My Afternoon at MTV

I took a course last semester titled “Advanced Studies in Youth, Church, and Culture” taught by one of my favorite professors at the seminary. One assignment we were given was to be a cultural anthropologist for a day. We had to immerse ourselves in a place considered to be a hot spot in youth culture and observe what goes on there. What better place to do this than the mecca of pop culture, the holy shrine of all things hipster – MTV studios in New York City.

Somehow our professor, Kenda Dean, was able to get us tickets to be in the audience for the show It’s On With Alexa Chung. I had never heard of Alexa nor her show, but was told this was the show that replaced the famed TRL. After walking around Times Square for a while, I found a long line of youth waiting outside of the studios at Broadway and 45th Street. I joined the mass of teens, and soon two young MTV employees came outside with a clipboard and list of names.

Despite being four years over their audience age limit, I was given a bracelet (the nose ring must have made up for the beard) and led through the building to the back entrance of the show’s set. We waited here nearly an hour as cameramen and employees raced in and out prepping for the show.

I struck up a conversation with the three girls standing in front of me and learned they were in their first year of fashion school in Manhattan. They tried to act indifferent toward the fact they were about to sit in on a live MTV show, but their nervous giggles and constant primping called their bluff. They nonchalantly said their school had given them the tickets, then went on about how they’re not into MTV because it has become filled with “really stupid reality shows.” They weren’t even impressed when I told them I’d been one of Justin Timberlake’s back-up dancers. (Nor did they laugh when they discovered I was joking.)

A MTV employee soon appeared to hand out questionnaires that needed to be filled out before we could go in. You’d better believe MTV isn’t going to miss an opportunity to get a free cultural assessment on the youth they spend millions of dollars targeting and wooing. The questions ranged from “What do you have on your Facebook Status right now?” to “Who’s Your Celebrity Crush?” My answers: “Don’t have one” and “Jessica Tandy.” My favorite question was “What Four Guests Do You Want to See on the Show With Alexa?” to which I wrote “Rick Ross, NT Wright, Kenda Dean, and Mike Tyson – hopefully all together.”

The girl in front of me showed me her answers once she finished the questionnaire. After learning that I knew little or nothing about most of the bands and celebrities on her sheet, she let me know through her facial expression that I really should make it a priority to get a life. She did, however, catch me up to speed on Alexa’s romantic life, oohing and aahing as she babbled on about the host’s current boyfriend, the lead singer from Arctic Monkeys who is (“OMG”) super hot.

The MTV employee returned to collect our questionnaires and take a photo of each of us (which I later discovered was used for seating arrangements). As the chatter shifted to the topic of Lady Gaga and her bizarre music video outfits, a few other youth chimed in. They were high school seniors from Long Island who had emailed MTV asking to be on the show. They confessed they only watch Alexa’s show once a week, but they didn’t try to hide their excitement about being there. They were all smiles.

When the MTV employee reappeared she announced she would now seat us. Seating arrangements were very interesting. No effort was made to conceal the fact that each person was being strategically placed according to how beautiful and fashionable MTV perceived them to be. They sat me on the third row in the cluster of girls I had been talking to in line (maybe they thought I was their guardian), while the six youth at the very front of the line – who had waited the longest – were seated behind us.

The show’s director got on the microphone to gave us instructions on when to clap and stand up and sit down, as well as how loud our cheering needed to be. Alexa finally came out and the cameras went live. Her two guests were Wale, the D.C.-based rapper, and Ray J, who’s best known for his VH1 reality dating show. The thirty-minute show included two commercial breaks and ended with Wale performing a song. As soon as the cameras were off, Alexa disappeared and the audience was promptly shown the way out.
Exiting the building, I turned to the high school seniors from Long Island to ask how they liked the show. Before the show they had been bursting with excitement, and surely they had enjoyed the cameras constantly being pointed at them while the show was going on (they must have met all the MTV beauty standards). Yet now that it was over, they only expressed disappointment. They said it was too short for all the waiting involved and they were not impressed with Wale who, in their words, came off as a “f-ing dumb ass.”

Theologizing MTV

Upon reflection, I find it significant that all the youth I met seemed to be able to see through the MTV smokescreen. They knew they were being used and being sold mostly hype. If you’ve ever watched the documentary The Merchants of Cool, you know what a contrast this is with Barbara, the thirteen-year-old aspiring to be a model who was so inundated with the world of pop culture and beauty models that she didn’t realize she had given them her dreams and fate.

These fashion students and seniors from Long Island were much more perceptive and less gullible. Maybe it’s because technocrats are more skeptical in general, or perhaps living in New York City makes you a better “crap detector,” to use Neil Postman’s term.

Though they had agreed to be on the show, it was important to these girls to show that they weren’t completely compromised. Thus, they each told me in less or greater detail the reasons they didn’t care much for Alexa’s show and MTV. Yet the fact remains that they all made the trip to Times Square, waited hours in multiple lines, and once on the show went along with the “cheer/stand up/sit down when we tell you” script they were handed.

I’m left with the question, then why were they there? I think one answer is that these youth have an insatiable desire to be a part of something exciting and beautiful. We all, from the youngest to the oldest, long for adventure and beauty, but I believe it is in the days of our youth that we feel these twin desires most acutely.

And MTV – with all its bright lights, gorgeous celebrities, and glittering images – can reveal the deep longings of the human heart, but it cannot satisfy them. The teenagers I met that afternoon knew this. They’re aware that MTV is filled with fabricated buzz and beauty – but their yearnings for wonder and beauty are so strong that they’ll pursue them even when they know the source is contaminated.

Let the Church Be the Church

What can the church learn from this? My afternoon at MTV was sobering. I’m quite aware that we live in the United States of Advertising, and that marketing to youth in particular is what makes this country go ‘round. In addition, I know MTV is an empire of hip built on the cult of cool, and that at best it only contains, to use CS Lewis’ language, “mere shadows of the substance we long for.” And I also learned long ago how MTV really feels about young people when its founder and chairman Robert Pittman said, “At MTV we don’t just shoot for the fourteen year olds, we own them.”

But seeing it up close and personal – walking through its halls, watching as the youth were surveyed, and sitting in on a show while camera lens and cue cards shaped the small universe that was instantly broadcast across the nation to millions of youth – seeing all this sent a chill up my spine. And it made me reconsider how we do youth ministry. The church ought to be just as committed to reaching youth as MTV is. I have no qualms in saying that, since the telos, the end goal, behind the church’s task of reaching youth is generative and life-giving.

What the church mustn’t do, however, is rely on MTV’s means of and methods for reaching youth. One might think such a rule would be obvious to Christian leaders; I only wish it were so. The fact of the matter, however, is that there are an awful lot of churches and youth ministries trying to compete with and mirror MTV’s marketing tactics and strategies. I know because I tried it for a while. This is a lost cause for at least two reasons. To begin with, MTV’s budget is too big and its focus too narrow for the church to stand a chance.

Second, and more importantly, clever marketing and manipulative communication methods betray the very pattern of Christian mission established by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Saint John gives us a vivid picture of how God chooses to reveal himself and communicate through the Son: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). The incarnation is God’s self-donation in its most intimate form; God comes to us in face-to-face presence and relationship.

Then, at the end of the fourth gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20:21), and thus sets the missionary pattern for his followers. They are to incarnate God’s love and grace through relationship and presence with others. That’s where the church’s focus should be and where its budget ought to go.

This helps us get at a deeper understanding of why the high school students from Long Island felt jaded after spending the afternoon at MTV. There was plenty of energy, fashion, creativity, celebrities, and even a live jam performed by one of hip-hop’s up-and-coming stars. Yet the experience lacked any real personal engagement from the ones providing all the entertainment. The students’ response: “It wasn’t worth all the waiting involved.” It was all show and no relationship. The human heart desires wonder and beauty, and I’m convinced these are experienced in fullness only when mediated through relationships and community.
Perhaps now we see why it’s so dangerous for the church to mirror MTV’s means and methods. If youth ministries spend all their energies and resources trying to be as cool as MTV, stay relevant with pop culture (which is in one day and out the same day), and build hype around their worship services/shows, then they jeopardize the very way they can reach youth that MTV can’t: through relationships.

MTV is relentless in its mission to reach young people, and the church ought to mirror that same unwavering commitment. But when it comes to how that task is carried out, the church mustn’t take its cues from MTV. Let them keep their clever marketing strategies and obsession with selling cool. We’ve been called to follow the incarnational example of Jesus, to mediate and communicate the power and beauty of the gospel through face-to-face intimacy and relationships. As my pastor-friend in Philly, Joshua Grace, simply puts it, “We’re changing the world through relationships.”

Despite its fixation with the frivolous, MTV does reveal our longings for adventure and beauty. And it’s for a similar reason that I take issue with MTV, for it cannot ultimately deliver what it points to. Only communion with the incarnate Son of God, and a life lived in response to his love and glory, can satisfy our deepest desires for awe and wonder and beauty. And the church is at her greatest when she communicates this truth through relationships, and points to the substance rather than to mere shadows.