Individuality, the expression of one’s unique traits and views, has long been the rallying cry of teenagers worldwide. In America, where culture is progressive at best and simply innovative by default, this construct is at its highest level. The standard attitude of a young person is to deviate from restriction and oppression, and find avenues through which this can be expressed. Music has been the universal medium of self-expression; this is evident over decades of cult followings of certain artists such as Elvis and The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Madonna, The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and other obviously mainstream musical sources that have resonated clearly with the youth. Teenagers call this phenomenon a mirroring of their individual personas, with the subscription to certain values that are often deemed irreverent such as sex and rebellion against establishment. On the other hand, this supposed individuality is translated into collectivity by the invisible observers of teen culture and its relationship with business; the driving point is to fill the personal void experienced by these ‘misunderstood’ teenagers through constructs that appeal to the total market and promote profitability as well. The feedback loop, as discussed by Douglas Rushkoff in The Merchants of Cool, may be ideally seen as the empowerment of the biggest percentage of the American population, but in real terms it is but a logical strategy on the same level as any successful marketing scheme. What makes it different is the enduring effect it has on teenagers, who believe in the guise of individuality, culture, and acceptance, but are actually embracing the ideals of marketing and commercialism.
The key concepts in this phenomenon are within the confines of cool, rebellion, and separation from adult concerns. However, the ultimate translations of these can simply be termed as understanding and acceptance. Teenagers outwardly declare their individuality, yet the desired outcome is almost always an approval of the group; this is clear in the messages sent by the rock group Limp Bizkit, which has shown validation from its teen audiences. While the communication is largely about individual thoughts and desires, the effect is only seen as appreciated by the group, say, teenagers in a Limp Bizkit concert. Because the band is already redefined internally to accommodate the brand of rebellion approved by teens, anything they come up with will always seem individual and irreverent. This is exactly how marketing wants it—an affirmation that seems to veer from the commercial and touches on the exclusivity demanded by youth. The teen market is then assured of an image that separates them from the rest, and would gladly patronize anything that is connected with it. At this point, marketing wins.
The ubiquitous concepts of the ‘mook’ and the ‘midriff’ are probably not as ubiquitous as they seem; they are in fact creations of smart marketing minds, who have fished out deep-seated desires of teens, still found within the areas of rebellion and irreverence. Tom Green as the quintessential ‘mook’ is not exactly original; his antics are seen in probably every teenage boy, yet the emphasis on these traits make the ‘mook’ appear like a fresh address to the wants and desires constantly suppressed by parents, school, and society. Britney Spears and the ‘midriff’ persona as well as the blatant sexual depictions of teens in Gossip Girl may seem novel and rebellious at once, but this again merely mirrors what have been inherent in teen girls’ psyches that have been controlled as part of a proper young woman’s conduct. Teenagers may feel a strong connection with these media constructs mainly because they are allowed to express what have always been considered taboo. These concepts are not new or revolutionary; it probably just took the right timing and material for them to be accepted, usually to solve current societal issues. In the end, as millions of teenage boys decide to reveal their irreverent behavior by acting like the young people they are, and teenage girls opt to experiment with sexuality by donning the skimpiest of outfits, the only fresh insight is in the use of these media images as marketing schemes. With millions of dollars spent by the youth on merchandise related to media and music, the business aspect of this supposed social phenomenon again gets the upper hand.
The visual factor introduced by MTV and its partner establishments is the perfect accommodation of basic teen aptitude; in this age of the internet and multitasking, image is considered a necessity rather than innovation. Compared to the presentation of music of older generations which was limited to audio or live concerts, the visual element of music videos has made media image, rather than music, more accessible. In this case, it is not just about the Jonas Brothers’ music or the Twilight soundtrack; it is clearly the whole package of image, sound, and emotion conveyed through TV or the internet that reaches the youth. This is perhaps the most significant contribution of media, which has opened the eyes of teens to a kind of medium that best appeals to their needs and desires. But TV is primarily a business aimed at reaching the most number of viewers in order to communicate messages that go in tandem with marketing objectives; ratings, audience shares, and market segments are real components of this industry, which have found a definitely relevant place in the formation of teen identity.
Ultimately, American teens will always have the same pattern of self-discovery that has been existing for years. Equating individuality with sexuality, rebellion, and irreverence is not product of media, but instead is appropriated by enterprising and marketing-savvy parties to gain commercial success. What thee parties are using are elements and aspects inherent in the teen psyche, which they translate into branded images and specific objects. In the end, what the teenager views as a unique representation of his or her individuality or a genuine understanding of his or her situation is just an echo of tried-and-tested concepts repackaged into current and more relevant forms. Collectivity thus surpasses individuality in this sense, and the images promoted by marketing and merchandising have made teens connect the brands with identity rather than the values they contributed to these brands’ existence.
Goodman, B. (dir.) and Rushkoff, D. (narr.). (2001). The Merchants of Cool. PBS.
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