Summer’s end. Back to school sales invade on all sides, from Pampers to The Pampered Chef. In another licensing coup for Smashmouth, JC Penny’s new back-to-school ad begins with Young Miss turning off her alarm clock’s “Good Morning.” Cue the ‘Mouth’s “Then The Morning Comes” as our girl scampers about her bedroom, wondering what to wear for the first day. Cut to Mom, who arches an eyebrow at her daughter’s indecision. With a smirk, Mom says “low-rise Mudd jeans with the gypsy print peasant top.” In real life, parents and concerned citizens rail against low-rise jeans in schools and the soft-core antics of Abercrombie’s quarterly catalog. But in the frantic media universe that surrounds the hearts, minds, and wallets of their teenagers, mothers know best. Even when the best is dressing your daughter like a coked-out Shakira impersonator. Three recent events – Seventeen Magazine’s Teen Choice Awards, ESPN’s X Games, and the Little League World Series – celebrate youth culture, but also milk it shamelessly for cash. And why feel any shame? Except for those red-faced American Family Association members on “Larry King Live” holding up skimpy thongs and decrying the death of purity in youth, everyone – youth included – is in on the joke. Inside the fractured immediacy of today’s youth culture, it’s not about what’s appropriate. It’s about just who is exploiting who.
Sponsored by Seventeen Magazine (in conjunction with the program’s broadcast on Fox Television), the The Teen Choice Awards encourage kids 13-19 to vote for their favorite photogenic young actor, musician, or memorable moment in categories like “Breakout Artist,” “Choice Lip Lock Scene,” and “Choice Hottie.” The whole affair has the ring of a Seniors Rule! high school faux awards ceremony, where Jenny Sue wins “Most Likely to OD” and Mark Hoffman wins “Most Likely to meet ODB.” Whatever the quality of the awards, the entire process is supervised by Deloitte & Touche (natch!), ensuring that when teens across America proclaim the WB’s “Smallville” to be their Choice TV Drama, you know it’s completely legit. Broadcast August 19th in a concise three hours (the event was not presented live), the show hurled a revolving door of youthful celebrity presenters at a roiling, screaming throng of pre-teen girls, situated in a pit at the front of the Shrine Auditorium stage. Thrusting aloft placards proclaiming “7th Heaven is HEAVENLY!” and “Ja Rule RULES,” these actual, non-celebrity teens clawed at their beloved like “Resident Evil” zombies as each newly-minted celeb trotted across a plank above their heads to the stage. Tobey Macguire accepted his award for “Choice Lip Lock” with Kirsten Dunst in “Spiderman,” and took the opportunity to remind everyone about the upcoming Spidey sequel. N*SYNC and Nelly bum-rushed the stage after winning “Best collaboration” for a song that erased whatever shred of hip-hop credentials the St. Louis rapper had left. And Jennifer Love Hewitt performed “Bare Naked,” her atrocious new ballad that evidently is an attempt to position her as a white Jennifer Lopez with Natalie Imbruglia sensibilities. The same posturing would occur at any award show. The interesting thing about the TCAs is that the chomping at the glowstick mentality shared by the plebeians in the stage pit inhabited the performances and speeches of the young starlets and thugs onstage. Hewitt sang her new single with a gusto not seen since her big breakup with Bailey. And she better – if she’s going to sustain the wattage of her star power, she can’t count on simply acting. One celebrity career? That’s so, like, 1995.
An interesting subtext to the TCAs were the numerous references to the downloading and ripping of digital music. Noted digital music expert Carmen Electra, presenting the Choice award for best single, read copy that stressed “whether you hear them on the radio, download them from the Web, listen to them on your iPod, or see the video on MTV, you’ve chosen these songs as the best of the year!” It’s no surprise; the teens in the TCA pit are trend-setting consumers. But in regards to the record companies that employ many of the artists and award winners at the TCAs, the blasé treatment of the hotly contested technolgy was notable. On another level, there’s a parallel between the immediacy of emerging music technologies and the nature of the celebrities promoting themselves at the TCAs. The teen consumer bracket is by nature an ever-changing beast, as its members get older. And among the young stars that are currently in favor, only a few will be able to find an escape hatch to their late 20s and legitimacy as an actor or recording artist (just ask J-Lo-Hew). Though he’s guested on seemingly 90% of the Murder Inc. conglomerate’s R & B singles over the past year, and appeared briefly in last summer’s blockbuster “The Fast And The Furious,” there’s nothing on young rapper Ja Rule’s stat sheet that ensures career longevity. MP3s, CDRs, and mobile, digital music systems encourage a freewheeling, transient association with pop music. Will anyone remember a guy like Ja Rule when a rapper who’s younger and better looking arrives to accept his first Teen Choice surf board award?
To that end, shed a tear for Britney Spears. Over the hill at 19, Ms. Spears served as last year’s model next to her 10-year old sister, whose tiny body and freakishly makeup’d skull made her look like a cross between JonBenet Ramsey and Sarah Jessica Parker’s disembodied head from “Mars Attacks!” Evidently, Spears The Younger is on her way out of the training bra and into the public eye. But honestly, at 10 or 11 years old, what can this person offer us as entertainment? Has the pendulum of youth pop culture swung so much to the extreme that its celebrities now have to split time between the movie set and the day care center? The younger Spears’ presence onstage at the TCAs supports the idea that the youth being marketed to today is selling itself to itself.
But the Teen Choice Awards are just one item in an end-of-summer month filled with big-budget, exposure-heavy youth programming. Disney subsidiaries ESPN2 and ABC broadcast the eighth annual X Games from Philadelphia. Ever wondered what it takes to launch a dirtbike over a 35-foot pole vault? This is just one X event that has, ahem, raised the bar for extreme sports. The half-pipe thrills of elder skatesmen like Tony Hawk look relatively tame in comparison. Which illustrates the point: youth culture in 2002 is guided by what’s cooler, faster, crazier, or sexier. When the “Extreme” kick occurred in the mid 90s, Mountain Dew was one of the first products to recognize that “That’s Incredible!”-style displays of street luge and sky surfing would appeal most to 12-25 year-olds with the balls to actually try out these activities. Cut to ten years later, and the X Games – along with sports that didn’t exist last century – are big business. Factor in the increased buying power of the teen market, and the youth culture of today looks a lot different than that of just a few years ago. (Even Mountain Dew looks different. Anyone for an ice-cold Dew Code Red?) Having taken the tenets of Extreme culture and pumped them full of game-system horse tranquilizer aesthetics, today’s X Game culture – the fans and the athletes – wield a power greater than anyone could have imagined. Each year the ad campaign for the games gets more elaborate and youth-skewed, so much that this year’s – which featured funny bits about skaters hanging out in front of a convenience store – was virtually impenetrable to those who wouldn’t know what the Superman maneuver means to Moto X. Just like the miniaturized Spears rising from the ranks of fifth-graders everywhere to take her place onstage at the TCAs, extreme sports have become guided by the very people that perform them. The money men follow along behind, frantically trying to sell them shoes, skateboards – the tools of an image that’s refined each day in a series of very different board meetings throughout New Generation America.
Even the Little League World Series, for years a charming late-summer staple on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, has been re-configured into a bizarre circus event. Grown men who make their living as sports analysts sit around desks in Bristol, CT and argue about the strengths of little Jimmy’s arm slot, or phenom Korean outfielder (and full-time 12-year-old) Hip Su Kyu’s chances to go top ten in a future worldwide draft. Where the TCAs and the X Games have the feel of youth pandering to youth for the sake of big money, the Little League World Series is a different animal. The kids playing KNOW they’re on ESPN; indeed, many of them are hoping to make the play that will get them on “SportsCenter.” But in their coverage of the event, ESPN and ABC treat the young players like professional athletes, further fueling the concept that the LLWS is simply an introductory tryout for college and professional scouts to see what their teams will look like 8 to 10 years. It’s not completely unrealistic. Elite middle school quarterbacks – yes, middle school – have been approached by college coaches to sign letters of intent ensuring their eventual arrival on campus, or even an early exit from high school to do so. Because of shenanigans like this – as well as the players’ own desire for A-Rod level fame – the LLWS has become a ugly marionette cock fight that only further illustrates the co-opting of youth culture by media, money, and youth itself. What the hell is going on?
Maybe the severity in the trend towards all things young will finally end when Baby Bob’s 2-month old brother gets HIS own sitcom.