Youth Culture Clash: When Parody Strikes & Adults Freeze

alanis.jpgKeeping my finger on ‘whassup’ in youth culture can lead to ‘life’s most embarrassing moments’ in a keystroke. Case in point? I stay apprised with what’s circulating the net using a handy tool called Top Viral Videos to see what’s clicking through with 6 million viewers and such.

Einstein, the amazing talking bird and sweet otters holding hands can add a warm-n-fuzzy element to a deadline driven day, but this time, I was stopped cold by Alanis Morissette’s video “My Humps.”

Yeah, that’s right, Alanis Morissette. My two second ‘blink’ was, “Et tu, Brute?”

I knew something wasn’t right, so I replayed it a few times shaking my head, and found it to be campy, but as Sontag would say, “not camp enough.” (this is what happens when adults’ brains go numb trying to make sense of youth culture)

The original My Hump bump-n-thrust video from the Black Eyed Peas still reels in my head; with trashy ‘lady lump’ lyrics revving up sex as a power tool. (it’s even part of Common Sense Media’s parent education schpeil when we go into schools to speak about kids’ media exposure) Their lead singer, Fergie, has acquired her own Fergie-licious following in the hypersexed toxic video genre…but Alanis? Say it ain’t so.

No ‘moral panic’ but I completely missed the irony of Alanis’ spoof satirizing both the genre and herself and chalked it up to another sellout. Whizzed right by me. How embarrassing. Remember the Boston guerilla marketing debacle I wrote about here when Aqua Teen Hunger Force caused the city to go on red alert? Same deal, only this time I was the clueless one. My brain flashed with ’emo-gone-wild’ warnings; yet I simply wasn’t in on the joke.

It took this article in the L.A. Times to jar my senses, and give me fresh eyes and an ‘aha’ moment. (full article at the end in case it goes behind the subscriber wall) I dug deeper to find she quietly released it a month ago exactly. 4/1. That seems to go unmentioned, yet that kind of ‘foolishness’ is downright witty.

When adult sensibilities clash with youth pop culture icons, there’s bound to be some generational misunderstanding.

The 4/3 Guardian Unlimited blog comments from this U.K. post attest to the multi-layered take on this feminist witticism.

I draw a firm line at damaging “satire” that blurs the intent, like the infamous Where My Dogs At drek I wrote about last year…but also maintain there’s STILL something unsettling about the interpretations of this Alanis one.

Why? Because if girls get confused by her riff on body image and objectification it defeats the purpose. Guess I feel when things get so subtle they need to be marked as ‘parody’ it’s a fine line as to whether you’re adding to the problem or spoofing it…

Then again, maybe I’m the only one in the universe who didn’t ‘get it’ right off the bat. Weigh in here, please folks. How lame am I? (ahem, civility, please)

Of course adult/youth digital disconnects happen all the time, parody or not.

And…alas…TOO much knowledge can foul up the works too. Example?

My tween daughter showed me what I perceived to be an ‘emo’ look on her little blonde Zwinky she’d created to test out Zwinktopia, the new virtual world that just launched…

Let me back up for a sec and toss out some definitions since our readership is all over the board in age, acumen and media savvy…

“Emo” music, slang, and icons often use that draped swag of hair over the eye bit as a broody, moody identity statement of indie expression via social networking sites, or even Skype or IM.

“Zwinky” is like a free virtual paperdoll where kids create avatars to add to their digital identity, online profiles, or e-mail and IM. (they have pop-ups on sites everywhere, hard to ignore)

Anyway…when I commented on her one-eyed hair in the face Zwinky creation for Zwinktopia, I said,

“Whoa, what’s with all the emo angst, honey?”

She looked at me like I was nuts.

“Huh? What are you talking about mom?”

“The emo look, where’s all that coming from?”

Having researched “emo” a tad, I was earnestly inquiring about her state of mind, wondering if she “needed to talk” or was experiencing middle school traumas and dramas that landed off my radar.

“Um, Mom? You’re being weird again. I have no idea what you’re saying. What are you even talking about? What IS emo? Or WHO is emo? Sheesh, I just liked her hairstyle!”

Oops. Culture clash. Did it again.

Guess the insider knowledge thing works both ways.

p.s. As promised, here’s the L.A. Times article, “Satire busts a hump”

“April 24, 2007 Morissette speaks volumes about sex, power and YouTube with a sly spoof. By PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

PEOPLE endlessly complain that Hollywood is full of dopey, superficial films bereft of anything new to say. And they’re right. Anyone looking for art that is edgy or relevant – and inspires comment – is turning to Internet video, which has become the true engine driving our pop culture.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the tsunami-like viral success of Alanis Morissette’s “My Humps,” which surfaced three weeks ago on YouTube and quickly became the most popular video on the channel, attracting 5.5 million views, easily outdistancing such rivals as “Otters Holding Hands” and “Farting in Public.”

At first glance, it simply looks like another pass-along parody, a takeoff on the original “My Humps” hit by the Black Eyed Peas. But Morissette’s video is armed with a provocative subtext that has people abuzz with debate. It’s a fascinating piece of video art, an inspired combination of satire, social criticism and career reinvention that is a signature artifact of today’s viral Web culture.

On one level, “My Humps” is a commentary on dim-bulb pop. The Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps,” though a huge smash, was widely mocked for its vapid, suggestive lyrics. (Sample: “The boys they wanna sex me, they always standing next to me, always dancing next to me, tryin’ a feel my hump, hump.”) The video, featuring Fergie, the group’s lead singer, was, if possible, even tawdrier. Full of nonstop teasing and thrusting, it’s the kind of hip-hop booty porn that would make great torture material for Muslim prisoners at our Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

Dressing herself Fergie-style, with baubles and bling, surrounded by black-clad male dancers, Morissette retained the original’s visual sluttiness but replaced the Peas’ thumping rhythm track with a pensive solo piano. By removing the intoxicating bass line and clearly enunciating the crass lyrics, she gave the song’s sexpot swagger a new tone of sadness and desperation while simultaneously parodying her own artistic tendencies toward self-absorbed angst.

It’s a striking performance, functioning as both social criticism and self-criticism. It also has given an instant shot of street cred to Morissette, whose career had slid downhill after her incandescent debut in 1995 with “Jagged Little Pill.” Stereotyped as an earnest navel gazer – one blogger recently dismissed her as an “emo-feminist” – she suddenly has fans seeing her through fresh eyes.

As Mark Blankenship put it in his ITotallyHearThat blog, “Remember when I was saying Pink didn’t manage to criticize the objectification of female sexuality in ‘Stupid Girls’ without becoming the very thing she supposedly opposed? Well, Alanis found a way. If that kind of wit, intelligence and humility is in her next album, I’m buying it.”

This is what gives YouTube its real power. It is a forum not just for amateur pranks but also for career reinvention. For Morissette, this video – made at her home on digital video for roughly $2,000 – may transform her persona as much as taking a part in “Pulp Fiction” did for John Travolta.

“It absolutely helps her career,” says Bob Lefsetz, whose Lefsetz Letter is one of the leading blogs in the music business. “What’s so cool is that she did this all by herself. There was no capitalization of it – it wasn’t geared to help a new record or movie project. So it gives her credibility. It felt like the old days when Led Zeppelin would come to your town, do a show that blew the roof off and then – they were gone. No one knew how they did it. There was no explanation, no interviews, no nothing.”

It’s the quintessential definition of mystique: less = more.

Living in today’s always-on-duty media culture, it’s almost impossible to remember that there was a time – before TMZ, before MTV, before People – when pop culture had an air of ineffable mystery. Today, everything is over-analyzed, endlessly debated and all-too-glibly explained, which essentially reduces even the most thoughtful art to trivia and effluence.

Morissette has followed the model once practiced by Bob Dylan, who in his ’60s heyday refused to explicate anything, bobbing and weaving in interviews, baffling the MSM of the day with a fog of evasions, sly jokes and put-ons.

Unlike Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Fergie, who can’t stop blabbing about their various addictions, pet causes and loser lovers, Morissette has greeted all “My Humps” interview requests with a vow of silence.

According to manager Martin Kirkup, she turned down everyone, including late-night TV chat shows, a Styles reporter from the New York Times who wanted to ask about her fashion choices and someone who wanted to start a music parody website. In an era when everyone talks – even lonelygirl15 went on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” – her silence has been golden.

As Lefsetz put it: “The less she does, the bigger the story is.” By refusing to explain her intent, Morissette invested her clip with an irresistible layer of inscrutability, something that packs extra punch at a time when all too many found objects – even Will Ferrell’s “The Landlord” video – turn out to be a marketing come-on for a website or movie project.

According to Kirkup, Morissette has no new album or tour to hawk. As she has remained mum, others have jumped in to stage a healthy debate about whether the sexual antics of today’s starlets represent girl power or pathology. It’s an issue that goes way beyond Fergie. As Natalie Nichols wrote recently in CityBeat, TV shows like “America’s Next Top Model” and “The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll” “perpetuate the notion that a woman’s hotness is directly related to the amount of ‘power’ she has. As though the best power women can hope to wield is sexual sway over men.”

After “My Humps” appeared, the blogs were full of similar passionate argument.

When the Coterie of Zombies’ Howard James Hardima wrote off Morissette’s video as a “misguided potshot at confident, powerful sexy female figures everywhere,” his post inspired heated response, led by Auros, who wrote: “Confidence and power don’t come from trying to get boys to buy you stuff by playing the tease…. I believe the common term for that is ‘gold digger.’ Sexy is a girl who is smart, self-sufficient and couldn’t give a fig for whether anyone thinks she’s sexy.”

Sex, of course, fuels debate everywhere, not just on the Internet. But the Web today is also brimming with a new kind of participatory activism, one that uses video as a tool for social criticism, from pop issues to political ones.

Robert Greenwald, who used to make issue-oriented films and TV movies, is now an Internet pamphleteer, having launched the websites FoxAttacks, which runs critiques on Fox News, and TheRealMcCain, which highlights flip-flops in Sen. John McCain’s policy positions. Greenwald says his pieces, posted on YouTube and other sites, have reached 2.4 million viewers without him having to spend a penny of marketing money.

Like Morissette, Greenwald uses video as social critique, with the issues he once addressed in a six-hour miniseries now framed in two-minute commentaries. The shorts have just as much visceral immediacy as Morissette’s video, not just because of their eye-catching visuals but because they are passed along – i.e. endorsed – by peers and friends. One of Greenwald’s most viewed pieces, “Fox Attacks Black America,” has been credited with helping spur the leading three Democratic presidential candidates to pull out of a September debate co-sponsored by Fox News.

“People spread these short pieces around because they want to, not because they’re being bankrolled by a giant studio marketing campaign,” he says. “Our young staffers can shoot and edit these pieces in three days and have them up for people to see. It’s not just user-generated content. When someone watches it and hits the forward button, it’s user-distributed too. You’re replacing Universal Studios with a peer-to-peer network with the click of a mouse.”

Universal Studios isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. Nor, sadly, will Fergie and her humps. But the era of video activism is here to stay. Whether you’re a political activist or a singer eager to try your hand at social comment, the pop culture playing field has never been more open to ideas than it is today.”

Photo credit Amazon.com “The Big Picture”/e-mail: patrick.goldstein@latimes.com

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Comments

  1. I think that Zwinkys are fun I have played the game for over a year. Some of the people can be mean at times but there are tons of other people who I am glad are my friends now.
    zwinkys recently posted..Welcome to Zwinkys R UsMy Profile

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