“Kony 2012:” Our Generation’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” Or is that still around the corner?

Yesterday afternoon, I watched a 30 minute video. You’ve probably heard of it. It was slick, pressed all necessary emotional buttons, focused on an important topic, and carried a clear message. Since it also utilized all the right social media innovations, it was clear the video was going to go viral. It even said it would. Participation in the video event was based simply upon sharing it. By nightfall, it seemed like everyone with a computer had watched and passed it along. By morning, debate had polarized over what its popularity showed about an entire generation.

I’m not going to add anything to that discussion here, but what I am going to bring up is the other thing that is clearly on everyone’s mind: the music industry.

Yup, the music industry. The means by which this video was produced, marketed, and sent through social media channels has clear implications for our old pal the mainstream music industry. It’s a dying behemoth, they say, because it doesn’t have the ability to keep up with technological innovation, the way music is distributed, or the wants of the consumer. Our scattered culture has on the whole become tribalized, with people being able to tune out what they don’t want to interact with, and thus avoid participating in a common narrative. Out in the thick of this information multitude of videos, memes, pictures, and tweet – that seemingly go viral at random – keeping up with trends, let alone predicting them, can be very daunting.

So with regards to music, folks listen to what they want to listen to, and don’t have everything dictated to them by Rolling Stone, or other popular institutions. This is because each person is, according to music jack-of-all-trades Alan Cross, their “own filter.” He says:

Today, we each have unlimited access to an unlimited amount of music.  While the labels, the radio, the video channels and whatever music magazines are left continue to provide us with music and music information, each one of us has the power to be our own filter.  WE now have control over everything we hear.

In that sort of cultural environment, taking directions is hard – and for the Don Draper’s of 2012, it’s even harder to predict what’s going to click with large chunks of the population, and how that can translate into continued profits. Cross goes on to relate how, because of this, it’s unlikely another musical movement like grunge is going to come along any time soon. Indeed, I’m quoting Cross from a post called “Can Grunge Become Huge Again? No.”

Sticking with grunge as an example, musical movements often draw out of a particular region, or are at least marketed that way. Now, as a society, we’ve lost the ability to support new widespread music crazes originating from a single source: no more new “British Invasions” or “Seattle Sounds.” Marketing is centered upon the individuals and not where they’re from – for instance, where is Justin Beiber from? Does he even know? Does it matter? Nope. But back in the day, The Ramones were synonymous with New York, and The Clash was with London. And it wasn’t just location that was vital – their attitude was key as well. The same goes for the Kony 2012 video – there were many different elements in play for it to carry such weight, including attitude and location. These factors coalesced for it have such a resonance.

Back in the early 90s, this powerful impact played out in the release of the Nirvana music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Its image matched the grievances of Generation X, and it unified an age cohort notorious for being splintered. Sound familiar? This initiated the grunge craze, and the mainstream music industry was finally able to tap into the long sought after market of mistfits, losers, and plaid wearing youth [insert sound of money being put into a register here].

What it took to do so was an understanding of the popular medium of the time, television – specifically, MTV. This was combined with other innovations, and of course, a rocking message in the form of the line “here we are now/ entertain us.” The popularity of the music video and the subsequent success of everything Seattle was initiated by marketing something creatively at the right time.

A similar thing occurred yesterday with the Kony 2012 video. It’s unclear whether it will have the same effect as the Nirvana video, but that’s a tall order to fill. Maybe our generation’s articulation is still coming, but if there’s one thing the folks at Invisible Children proved yesterday, it’s that it is actually possible to get Generation Y focused on something important (whether you disagree with it or not), for at least a little while. Finding a way to connect with youth en masse isn’t as impossible as it may seem to the music industry – you just need to be smart about it, and handle things in a unique way.

This means that with the proper balance of timing, innovation, and marketability, another movement could be around the corner. Somebody creative probably already has a plan on how to go about it, and if they are successful, it might lead to our generation finally finding its own voice. Heck, it might even mean the music industry will do something so remarkable, we’ll finally have to forgive it for what it did to Napster.

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One Comment on ““Kony 2012:” Our Generation’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” Or is that still around the corner?”

  1. colee112 Says:

    Nice comparison

    I compared Kony 2012 more with the social activism in USA surrounding the Vietnam war just on a much larger and more modern scale. It’s cool to watch how the world unfolds in doing similar movements but in such different ways depending on the times. We certainly have come a long way.


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