VMAs

by Caleb Zigas on August 31, 2004

While Republicans and protestors fought over Madison Square Garden and New York City yesterday, an entirely different political struggle was fought in Miami. When the Republican Convention displaced the MTV Video Music Awards, the crowds, the stars and the hype headed to Miami. And after the stars all disembarked from their boats onto the shores of the state that essentially decided last year’s elections that the show really began.

There were several notable moments in the program: a show with no host, the consistent mismatching of award givers, and, this year, an unusually boisterous crowd. But one moment, at least to this viewer, confounded. Midway through the program, with an introduction from the arbiter of American teens’ electoral power, TRL host Carson Daly, the Presidential election took center stage. With Daly’s preface, “only in America”, the Kerry sisters took stage next to a video-screen of the Bush sisters, live from New York.

As the Kerry sisters began to speak, there was a chorus of boos. There was absolutely no way to tell if this reception was for the Kerry sisters, or if it was reserved for the transmitted image of the Bush sisters, but it was striking nonetheless. In a moment when MTV and other popular outlets are reaching out for the youth vote the common assumption seems to say that youth voters will be primarily Democratic. There is of course the famous Churchill quote, “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”

All four women, the Kerrys and Bushes, spoke on the value of voting in general, while both plugged away with a too-cutesy-to-be-effective, “we hope you’ll vote for our dad.” Afterwards, the Kerry sisters segued into a Red Cross advertisement for help for victims of the recent natural disasters in Florida, which quieted the crowd a little bit.

The crowd’s reaction, however, calls into question the common assumptions on youth politics. If anything else over the years, MTV has shown, at times dramatically, how a mainstream America can embrace musicians, people and movements in general without, quite often, understanding their context. In this case hip-hop is often pointed to as an example of a musical style and occasional cultural manifestation that finds itself displaced into America’s heartland-places where black rappers have begun to speak for America’s white majority.

In a state as important as Florida, in a city like Miami, in an awards ceremony that mostly celebrates artists of color, one might have expected the same sort of warm welcome for Republicans that the Bush sisters were getting in New York (up to 500,000 protestors). But instead the reception was, at best, ambiguous. All four women received boos with scattered applause (though the audience was muted for the Bush women as they focused on satellite transmission).

Neither pair of sisters delivered a message of any political importance (are these the new daughters of America? Is Mary Cheney giving lessons in docility?), but their reception should worry anyone who assumes that youth voters will flock to the left. Youth voting efforts, and in this one must look at hip-hop efforts as well (see: Rap the Vote), if they are to follow a political agenda, must sharpen their platforms and argue not simply for voter turnout but also push for political change. Perhaps if youth voting initiatives were to pursue specific agendas youth voters would be more motivated-finding a cause, for instance, instead of a candidate. In this case, the passion for change might be more palatable than an admiration of disconnected candidacies. Their moment in the spotlight was brief, and, admittedly, easily ignored as the audience moved on to more important decisions for them-Usher, as best male artist, for instance. Youth voters, like the rest of our country, will always concentrate most on what they find relevant.

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