Jul 25, 2011

Angst & longing markets

In a really good piece on growing up with Christian Contemporary Music, and then growing out of Christian Contemporary Music, Meghan O’Gieblyn goes beyond contrasting "authentic" and "knock-off" music.

Describing her "conversion," watching the music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- "This was crack, and I’d been wasting my time sniffing glue" -- she then notes the choice, for a Christian kid in the '90s, wasn't between real and fake, or (simply) between propaganda and art, or between safe and dangerous. The choice was between music markets:

In the mid-’90s, MTV was producing a product superior to just about anything pitched at teens, largely due to its revolutionary market research. The Brand Strategy and Planning division of MTV was a new department dedicated to researching kids in the channel’s target demographic (ages twelve to twenty-four). They conducted hundreds of in-depth ethnography studies, where researchers would visit a typical fan—say a sixteen-year-old girl—in her home. Armed with a clipboard and trailed by a camera crew, these researchers would hang out in the fan’s room and listen to her talk about her favorite pair of shoes, or what’s in her CD player, or her relationship with her boyfriend.

The department also conducted focus groups that brought together teens who had been identified as “leading-edge thinkers and tastemakers and stylemakers” in eighteen American cities. Another study polled three hundred kids from up-and-coming neighborhoods of New York and Los Angeles to find out what they were listening to. Additional research was contracted to “cool-hunting” companies like Youth Intelligence that had hundreds of field correspondents snapping photos of street fashion, getting down in mosh pits, chatting up kids outside bars, and collecting similar information that was compiled and sorted into a web database to which MTV—along with other clients—subscribed for an annual six-figure fee. “It’s principally to make our programming relevant,” Todd Cunningham, Senior Vice President of Brand Strategy and Planning at MTV, said in a 1995 interview. By comparison, the CCM market of this era seems tragically naïve. Christian bands could mimic what was already mainstream, but it was difficult to compete with a product created with the help of millions of dollars worth of demographic research. Cultural relevance could be bought, and MTV, part of media conglomerate Viacom, had a very large budget.
It's still the case, of course, that Nirvana had a kind of artistic integrity that, say, Newsboys couldn't have. The difference between snorting crack and sniffing glue, as O’Gieblyn said.

The way we generally understand the difference between Christian cultural products and other genres of products, though, involves serious misframings. These need to be gotten rid of. It's necessary to break out of these, if there's going to be any worthwhile thinking about the culture that produced these products and the kind of imagination they enabled.