Last week, at a friendly family cookout, the inevitable happened. It happened before when Kanye West was on the cover of Time magazine, and again when Kim and Kanye adorned the cover of Vogue. What ensued was a family brawl over the role and legitimacy of certain media figures in our lives.
A couple weeks ago, MTV’s 2015 Video Music Awards were live on TV. I hadn’t seen the VMAs in at least five years, and I had no intention or un-intention of watching this year’s—I was generally indifferent. But when it felt like nothing else was on, I turned it on. In the past, if I were to have watched this award show with my mom or grandma, I would have laughed off their lack of understanding of the whole scene. “What’s a hashtag?” “What does swag mean?” “What is she wearing?” They just didn’t get it—they were too removed and it was beyond them—that's what I would have thought and what I’ve tended to always think about this stuff. I’ve always tried to see their side, but defend my own. I’ve tried to make them see that even though Lady Gaga is bizarre-o looking, she’s talented, she’s kind, she’s intelligent, she’s a decent human being. I’ve explained that I KNOW the lyrics of this Jason Derulo song are ridiculous, but it’s a catchy song and it’s got a great beat and the lyrics don’t matter and I’m not even paying attention to the message. I’ve pointed out that amidst the crazy, there’s always been a vast majority of good to offset it—just please stop obsessing over the weird stuff.
But for one of the first times in my life, watching the VMAs, I felt what it feels like to be horrified by our country’s artistic leaders, the social media platform they depend on, and the youth that seems to eat it all up. I instantly felt 100 years old and that I belonged in a different generation. I could feel myself reacting the way my parents and grandparents have—with disgust, and with genuine befuddlement as to what the hell is going on and why.
For anyone who somehow hasn’t read the CliffsNotes, Miley Cyrus (the host) smokes pot and loves peace and hates normal clothing, Kanye West’s apology for shunning Taylor Swift a couple of years ago took a sharp turn and became unapologetically self-indulged, wrapping up with an announcement to run for President in 2020, and Nicki Minaj’s mic was turned off after awkwardly and aggressively trying to pick a fight with Miley on stage.
Oh and I guess there were some awards given out. Amidst the harsh language, ridiculously immature and constant references to sex and drugs, and otherworldly (ahem Kanye) self absorption, there were some awards, there were some impressive performances, and there were some kind words. But any and all positivity at the event was unfortunately shrouded by people being obscene for the sake of "freedom," being rude for the sake of shock value, and being self indulgent for the sake of "art."
After a discussion of who we'd consider a worse role model for our children—Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian, I was struck with the disturbing realization that whether it’s vapid self absorption and body image issues or a blatant disregard for rules, authority, and general respect for others, today’s biggest role models are simply the most present ones, the loudest ones, and the ones with the most followers on Instagram. Where the Video Music Awards and others have always pioneered to “push the envelope,” and artists and other societal/cultural leaders have always strived to make change and make a statement, in 2015 the proverbial envelope has no limit. The statement no longer feels artistic; it feels forced, disingenuous, and even absurd. And it doesn't just apply to artists. I miss the days when the statements to be heard were those that had the clout and weight to travel the farthest. But unfortunately, instead, we’ve rewarded the most absurd with the most airtime. We’ve given the biggest voice to the loudest people. There are great messages to be heard today, just as there have always been. I might even argue that there are more great ideas, more thoughtful provocations today than ever before because of more encouragement to use our brains, challenge ourselves, think outside the box, have compassion for all people/genders/races. It feels so, so disappointing that such messages and actions are too often shrouded by all the bullshit. Additionally, what’s even more disappointing is that even when these figures I’m talking about have a meaningful statement to make, it’s delegitimized by its delivery. Call me old fashioned, but I miss the respectful use of words and language. Nothing feels sacred anymore. I miss the celebration of true talent and passion, not just whoever can make the largest spectacle.
Perhaps this is my first of many aging diatribes. Perhaps this is exactly the same thing people have been saying for generations. But something feels different this time around. There’s something about the empty crudeness and vapidity that makes me fear for what it all means about our society. The only thing I’m taking comfort in is the number of people I know who feel similarly disappointed by it.