of faith we nurtured the imagination of our children, youth and adults as much as we try to entertain them?
What if we spent as much time talking about Creation as we do growing the church? What if we spent as much money on brushes and notebooks and crayons as we do on advertising our brand?
TreyLyon and his wife, Jen, are CBF field personnel serving as urban ministry coordinators in southeast Atlanta. You can read his blog at soulache.posterous.com or learn more about their work at thelyonfamily.org.