Saturday, March 24, 2007

Is the Genie back in the Bottle?

The Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction of 2003 had a direct influence on my professional life. I was working in radio at the time, and as a direct result of that incident, I was no longer permitted to play flatulence sound effects over the air.

It was quite interesting to be in the media back then. There was a general paranoia that the FCC would be cracking down excessively on anything that wouldn't be considered family friendly content. Radio shock jocks around the country were threatened with termination if they didn't alter their routines. Several stations pulled Howard Stern. Soap operas become much less risque overnight.

I remember a conversation I had at the time with a longtime radio professional. We both wondered if it was possible for this one incident to result in the genie going back in the bottle. After a slow but steady progression in the liberalization of content over the decades that TV and radio had existed, was it truly possible to go backwards? Especially given the amount of uncensored content available on the web? And even if broadcast media did become less crude, would the culture necessarily follow suit?

Four years later, I'm surprised to say that to an extent, both media and culture have become less crude, crass, and cynical. To be sure, there is still a lot out there to make parents skittish; shows about forensic science (i.e. blood and guts) lead the TV ratings, Hollywood (free from FCC constraints) is virtually the same as it was four years ago, and you might even hear the sound of wind breaking on the airwaves today.

However, I recently had occasion to compare the media and cultural landscape with the way things were a few years ago. I watched the 2001 PBS Frontline Documentary Merchants of Cool, which documents how mass media sells "coolness" to teenagers. They identified the main marketing strategies to males as "the Mook" and to females "the Midriff."

To quote: "The Mook is what critics call the crude, loud, obnoxious, in-your-face character that can be found almost any hour of day or night somewhere on MTV." This is the frat boy archetype, "frozen in permanent adolescence." Examples of Mooks and Mook programming that the documentary cited were Howard Stern, Tom Green, Fred Durst, MTV's TRL, and Comedy Central's "The Man Show" and "South Park."

A few years later, the latter is the only one that is going strong. But through always crude, "South Park" always had an intelligent satiric element that the others lacked. And today when people think of "Comedy Central," rather than the crudeness of "The Man Show," it is the satiric "Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" that come to mind. As for Comedy Central's sister station, MTV's TRL has fallen so far that the "L" is now irrelevant, as evidenced by this recent article.
Tom Green has gone from household name among adolescents to very little name recognition (as I tested out recently with my students). You could argue that his role has been usurped by Borat, who is certainly crude, but like "South Park," Borat's crudeness has irony and satire behind it, something that is lacking in Green's productions.

Howard Stern, one time self-proclaimed "King of all Media," is now being blamed by some analysts for the misfortunes of Sirius Satellite Radio, which is accused of grossly overpaying him (and overestimating his ability to draw in subscribers).

Fred Durst's entire genre (Nu Metal) has nosedived in popularity over the last few years, and the Limp Bizkit frontman himself is now an afterthought. The Frontline documentary didn't explore the area of hip-hop or BET. This seems like a gross oversight given the popularity of the genre and the general "mookishness" that the latter has seemingly promoted. Perhaps the producers were uncomfortable with the racial implications of criticizing this genre. In any event, people in the Black community are now criticizing popular rap music, and the industry itself is in decline.

"The Midriff" is the tool through which marketers targeted adolescent and pre-adolescent girls, and of course the most famous midriff in the world at the turn of the century belonged to Britney Spears. Britney certainly has maintained the same high profile, but she has fallen far from being an influence on girls, who are now likely to view her as a joke. Millions of girls may have copied her bare midriff look back then, but today I don't see a dramatic surge in the number of girls who are walking around with shaved heads.

Although the documentary covered all of the above, it spent perhaps the most time dissecting Vince McMahon's wrestling empire, then called the WWF, now called the WWE. To quote: "Wrestling is currently the hottest thing among males 18-24 and among teenage boys. And it's been propagated across the entire spectrum of teen media. It's broadcast 15 hours a week on five different networks and is seen by 15 million people." The discussed McMahon's plans to launch the XFL as a "mookish version of pro football." The XFL tanked after a couple weeks, of course, which was a sign of the coming decline in pro wrestling in general. After being the "hottest thing" among males, it is once again a fringe property.

Many of these trends were in evidence even before the Janet Jackson incident, but that event seemed to galvanize the backlash, which seems to still be occurring today. And perhaps the genie will stay in that bottle, at least until the adolescents who grew up wearing "Austin 3:16" T-shirts are in control of the entertainment industry.


Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

I thank God everyday that I never liked Britney Spears. If she honesetly thought K-Fed loved her for her and not for the money or prestige she lent him deserves to be viewed as a joke.

4:02 PM  
Anonymous akbabya said...

i have to say that MTV's crudeness AT TIMES interests me but never influences me. the crudeness is sometimes so over and beyond crude that it is almost ridiculous- shows like my super sweet 16- and same with teh family guy.

10:12 PM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

you might find my latest post interesting.

10:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i saw the name 'janet jackson' and didn't read your post.


11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

omg...omg...somone dissed Family Guy! omg...omg....your going down akbabya!

11:17 AM  
Blogger Tee said...

I believe Donald Trump is sponsoring or a partner in the new wrestling events... I have yet to see him fail in any present business deals.
Also, you don't have to turn on MTV or any other trash networks to find "trash"... I have seen it on FOX NEWS and the TODAY show...
Remember when television was black and white and there were very few choices in channels?...3 I believe... That was the good ole days! (Im NOT THAT old)

P.S. Come see us in Becky Kelly's class. Looking forward to meeting you!

11:20 PM  
Blogger Tee said...

Why do I have to keep assigning myself a NEW account everytime I want to post a comment? Does that happen to anyone else? Does it take a brain surgeon? What the heck am I doing wrong?

11:24 PM  
Blogger Tee said...

One more think I forgot to say. Howard Stern, what a useless piece of trash, is not satisfied with his failure. He has to make others fall with him...
He has a website that encourages people to "vote for the worst" singer on American Idol...and they are. Im not going to give the site anymore attention than it already is getting, but he mentions major corporations such as Niki and Adidas and others that are advertising on YouTube.
He is ruthless!

11:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

is the genie thing a shout out to Christina Augilera? hey, i like her too

12:00 PM  
Anonymous Brandon Stallings said...

I think the media is getting away with a little more each year. 40 years ago they didnt have pad commercials, now they have every brand of tampons out for the viewers.

8:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nu metal may not be as popular, but never count out Linkin Park

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but enjoy every sandwich is a stupid name.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

obviously you don't know who warren zevon is, moron.

4:00 PM  

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