Young people are suffering both mentally and morally from a constant diet of mindless images and meaningless sounds.

If one had tuned into any of the popular youth-oriented television channels a few months ago, one would have almost certainly have seen, and probably become familiar with, the image of a curvaceous, skimpily- dressed blonde gyrating and hissing, “I’m a Slave 4 U” with a boa constrictor draped aross her shoulders in a decadent fashion. Britney Spears, perhaps the epitome of popular culture as well as an icon and idol for many youths, has certainly contributed to the bad reputation that mainstream ‘pop’ has today, with her blatantly provocative music videos and inane lyrics.

Britney is not alone. Hollywood’s action films with their hackneyed plotlines that usually involve a sexy hero or heroine saving the world from evil by using a variety of cutting-edge gadgets and an assortment of pseudo- kung-fu moves, meeting the man or woman of his or her dreams, and then living happily ever after, do little to dispel the stereotype. Television networks are equally guilty of the mental and moral corruption of young people by, for example, glorifying the notoriously and unabashedly insipid duo. Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, on their show ‘The Simple Life’, and condoning shallow perceptions of beauty in plastic surgery reality television show ‘The Swan’. Clearly, a generation weaned solely on such meaningless forms of entertainment must find it difficult to find solid moral or intellectual footing.

Thankfully, however, this stereotype is just that – stereotypical. While it is easy for us to classify modern popular culture as shallow and mindless in its entirety, there are several substantial elements of it that go deeper than the glitzy display of sounds and images produced by Britney and the like. In fact, looking closer at television programmes or music that might seem frivolous at first glance, one often finds that they reflect many major issues and problems that the young in society are faced with today. For example, hit television series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, despite its outlandish title and fantastic plotlines, most of which involve Buffy using her super powers to kill the vampires and various ugly monsters that haunt her hometown, has a large and dedicated following, primarily because of the way Buffy’s relationships with her friends and family are portrayed. Furthermore, important teenage issues like popularity, social stratification, insecurity and self-esteem are explored as we follow Buffy through high school, and youths can often relate to and find solace or even advice in her struggles. One might even argue that the physical dramatization of the fight between good and evil on the show could help its young viewers to realize that evil is real, and teach them that their moral choices do affect their ability to defeat the evils in their own lives.

Even rap, the music genre most derided by ‘true’ musicians because of its gung-ho beat and inelegant lyrics, brings several crucial social issues to light, and can often be much more than the jumble of profanities that it is widely perceived to be. French Muslim rap group Alonso, for instance, has songs that express the disenfranchisement, isolation, and indigence faced by many that belong to that community, and has even helped to raise many French youths’ awareness about this sensitive social situation. As such, it would be judgmental to classify rap music as simply meaningless.

Moreover, in the last few years, we have seen a wave of films and television programmes based on ‘classic’ stories and ideas. The popularization of widely acclaimed novels, such as Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ series in the form of the Peter Jackson films, for example, shows that much lauded tales from decades past are not entirely lost on the young, and that, despite the fact that they have been dressed up in modern soundtracks and special effects, the old, epic themes of valour and brotherhood are still present and respected in the entertainment industries of today. Besides stories, ancient philosophy has also been brought out in modern guise, with the famous ‘Matrix’ trilogy being an example of how ancient Hindu philosophy was woven into a popular action film. Such repackaging of long- valued ideas and traditions in modern theatre must surely hint that today’s supposedly superficial images and sounds could hold quite the same amount of wisdom and insight as older forms of entertainment did.

In addition, we must also question whether or not pop culture itself is all that popular. The 21st century has brought with it such a diverse array of thinking, culture and belief that deviation from the popular is, ironically, becoming increasingly mainstream. ‘Indie’ music and films, so named for their supposedly more individualistic flavour, as opposed to the generic formulae of Hollywood and the Big Five record companies, are becoming widespread, catering to ever-widening niche markets of those who want a more varied diet. Ethnic artists, like Bjork and Clannad, previously shunned by the young as unexciting, have made great headway in sharing their cultures with the Western world, providing youths with uplifting and refreshing musical styles and perspectives. Foreign and arthouse films are increasingly being recognized at trendy film awards festivals, reflecting the shift in the taste of the young generation away from the candy floss of Hollywood and towards the rich, flavourful insights of French, Polish and African filmmakers. The spread of such films and music, which has undoubtedly been aided by the rise of the Internet and massive worldwide file-sharing networks that give technology-savvy teens greater access to such less commonly broadcast media. The open acceptance of such films and music is evidence that not all youths are caught up in the fleshy, flashy thrall of frivolous or ‘bubblegum’ pop. In fact, an increasing number are learning to appreciate and savour more creative, unorthodox, and certainly more mentally and emotionally stimulating forms of entertainment and expression.

Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that the majority of young people today are probably still suffering from the mental and moral obesity that can be blamed on a constant diet of the media equivalent of MacDonald’s. However, with a little discernment and discretion, it is easy to sift the good from the bad in popular culture, or even to sample other less mainstream forms of entertainment. Thus, whether the youth of today are suffering from meaningless media or enjoying the full spectrum of culture and entertainment that our wonderfully diverse society has to offer depends largely on what they themselves make of that choice.