Youth Culture Window

The Culture Behind the Music

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!

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Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to FOUR BATTLES Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for parents on his website Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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