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Youth Culture Window

The Culture Behind the Music
What Millions of Teens Gleaned from MTV's 2013 VMAs
An article from Jonathan McKee and David R. Smith at

Dynamic ImageMiley twerking with Robin Thicke…
    Gaga in a thong…

      Macklemore and Ryan Lewis taking a stand for gay rights…
That’s the buzz on school campuses Monday morning from the millions of young people who watched the 30th annual MTV Video Music Awards (The VMAs) Sunday night; and the millions who missed it aren’t worried, because they can stream the entire show on The web is overflowing with animated gifs and video of Miley’s sexual onstage antics.

The evening opened with a typical sexualized Lady Gaga performance, and concluded with a clean and inspiring number by Katy Perry. The middle was sprinkled with everything in between.

Teenagers are always drawn to watch this once-a-year event where the most popular celebs in music come together to celebrate the greatest music videos of the year. This show always ensnares a huge audience, and this year was no exception, ranking as cable’s #1 entertainment telecast of 2013 among P12-34, a 66% jump from last year’s numbers.

The VMAs always provide a sobering glimpse into the window of youth culture, revealing a remarkably accurate cross-section of the kind of content young people have been absorbing in the last year through their headphones and those handy little screens in their pockets.

What did millions of young people glean from this eccentric and aberrant pop culture jamboree this year?

Here’s the highlights… er… lowlights:

  • Lady Gaga opened the show with an underwhelming performance of her latest song Applause, a fairly authentic confession from Gaga about how badly she wants fans’ applause and what it means to her. She began in a costume that looked like a nuns habit, and after an awkward smattering of boos from the crowd and a few costume changes, Gaga reverted to what has always worked for her—overt sexual attention. She ended the number in a thong and a top made of seashells, an outfit that she donned for the rest of the evening. (I wonder what the Barkley theatre chairs felt like in a thong all night?)

  • Miley’s fans were left scratching their heads as she put on a full frontal assault on any ounce of dignity left in the room during her impetuous, overtly-sexual performance with Robin Thicke. She began with nothing more than a crotch-grabbing onstage rendition of her music video, We Can’t Stop, and just when we thought the performance couldn’t spiral any lower… it plunged towards rock bottom. Thicke entered the stage, Miley stripped down to a skin colored bikini, and the twerking began as the duet performed Thicke’s libidinous song, Blurred Lines, together… although no lines were blurred on that stage. Miley twerked, made obscene gestures with a foam finger, and backed her gyrating rear up to Robin Thicke in a performance that made her 2009 Teen Choice Awards Pole Dance look like a Barney episode by comparison. After the performance, comedian Kevin Hart jeered, “Miley better go get a damn pregnancy test after all that damn grinding.”

  • When Justin Timberlake won video of the year, he said, “I hope my grandmother’s watching right now. This is for you Granny.” Really? You hope your Granny just watched this show? I would pay money to see what any grandmother would think of this show.

  • Selena Gomez won early in the evening for her music video, Come and Get It. Selena’s video and evening gown were tame compared to what we just saw from Miley and Gaga, yet clearly shine as another example of a Disney star desperately trying to shed the mouse ears.

  • Before the evening progressed any further we saw a commercial from Trojan condoms, which gives us a pretty clear glimpse of who marketers perceive will be watching this show.

  • Rappers Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, already collecting a Moonman for Best Hip Hop Video, took the stage once again to collect awards for Best Video with a Social Message for their song Same Love. The song’s music video, which follows the struggles and successes of a young gay man, has been viewed more than 70 million times on YouTube. Not long after receiving the award for Same Love, Macklemore and Lewis were brought to the stage to perform the song. They were introduced by A$AP Rocky and NBA player Jason Collins, both of whom shared a pro-gay message. Here’s an extract from the first verse of their song:

    The right-wing conservatives think it’s a decision
    And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
    Man-made, rewiring of a pre-disposition, playing God
    Ahh, nah, here we go
    America the brave still fears what we don’t know
    And “God loves all his children” is somehow forgotten
    But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five hundred years ago
    I don’t know

    Jennifer Hudson and Mary Lambert joined the two men onstage and rounded out the song’s lyrics by crooning:
    love is patient, love is kind
    love is patient, love is kind
    not crying on Sundays
    not crying on Sundays
    not crying on Sundays
    not crying on Sundays

    This song brings us some great truths about loving others and ending hate, but as you can see, the Church is the bad guy in all of this. Our kids are growing up in a world where anyone who believes homosexual activity is wrong will be lined up alongside Westboro Baptist.

  • Justin Timberlake performed a montage of a dozen of his own hits prior to being honored with the prestigious Michael Jackson award. Jimmy Fallon briefly mentioned many of Timberlake’s past works, such as his song, D*ck in a Box, but didn’t mention or hint to the controversial nudity in Timberlake’s music video, Tunnel Vision that left some wondering, is this art, or just eye candy?

  • As the checkered flags waved, Bruno Mars performed his new song Gorilla which proved to be lyrically what Miley and Robin’s performance was visually. Here are just a few of the lines taken from different points in the song:

    Ooh I got a body full of liquor
    With a cocaine kicker
    And I’m feeling like I’m thirty feet tall
    So lay it down, lay it down
    You got your legs up in the sky
    With the devil in your eyes
    Let me hear you say you want it all
    Say it now, say it now
    If the neighbors call the cops,
    Call the sheriff, call the SWAT ? we don't stop,
    We keep rocking while they’re knocking on our door
    And you’re screaming, “Give it to me baby,
    Give it to me mother***er!”
    Oh, you with me baby making love like gorillas
    Ooh, yeah
    You and me baby we'll be f***in’ like gorillas

    Bruno is so talented and has so many good clean hits, it’s sad to see him frequent songs like this.

  • The evening actually ended on a positive note, with none other than Katy Perry performing her uplifting new song, Roar. Roar has been at the top of the charts since its release, breaking records along the way. This is a much different Katy than the 2010 MTV Movie Awards Katy, performing the “raunchified rendition” of California Gurls. I’ve noticed some positive changes from Katy of late, the post-Russell Brand Katy. Katy told USA Today, "I let a lot of light into my life. At first I thought maybe there were going to be darker songs, but instead of having all the darkness come in, I let the light in. And I get to beam them out to the listeners, the fans." It will be interesting to see what this looks like with her and her upcoming album Prism, coming October 22nd.

As the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but ponder, how should parents, mentors and youth workers respond to a popular youth culture event like the VMAs?

Managing MTV’s Makeover
MTV gave their programming a makeover last night. Did you even notice? They redesigned their iconic moonman, and they opted for no host. (Did anyone notice? Or where they all still taking cold showers after Miley and Robin’s performance?)

Let’s just hope that MTV’s influence doesn’t makeover our kids.

Reacting to culture and media in positive ways is not always easy. When we stumble upon elements and messages like those embedded in this year’s VMAs, we may be tempted to cut our cable TV, smash our kids phones, and relocate our families to the Galapagos Islands.

But we don’t have to take such drastic steps to manage MTV’s makeovers. What we do need to do is help our families and youth ministries answer some important questions.

  • What pieces of entertainment are acceptable…and unacceptable?
  • How does an artist’s personal views impact his/her music?
  • What messages (social, theological, etc.) are being incorporated into today’s music?
  • Do those messages influence us, and if so, how?
  • How do we set standards in place in our lives for making healthy and godly choices?

There are many more questions you could ask yourself and those you love, but these are just a few to get you going. But don’t just ask questions. Provide a few answers, too.

  1. Teach the biblical understanding of sex (over and over again). Your teenagers are probably getting a big dose of the world’s understanding of sex. Do your teens a favor and balance that with God’s take on sex. According to the Bible (the book some referred to as being written 3500 years ago), God has given sex to us as a gift to enjoy. But that gift can only be truly enjoyed in a certain set of conditions. God intends for us to enjoy sex inside a committed, monogamous marriage between one man and one woman. If we don’t adhere to this created intent, we risk breaking sex…or ourselves with it. Make sure you repeat this important lesson over and over again using great questions to get your teenagers thinking. We provide free resources like this article to help you talk with today’s teenagers explicitly about sex. Or check out these two music-based resources (here and here) that will open the doors of communication about the subject.

  2. Teach the biblical understanding of homosexuality. So many celebrities assume their stance on homosexuality is accurate in spite of what God’s Word plainly says about the subject. And they share that stance with millions upon millions of fans. Unfortunately, their tremendous influence about this messy issue is based on poor theology. Thus, you and I need to help our teenagers wrestle with this social issue and place a priority on God’s Word in coming to a solution. Here is a detailed helpful article that will equip you to deal with many of the questions and objections that get raised in these conversations. Take your time processing the information, and then have great conversations with your teens that employ lots of quality questions.

So MTV gave their programming a makeover. Big deal. That doesn’t mean we have to let MTV give our kids a makeover! Just remember, God is constantly working on His own makeover for us and our teenagers. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, we’re told that, “We…are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.”

Now that’s a makeover tailor-made for us!

Jonathan McKee Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices, If I Had a Parenting Do Over, 52 Ways to Connect with Your Smartphone Obsessed Kid; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He has over 20 years youth ministry experience and speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, and You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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Comments on this post

   Rachel Foreman         8/31/2013 10:33:24 PM

Excellent article. I don't look at MTV but learned a lot from your article. Also saw the news about Miley & Robin. Our youth have a hard time finding something clean enough to watch on TV that's not perverted. Even the cartoons suggest sexual intent for our young children and babies. Thank you for your article;some of the information will be very helpful as we prepare for our youth revival. Thank you very much. God bless you both!

   Alex Kelly         8/30/2013 1:10:26 AM

Here is another blog worth reading:

   Sean         8/29/2013 12:45:05 PM

I actually agreed with a lot of this, and then the gay topic was brought up again. LOL!!! Was there a gay parade at the MTV Awards or something?

   Angelica         8/29/2013 9:08:44 AM

I think this is a great article that asks even better questions. I look forward to discussing them with my kids. -thanks

   Ebert         8/28/2013 3:39:12 PM

I think it's very important to keep in mind that the typical teenager has Christian tendencies, but may not completely understand Christianity. Jennifer Hudson can be seen as a Christian and has participated in several Christian shows. However, she can also support causes that are popular to support in Hollywood. Many of the teens I minister to see music, rapping, and MTV as their way out of their depressing lives. This is like athletes who believe they will be the next NBA and NFL star. I think youth groups really need to deconstruct the messages that the teen idols are sharing and make a case for why Christ is the way. Sadly, the message of citing scriptures alone isn't working. At least not for the at risk children, I'm ministering to.

   Tim Quigg         8/28/2013 10:52:46 AM

Here is a great article saying that Miley wasn't the only culprit in this, but Robin Thicke should be held responsible for his part, after all, he is a 36year old, married father of two!

   Ami         8/28/2013 9:14:57 AM

Thank you for this article and your suggestions! It scares me having to go back and see any of these videos for which I am grateful! As for helpful ways to teach people call sexuality and the fullness of the call to the dignity of the human person, I have really enjoyed things from Christopher West when he teaches about the theology of the body for teens. There's over 1200 biblical references in a huge book of talks compiled by the Pope, yes the Pope, about the meaning of the human person and Gods Original plan for sexuality. It's a very inspiring and wholesome call to chastity that I have seen many teenagers find very exciting because it is honest and forthcoming, without compromising the reality they are in. Hope it is helpful to you !!!

   dan manns         8/28/2013 8:21:41 AM

I want Hannah Montana back... my wife and i actually watched the show this year with our 2 daughters who will be 15 & 13 in a couple of months. they care less about Miley & Gaga and more about One Direction, Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato & Selena Gomez. We paused on a lot of parts to talk about what we just watched and we fast forwarded the crude parts (we did much more fast forwarding than pausing). I do have to say that watching the show together was the catalyst for a lot of healthy conversations on topics that might normally be difficult for parents to talk with their kids about. i controlled the remote for most of the show but during one part while my daughter was "in control" she was fast forwarding through some raunchy material and I said, "hey, rewind that commercial - that looked like it might be funny"; to which my daughter replied, "dad, that was a trojan commercial." OK. Nevermind. So thanks MTV - after watching your VMA's and the smut that passes as entertainment you have inspired me to be extra vigilant in raising my family with values and respect.

   Greg Aitchison         8/27/2013 11:03:39 AM

Thank you, Jonathan and David, for doing the "dirty work" for the rest of us! I don't really want to pollute my mind and heart by actually watching the VMAs every year, so I really rely on your article following it. Thank you also for speaking so courageously on the true nature of marriage and the Biblical teaching of "hating the sin, yet loving the sinner". As you pointed out, sex is obviously a giant in the pop culture living room these days. For anyone interested in providing a lot of awesome (and cheap!) resources to the youth (and adults) that they work with, I'd HIGHLY suggest checking out this new website: Keep up the great work! Greg

   Ron         8/26/2013 4:11:03 PM

It's so sad to see what Miley has become.


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