Interiorizing Pop Brands

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written several posts related to the challenge of introducing growing children to the ubiquitous pop culture while minimizing the negative effects of the encounter on their moral and spiritual well-being. Given that ubiquitousness of pop culture, and that my primary responsibility toward my children is for their moral and spiritual formation, this is a big deal to me. I suspect this is also a big deal to many others, even to many who think that the moral and spiritual formation of their children is a secondary responsibility after that of their material well-being.

This stream of thought began when I learned that my daughter Abby wanted an iPod for her 10th birthday (which passed a couple weeks ago, with no iPod). I was reluctant to go along with the idea, because I was concerned that giving it to her would quickly become tantamount to throwing her into the pop music cesspool, without having first taught her to swim (and hold her nose), so to speak.

In the last couple posts in this stream, I’ve tried to show that everything we encounter in the world, including pop music, is imbued with embedded ideas, for better or for worse. This is simply to say that everything has an agenda.

Primarily, this agenda is driven by the ideas or messages intended by the authors (or other, behind-the-scenes, producers of the “product”). These messages can be both direct, and/or read between the lines. Although not something I addressed previously, I would add here that these messages are not only lyrical, but also take many other aesthetic forms – the type of clothing the artists wear, for example, often being an important factor in the message sent to young pop consumers about the meaning of the artists’ product, or brand; part of the statement of “what we’re about,” into which the acts (and their corporate puppeteers) try to lure the children.

The embracing of a pop brand (forgive me if I resort occasionally to calling it a shtick), a process which we usually refer to as becoming a fan, entails some degree of identification of the fan with the brand. The “what I’m about” of the artist/brand becomes part of the fan’s “what I’m about,” or even “who I am.” When the degree of identification goes radical (fanatical), we say that the fan has become obsessive, and we get concerned, as we should. But it’s important to understand that the very same process of identification, involving what’s essentially the establishment of an imaginary relationship between the fan and the artist/brand, goes on in lesser degrees the rest of the time. This is simply how pop culture works. It is part of consumer society, and works just like it – except that pop art has more moral baggage than perfume, or multivitamins, or mid-sized cars.

This identification with the brand by the fan is what I call the interiorizing of the product. That sounds like just an overblown way of referring to being influenced by the product, but I think the psychic consequences of pop interiorization goes deeper than influence, in that influencing seems to me to refer to a constructive or additive process, whereas becoming a “fan” of a pop brand strikes me as something that only diminishes the true personality of the afflicted individual. The artist/brand is used as a kind of flag to be waved by the fan/consumer, saying – at least to herself, if not to the world – “this is (part of) what I’m about.” Although always a bit pathetic, this can be a fairly harmless way of making a statement about yourself in simple circumstances, but much of pop culture is not nearly as simple as it might appear.

When young girls embrace tawdry pop stars because they admire the prettiness, or popularity, or alleged “grown-up-ness” of the stars, they end up with the rest of the package as well. They embrace the brand, they identify with the brand, and if there are undesirable elements of that brand, well, they are just part of the package, and they will be interiorized. They may eventually be rejected, but they are packaged compellingly as part of the desirable brand – and I think we can be sure that if the young consumer were inclined to reject those undesirable elements from the outset, they would never have become a fan in the first place. In saying that, I’m not suggesting that these negatives are necessarily positively embraced by the young fan. Rather, they will be largely unnoticed and unexamined, bubbling to the surface only later on.

Consuming music -and other media- through the senses is not very different from consuming items through the digestive system. Some things are good, some things are bad (e.g. poison), and some things qualify as junk. I think there is some good music that falls under the pop umbrella (at least broadly understood); I think much of it is junk, and some of it downright poison. That being said, it’s hard for me to know how to really classify junk beyond saying it’s not good, and leaving it at that. Maybe, if I were honest with myself, I’d have to admit that there is music with one foot planted in the good, and the other in junk, and that I sometimes enjoy listening to it.

Nonetheless, pop music does form an ubiquitous presence in our culture, and our kids will almost certainly end up swimming in it sooner or later. I’ve mentioned previously that I think it is important for parents to both understand why and how certain messages are unhealthy for their kids, and to be able to find a way to convey that knowledge to them. It can be hard enough for a parent to understand the significance of complicated messages or ideas well enough to be able to articulate them, but to be able to translate that into something that can be comprehended by a youngster is doubly difficult. If kids begin listening to music that carries unhealthy messages at an age when they are not yet old enough to understand criticism of those messages, they will simply interiorize those offensive attitudes, like someone learning bigotry on his mother’s knee.

It’s clear that a critical attitude toward pop culture is an essential element in anybody’s toolbox, but it’s also clear that pop culture works very hard to resist criticality, to marginalize it, to suffocate it with the banality of seductive appeasement. It also goes without saying that critical thinking is not a native characteristic of childhood. So, in the light of all I’ve considered so far, it seems to me the next question to consider is the very practical one: How do I keep my daughter from embracing unhealthy messages in her music listening?