Anne H Petersen. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 3. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
In 2004, the reality craze appeared to be slowly winding down. While still popular, teens were tiring of The Real World and Road Rules. The O.C. had just enjoyed runaway success as a summer filler on Fox, highlighting the lavish lifestyles of Orange County’s rich and incestuous social scene. MTV wanted a show that would function as a hybrid of The O.C. and MTV’s reliable reality format but recognized the need for participants who looked like teens—unlike those on Beverly Hills, 90210 or The O.C., these kids could look sophisticated, but they had to be believable. In Laguna Beach, a small, insulated town an hour south of Los Angeles, MTV found their ideal: a group of teens wealthy enough to make their lives appear different, interesting, and desirable, yet living in a small enough town that gossip would run wild. These teens were raw star material, primed for production as the newest in a long line of MTV stars.
The success of MTV’s Laguna Beach hinges on its incorporation of reality television codes with those of melodrama. Establishing Laguna Beach as “real”—each episode begins with an assurance that “the people, the locations, and the drama … are real”—makes it palatable to MTV’s key demographic, an age-group that, as Richard Siklos emphasizes, is “endlessly fascinated with watching themselves.”1 In so doing, MTV has prolonged its remarkable track record with the famously fickle teen market, redefining yet again what it takes to cater to and succeed with the coveted 12 to 34 demographic. The show revolves around signs (the first day of school; the lead-up to Prom) that form a code readily decipherable as “high school.” MTV further captivates its viewers by running its raw footage through the sifter of melodrama, a genre reliable for its potential for star production. Placing emphasis on the hyperbolic, the spectacular, and the extravagant, evident in methods of character typeage, backdrop, costuming, and plot manipulation, Laguna Beach produces the newest generation of MTV stars, ensuring future consumption and network devotion. MTV’s employment of melodramatic characterization and narrative devices emerges as an effective, if not entirely subtle, method of star production and commodification, as well as the root of Laguna Beach’s sensational success. Ultimately, MTV’s trajectory may be traced into New Media forms, with the potential for sustained star production as a new generation of MTV viewers moves from the living room couch to the personal computer. Since its inception, MTV has repeatedly redefined the teen market. Even after 25 years, it remains both arbiter and merchant of cool, titles that it wields prominently and powerfully within the business of entertainment.
When MTV launched into the American consciousness in August of 1981, its first video declared “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Twenty-five years later, with MTV’s programming schedule dominated by My Super Sweet Sixteen, Made, Pimp My Ride, and the current jewel of its reality crown, Laguna Beach, “reality” has effectively killed the video star. MTV’s transformation may be traced to the early 1990s, when the network introduced a number of programs that focused more on youth behavior than pure music videos. In order to cope with coming-of-age, teens no longer simply needed music. Instead, they demand images that instruct how to live, how to construct their lifestyle, where to go on spring break, how to dance, what to ridicule, and so forth.
Starting with the premiere of The Real World in 1992, MTV began its evolutionary transformation. MTV’s new focus was not simply on music, nor exclusively on behavior—instead, it concentrated on a hybrid of the two, both interwoven with a bold capitalist thread. This hybrid manifests most succinctly in the form of the reality show, itself filled with heavy musical soundtracks and depictions of lifestyle. These shows exemplify the notion of melodrama—melos, the Greek for song, combined with drama; while so many complain that MTV no longer plays music videos, in truth, it’s simply begun to make their own, coupling songs with dramatic reality footage. While reality television has proliferated across networks and genres, MTV pioneered the concept, collecting the “real stories” of young American adults coming-of-age in a group scenario. The crux of MTV’s overall success may be found in its creation of demand and subsequent fulfillment of that demand. With The Real World, MTV created the demand for reality television. Ten years later, with Laguna Beach, it continues to fulfill that demand, particularly for the teenage market.
More than any movie studio, MTV is in the business of star production: cultivating popular identities for audience consumption. Instead of looking to past successes in the teen market, MTV thoroughly examines current teen society, carefully crafting new stars for whom they can predict success. Historically, the star represents an economic paradox. Stars serve as the most reliable determination of audience consumption, yet, they also unpredictably rise and fall from audience graces.
In light of such unpredictability, MTV bypasses established stars, choosing instead to produce stars of its own. As was the case with the traditional star system, in which studios relied on masses of starry-eyed hopefuls to cheaply fuel an abundance of films, MTV depends on hordes of fame-hungry teens. Whether they’re musicians or simply willing to sell the story of their sixteenth birthday, these kids are willing to shape themselves into whatever MTV wants them to be. Plus, they’re free: Why pay for stars when you have droves of young, desperate, wannabe star material? MTV thus exemplifies the practice of reality star production: hand picking its own stars, molding and directing them in “real” life situations, then profiting from the resultant fame. With no real middleman, the profits are nearly entirely theirs.
Stars communicate significant messages concerning specific societal ethos: On the level of the subconscious, innate contradictions of society may be reconciled through the existence of one shining star. MTV focuses on the contradictions of a particular teen era, producing stars that similarly “smooth over” the holes in the social fabric of teen existence. Watching a star successfully navigate society helps a teen to feel less anxiety about his own struggles. Whether Beavis and Butthead or Johnny Knoxville, Daria or Martha Quinn, each star was produced by MTV to embody and reconcile the contradictions of a specific moment in teen history. Stars don’t last long on MTV—as soon as the cultural moment passes, the star no longer functions as intended. MTV simply replaces the star with a new construction fit to embody the contradictions of the new cultural moment. In the late 2000s, Laguna Beach filled that role.
Bob Pittman, cofounder of MTV, has repeatedly articulated the appeal of his network to teen audiences. In his words, for “TV babies who grew up on rock and roll … the strongest appeal you can make (to them) is emotional. If you can get their emotions going (and make them forget logic), you’ve got them.” As MTV first discovered with the music video, and continues to exploit with the reality television show, the best way to “get their emotions going” is through melodrama. While Laguna Beach is ostensibly a piece of reality television, MTV structures its raw footage using melodramatic codes. Image, tableaux, and excess of expression construct and fortify recognizable character types. The stronger the type, the more readily she may be marketed as a star: Static identities sustain consumption. Audiences are thus encouraged to emulate such types, constructing identity through consumption in order to recreate the Laguna social scene.
Image and Tableaux
In Laguna Beach, characters are “turned inside out” and displayed in lavish homes, breathtaking ocean vistas, and trips to Cabo San Lucas. Thomas Elsaesser has suggested that in melodrama, “what is inexpressible in the narrative overflows into the more absorbent, purely aesthetic vehicles where it assumes an antithetical relation to the action … emotion is exteriorized in the lush mise-en-scene, almost as though characters are turned inside out and their interiority displayed (in coded form) in the décor.” As columnist Bill Keveney points out, throughout Laguna, “bonds are formed over bonfires on the beach, tested while foraging for $250 jeans, and broken in a steamy jacuzzi with hillside views that extent to Pacific horizons.” The on-screen image simultaneously emboldens and reflects character conflict. As a rule, pivotal discussions take place on the beach: As a couple or enemies hash out their relationship, the tumultuous ocean serves as a metaphor for teenage romance, while the sight and sound of the ocean aggravates the disagreement.
Interiority is likewise displayed in visual tableaux, whose motive Peter Brooks defines as a means to “give the spectator the opportunity to see meanings represented, emotions and moral states rendered in clear visible signs.” The fast pace and cutting style of Laguna Beach distance it from traditional tableaux vivants, in which characters would stand still for hours at a time to communicate, like a painting, a singular idea. Yet, Laguna Beach periodically pauses to create the MTV iteration of the tableaux, in which the pop/rock soundtrack overwhelms the diegetic sound. In these moments, the audience is meant to contemplate the significance of the scene, the words of the melos amplifying the drama. The female protagonist stands looking toward the beach after saying goodbye to her exboyfriend, the waves crashing, the sun setting. The words and tone of the song communicate the wistful and bittersweet emotion of the scene; music usurps speech, rendering characters effectively mute. Peter Brooks explains that in melodrama mutes may “represent extreme moral and emotional conditions … [their] very physical presence evokes the extremism and hyperbole of ethical conflict and manichaeistic struggle.” The mute thus resorts to teenage gestural vocabulary—meaningful looks, hand-holds, the middle-finger—to convey her moral and emotional condition. Editing and camerawork contribute to this effect, seeking out and isolating moments of wordless communication. These images—the sea, the beach, the mute—fashion a giant iconic tapestry that, when read collectively, communicates overarching thematic concerns. In the case of Laguna Beach, we repeatedly receive the intensely high school theme of coming-of-age and leaving home. The extravagant ocean backdrop serves to amplify the protagonist’s mental state: She is gleefully leaving Laguna for college, yet sad to leave her long-time boyfriend and hometown. Like the tide, her emotions ebb and flow; like the setting sun, she is primed to begin a new portion of her life. The cast’s yearly trip to Cabo San Lucas serves a similar function. As one cast member explains, Cabo is “partying non-stop, sleeping about four hours a day.” The heightened exoticism of the Mexican coast aggravates emotional tensions, bringing already volatile conflicts to a boiling point. Extreme emotions are externalized in the extreme beauty of their surroundings: This ocean is bluer than that of Laguna, the sky clearer, the sand more pristine. Cabo is an intensified version of Laguna, and the emotions escalate accordingly.
Excess of Expression
High-flown sentiment exemplifies melodrama and permeates Laguna Beach, functioning to further solidify established character types. Being teenagers, the cast of Laguna often struggle to articulate themselves, straining to straddle the divide between their child and adult selves. Similarly, Gledhill observes that melodramatic characters “faced with the decentered self” and “the evasiveness of language,” respond with declamatory speech and spectacular sentiment. Granted, hyperbolic emotion and expression are no novelty to anyone acquainted with actual teens, yet the manner in which Laguna edits and replays the drama presents it as constant and definitive. Alcohol compounds teen speech habits, refining characters and attitudes through reiteration: A party is either “so fun” or “super lame”; a boy is either “way hot” or “stupid”; a girl is either “a super bitch” or “so sweet.” In reality, these teens likely discuss, at least to some extent, issues divergent from parties, boys, and other girls, and perhaps do so in a less definitive manner. In “reality,” however, at least in its Laguna manifestation, editing creates the illusion of repetitive near-histrionic speech, brimming with the sensational sentiment of melodrama. MTV exploits the melodramatic tropes of image, tableaux, and declamatory speech as means of creating static, maximized character types, prime for stardom and fan emulation. Melodrama makes types; types make stars—this is a tried and true formula long-practiced in Hollywood and deftly translated to the twenty-first century in Laguna Beach. This formula for reality star production, first developed with The Real World, now permeates the network: From My Super Sweet Sixteen to I Love New York, from Made to Life of Ryan, MTV has capitalized on the format. And, as testified by the success of shows as various as Dancing with the Stars and America’s Next Top Model, the model continues to spread. Large networks and specialized cable channels have personalized the model for their own uses, relying on relatively small production budgets to spark massive ratings. It’s the twenty-first-century equivalent of the variety show: Hone in on a market, hire a genial host, and let the cheap talent do the work.
Maximized Character Types
Star production has long hinged on the ability to produce and reproduce recognizable character types. Dyer defines the type as “a shared, recognisable, easily grasped image of how people are in society.” A star is made significant, and thus successful, for his or her ability to embody such a type. In melodrama, the type is hyperbolized and emboldened, a process that facilitates audience recognition and an actor’s consequent rise to stardom. Melodramatic types are made to embody “maximum states of age, beauty, strength, revenge, or whatever.” Such personification allows individual characters to represent greater social forces—goodness, evil, change, innovation, and so forth—that will function as “clear psychic and moral identities” amidst the drama. Devoid of complexity, the melodramatic star embodies a singular sentiment: In the eyes of the audience, she becomes goodness, embodies change, personifies evil, and so forth. She is transparent, easily digestible, readily placed within the social sphere, and, as a result, immensely popular.
In the 1950s, types included The Rebel, The Good Joe, The Pin-Up, The Independent Woman, The Tough Guy, amongst others. Paul McDonald points to the manner in which types transcend decades, as The Rebel, once embodied by Marlon Brando and James Dean, was personified in the 1980s and ‘90s by Christian Slater and Sean Penn. For Laguna Beach, MTV has created new, twenty-first-century types, readily recognizable for teens navigating the landscape of high school. The Alpha Girl, The Sweetheart, The Slut, The Diva, The Player, The Rebel, and The Hottie represent the new teen typeage, in which cliques and their corresponding hierarchy dictate social interactions. Laguna Beach asserts and amplifies these types using myriad methods, especially print PR campaigns and features on its online component, MTV Overdrive.
The term Alpha Girl, interchangeable with Queen Bee, first became part of the vernacular following Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book Queen Bees and Wannabes, a contemporary update of Reviving Ophelia. Wiseman breaks down the cliques, gossip, and social hierarchy of the girl world, in which a Queen Bee/Alpha Girl commands a group of Wannabes/Beta Girls. The Sweetheart, similar to the Alpha Girl but lacking in powers of charismatic manipulation, functions as the social enemy. She generally lacks the malice and social know-how of the Queen Bee; plainly put, she’s a nice girl who’d much rather everyone simply get along. Yet, opposition is as essential to the Queen Bee as lip-gloss—if the Sweetheart doesn’t exist, the Queen Bee will invent one, if only to demonstrate her rule. Beta Girls/Wannabes function in accordance with their titles. Less beautiful, less charismatic, less persuasive, and thus unqualified to fulfill the role of Queen, these girls are insecure and chronic gossips, calculating their actions and words to gain approval from their leader. On the other side of the gender line, boys participate in these cliques as pure objects to be won or lost, functioning as little more than pawns in the elaborate social game. In each season of Laguna Beach, the show centers on this exact social set-up, with a Queen Bee as the primary catalyst for action.
The Alpha Girl/Queen Bee
In seasons one and two, Kristin fills the Alpha Girl role. A blond-haired and flippant arbiter of cool, Kristin dictates the interaction between her small army of Beta girls and the other dominant group of girls. On Overdrive, Kristin’s “cast info” description distills her Alpha Girl status, allowing her to become the will to party and dominate the social sphere:
No one has more fun than Kristin. Last year she was in the shadow of the seniors, but this year it’s her turn to rule the school. All she wants to do is party and leave behind the drama from last year. […] Parties, bonfires, ski trips, and another hot spring break getaway—this is Kristin’s year … When Stephen comes home from college, how will she feel? And with so many other boys interested, including the always charming Talan, it’s all up to Kristin. Who will she choose?
The language emphasizes her status as superlative: “no one” has more fun. The use of possessives is equally suggestive—“this is Kristin’s year”; it’s “her turn” to rule the school. The language also streamlines Kristin’s desires and emphasizes her agency: All she wants to do is party and go on trips; it’s all up to her.
Such construction is further facilitated through the use of supporting characters. Each main Laguna type has a corresponding best friend to drive the narrative and elucidate types. Like the literary foil character, the best friend serves as the backdrop from which the maximized type may distinguish herself. Kristin and her best friend, Alex H., are both snarky, obsessed with the same boys, and devoted to heavy black eyeliner and blond highlights. Yet, Kristin is clearly the maximization of the type visible in Alex H.—whenever Alex appears on screen, she is labeled, narratively and literally, as “Kristin’s Friend.” The supporting character likewise drives narrative discovery of the maximized type, beginning each scene with a leading question—”Did you have fun last night?” “Do you still like Talan?” “What do you think about Stephen?” and so forth. Such probing questions allow the Alpha Girl to express and disseminate her opinions and schemes for the future.
Embodying the type of the Alpha Girl, Kristin’s role in the melodrama is firmly established and predictable. In essence, MTV has produced and stabilized her star—Kristin is now easily marketable through reiteration in other MTV productions, most clearly in her season three replica, Kyndra. Reporting on the premiere of the third season of Laguna Beach, columnist Verna Gay declares “what’s amazing, if entirely predictable, is that MTV has fashioned a near-perfect carbon copy of seasons one and two.” The season three cast indeed reincarnates the roles of the past two seasons, with Kyndra filling the role of Alpha Girl/Queen Bee vacated by Kristin. Kyndra has been described as “a mean girl of the highest order, with a Joan Collins manner that would seem to belong to someone twice her age.” Her profile in People asserts “people like her, people are scared of her.” Entertainment Weekly captions her “The Queen of Snide” who “does not have … what do you call them? Oh, yes, feelings.” When Tessa introduces her in the voiceover at the beginning of season three, she is described as the “Queen of Mean.” Here it becomes obvious that Kyndra not only fulfills the Queen Bee type, but exemplifies, even overfills, it—she is all that Kristin was in terms of manipulation, but while Kristin possessed some semblance of emotional rooting, Kyndra is portrayed as feckless and cold, utterly one-dimensional. Her Overdrive bio declares “With the best party house, the right clothes and tons of money to spend, Kyndra is the reigning queen of Laguna.” Her character is a sum of pretty and conniving parts that combine as a driving force of evil in the show.
Costume further reinforces Kyndra’s type. In Laguna Beach, despite the fact that the teens dress themselves, clothing takes on immense significance. In her work on melodramatic costume, Jane Gaines has asserted that costume detail “[stands], again and again, for the same thing, and could be counted on to provide basic information about a character for the spectator, that is, typified.” Similar to classic cinema, where costume details were “fixed,” Laguna Beach expresses essential aspects of a character through clothing, overcoming the teenage communication barrier through “storytelling ward-robes.” In the publicity shots for season three, Kyndra wears a satiny green top that hugs her body, gathering at her chest to accentuate her figure. Her neck is wrapped with gold chains and necklaces that match her golden skin tone and highlights. The sumptuous silk of Kyndra’s top simulates skin and renders a notion of emotional hypersensitivity that further expresses her capricious nature. Her jewelry connotes an abundance of wealth; her tan and highlights speak to a life of leisure. Taken collectively, the end effect of Kyndra’s outfit is one of sumptuous luxury, a key aspect of Kyndra’s typeage as Alpha Girl/Queen Bee.
Kristin and Kyndra function as the counterpart to The Sweetheart, embodied by Tessa in season three. Tessa is “super nice to everyone,” and although she and Kyndra used to be friends, she’s no longer part of the “cool girls” she identifies with in the first episode. Tessa is soft-spoken and registers every emotion on her face; with a long mane of black hair, she is physically differentiated from the Alpha Girls of past and present. Indeed, for prom, “Sweetheart” Tessa sews her own dress, creating a piece of costume that distinguishes her from the popular/mean girls. While the rival girls all wear short, flirty dresses, hers is full-length, sleek, and elegant. Tessa accessorizes with minimal jewelry and wears her long hair down, further distancing her look from those of the rival clique. Her delicate emotions are externalized in the fine construction of the dress; its floor length signifying her guarded heart. However, two long slits reveal Tessa’s legs—she may be covering herself emotionally but nevertheless remains susceptible to romantic/sexual appeal, as manifested by her destructive flirtation with an ex-boyfriend at episode’s end. Her “photobook,” available at MTV Overdrive, reaffirms her typed identity through a series of posed glamour shots. In all but one, Tessa smiles wide, her eyes kind and welcoming. Her set of photos creates a stark contrast with those of Kyndra and her “deputies,” Lexi and Cami, whose photobooks are dominated by shots of each girl looking alternately scornful and full of mirth. In the one picture in which Tessa’s smile falters, she looks sideways at the camera, her face in profile against a bamboo backdrop. In this photo, Tessa’s face emanates a flash of vulnerability and tenderness that only further supports her type. Her Overdrive bio explains that “during her junior year, Tessa just wants to find the right boy,” communicating a harmless desire for companionship and affection. Tessa’s character is structured as a force for good—in terms that an MTV viewer can understand, her heart, like her skin, is clean and pure.
As mentioned previously, through the process of melodramatic characterization, types come to “embody ethical forces” present in the melodrama—Kyndra becomes a force of meanness, Tessa becomes a force of goodness. Characters are “essentially whole”—but as Robert Heilman emphasizes, such wholeness “implies neither greatness nor moral perfection, but rather an absence of basic inner conflict that, if it is present, must inevitably claim our primary attention.” Put differently, these melodramatic characters are utterly without internal psychic conflict. There is no psychology to melodrama—conflict does not occur within the character but between a character and an external force: another person, a group, an event, or nature.
In this way, melodrama presents everyday life as a theater of Manichean struggles where the world becomes morally legible. Historically, as the social hierarchy ceased to be the measure of all things, the traditional values and ethics that had given society its particular cohesion were either lost or loosened. Melodramatic forms developed as a response to such “loosening”: “infus[ing] human actions with ethical consequences and therefore with significance.” For Laguna’s teen audience, authoritative forces (church, parental control) have loosened or muddled their attempts at moral guidance, creating confusion and ambivalence. Laguna Beach, however, offers a narrative in which forces of right/wrong and good/evil are clearly delineated. Such moral legibility proves naturally attractive—while adults and other authorities, school, media, or otherwise, attempt to trivialize teen experiences, Laguna privileges events as ostensibly meaningless as a social snub, allowing them to take on significant ethical consequences. Laguna Beach infuses the teen experience with moral significance, thus allowing audience members to imbue their own experiences in similar fashion. Such has always been the brilliance of MTV within the entertainment world—its understanding that teens oftentimes simply want media, like their elders, to acknowledge and validate their interests. Disney and Nickelodeon follow the same formula, only for younger teens and ‘tweens; The CW has attempted a similar structure, centering their schedule around Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, and Gilmore Girls to moderate success. MTV, however, retains its dominion over the teen landscape, profiting off of the emotional and moral needs of its teen audience.
Laguna’s conflict may be morally rooted, but it nevertheless exists purely on the level f the exterior: Mean Girls are mean to Nice Girls, The Player plays the Love-Crazy, and so forth. In Laguna Beach, characters remain static, maintaining a loyalty to their types, evidencing both wholeness and absence of inner psychology. Kristin begins and ends as an Alpha Girl; Tessa never deviates from her Sweetheart type. In the majority of reality shows, each character regularly enters into a private “confessional” to confide their inner thoughts, a trope first established by MTV’s Real World. Laguna Beach, however, offers no window into the soul—whatever souls these characters are meant to possess are externally manifested.
The reasoning behind this superficial characterization is simple: Externalized personality allows for a commodified personality. If a character is the sum of her external parts, each of those parts may be readily packaged and sold for audience consumption. We witness the culmination of MTV’s melodramatic characterization in commercial components of Laguna Beach’s Overdrive site: complete commodification of the type. MTV and its advertisers capitalize on these types, insinuating that audience members can replicate Laguna characters (and participate in their subculture) through consumption. The process is facilitated through Laguna’s Overdrive component, whose hypertexutality and heavy imagery encourages quick linking to easy purchases. In Overdrive Segment “Celeb Picks: Laguna Beach,” season three types of Kyndra (Queen Bee) and Chase (The Rebel) are blatantly reduced to their product preferences. The sidebar explains that “here, Chase, the hard-rockin’ lead singer of Open Air Stereo, and Kyndra, the reigning queen of Laguna, dish on what keeps them hot and sexy.” In the accompanying interactive display, commodities surround the image of Chase and Kyndra. When a particular commodity rotates to the front—a Land Rover, Kiehl’s soap, and so forth—a comment from one of the characters endorses it. “I love Rock and Republic jeans,” Kyndra explains, followed by, “I’m so obsessed with my Sidekick 3!” Rock and Republic Jeans are priced between $200-$300; the Sidekick 3 sells for between $300-$400. Yet again, Kyndra is typified through the possession and endorsement of luxury items. As Aufderheide emphasizes, “pop culture commodities express personal taste, even identity and identification with a subculture.” Kyndra is thus defined by her Sidekick 3 and Rock and Republic jeans, rendering such commodities necessary accessories for audience identification with the subculture of Laguna Beach.Type is further commodified through style segment “Get the Laguna Look,” also accessible through Overdrive. In the slideshow, sponsored by L’Oreal, Tessa’s type is disassembled and made available for purchase in the form of L’Oreal products. The sidebar questions:
Think Leading Laguna Lady Tessa is the only one that can master the classic girl-next-door look? Think again. With tips to boost your makeup regimen and accent your wardrobe with crisp accessories, you’ll give the popular, polished ladies in class a run for their money … Think all Laguna beauties were blessed with flawless skin and an envious flush? Nope. The magic is in the makeup. Enlist the help of L’Oreal Paris to get this look.
The comments are paired with a picture of a teen with Tessa-style makeup, proving that you, too, can use make-up to resemble the girl-next-door style embodied in Tessa. However, as the ad proclaims, the “magic is in the makeup”—only through consumption can Tessa’s type truly be duplicated.
The business benefits of such commodity typage are obvious. Granted, the “Celeb Picks” page does not go so far as to directly link to the T-Mobile (creator of the Sidekick 3) Web site. But T-Mobile certainly advertises with MTV and other subsidiaries of Viacom, MTV’s parent company. In this way, Kyndra’s endorsement of the Sidekick 3 works as a thank-you card to T-Mobile, encouraging continued business. This sort of integrated advertising, product placement, and “courtesy copy” characterizes MTV productions, including its stable of reality programs, films, Total Request Live, and extensive online content. Realizing that teens hate to be told what to buy, MTV infuses its products with implicit suggestion. While MTV certainly does not shy from traditional commercials and advertising, its untraditional, integrated, teen-specific approach serves as yet another facet of its sustained success.
Conclusions: Hermetically Sealed
Laguna’s success hinges on its hermetic closure from the world: These teens seem utterly disengaged from world events, social troubles, or class concerns. As Heffernan supports in her review, “the innovation of Laguna Beach has been to present hermetic court intrigue with its own logic, sidelining entirely the scullery maids and pageboys who have no chance at the upper ranks. Leave it to someone else to tell their story.” In Laguna Beach, money is not an issue, simply a means to an end. The show is stuck in a holding pattern—its characters may leave Laguna, but a new set of teens will re-enter and replay their selfsame drama on screen, refilling their roles, re-enacting their fights.
If Laguna Beach is indeed a bellwether of programming to come, should we view such a holding pattern with disdain? Can we trace MTV’s trajectory past Laguna and sketch the future of MTV programming? In his article on the Beavis and Butthead generation, Robert Kellner questions if there is indeed “no future for post-modern youth.” In Kellner’s conception, postmodern youth, “conceived in the sights and sounds of media culture, possibly weaned on it, and socialized by the glass teat of television used as a pacifier, baby sitter, and educator by a generation of parents for whom media culture, especially television, was a natural background and constitutive part of everyday life.”26 Kellner further asserts that Beavis and Butthead “depicts the dissolution of a rational subject,” potentially signaling “the end of Enlightenment in today’s media culture.” Kellner wrote those words in 1995, meaning that today, in the late 2000s, the end days should be upon us. I would argue, however, that for all of MTV’s melodramatic manipulation, despite its blatant star production and commodification, its audience has become more enlightened. They have proven increasingly cognizant, if perhaps not critical, of how the network fosters consumption.
Contrary to Kellner’s conclusion, these postmodern youth, along with their audience, most definitely do have a future, even if it is one overwhelmingly characterized by conspicuous consumption and surveillance. They acknowledge and encourage such surveillance, reproducing the typed and melodramatic teenage behaviors normalized through MTV. When Beavis and Butthead were popular, these teens were but six years old, arguably out of reach of the pair’s destructive nihilism. What they have watched, however, are reality shows. When Survivor began its domination of the ratings in 2000, Laguna teens were 11 years old, beginning their truly formative “tween” years. Their generation has internalized the notion of surveillance as “a form of entertainment and self-expression” that effectively democratizes celebrity. In short, these kids like to be watched. Not only do they like it, but they’re savvy as to how best to conduct themselves in order to further their own celebrity. They’ve been conditioned by a decade of reality television as to what makes a star: fights, deception, tears, devastation, triumph. In a word, melodrama. The excess of expression, declamatory speech, characterization as type … while MTV edits to amplify these elements, they were undoubtedly present in the raw footage. Teenagers are innately dramatic, no question, but the teens of Laguna feed into the expected and successful melodramatic formula.
Heather Havrilesky puts a fine point on this phenomenon, especially in reference to season three, asking “are the girls really that sketchy, or are they much smarter than they look, smart enough to know that the producers and audiences at home want a catfight more than anything else, perpetuating that age-old story about how women are nasty and merciless to each other?” A Los Angeles Times interview with Kami and Kyndra highlights this behavior: “the current Laguna Beach kids are conscious of the template provided by their predecessors.” Cami “is aware that hyperbole makes for better television”; Kyndra is quoted defending her bitchy character, explaining “if everyone played the nice little girl, then no one’s gonna watch the show … so I’d rather draw people into watching the show.” Having watched and internalized seasons one and two, Kyndra and the rest of the season three cast have come to naturally recreate the roles that MTV previously produced via edits and plot manipulation.
The Laguna generation has been raised on television but are increasingly exposed to New Media: the Internet, the cell phone, the iPod, Google. Andrejevic claims that surveillance, as normalized through reality television, “train[s] viewers and consumers for their role in the ‘interactive’ economy.” Watching reality television introduces the viewer to the reality of constant surveillance, exchanging fearful notions of Orwell’s “Big Brother” for the “softer, kinder gaze” of surveillance displayed in reality television. With surveillance thus normalized, the viewer may feel more at ease in surrendering his vital information through online transactions. Instead of feeling paranoid at the prospect of corporate omniscience, the consumer is made to feel grateful, his needs better served through tailorization. The reality show not only normalizes surveillance and online consumption but makes all other forms look obsolete, a theory maximized in MTV’s newest foray into youth culture, Virtual Laguna Beach.
A marriage between Laguna and the online role-playing game Second Life, Virtual Laguna Beach allows participants to adopt an avatar, create a matching personality, and “live” in the virtual Laguna Beach community, exchanging actual currency for virtual “MTV dollars,” which may then be used to purchase virtual commodities. Richard Siklos elaborates on VLB’s advertising potential: “visitors might buy a digital outfit for parties using currency they earned watching an infomercial or checking out a new product for an MTV advertiser. Then, they might decide that they would like to by the same outfit for their offline selves, and, with a few clicks of the mouse and some real dollars, have on shipped to their home.” VLB is a risky venture, and despite an initial enrollment of thousands, questions remain as to its potential for sustained success. While it fails to draw nearly the audience or participation as the actual show or MTV Overdrive, it does present a significant step forward into the world of interactive New Media. If an MTV audience in Laguna Beach, California, were cognizant enough of the melodramatic self-typage necessary to render them stars, then who’s to say that another MTV audience, this one spread throughout cyberspace, won’t prove similarly savvy? Do virtual worlds serve as the next theater for MTV, melodrama, and star production?
This seems to be the future of the formerly future-less: coming-of-age online, where commodities and surveillance are king. In this amorphous existence, where identity becomes fluid (albeit based on consumption), teens can be whoever they’d like, acquiring whatever body, face, or demeanor they choose. They becomes stars of their own worlds; writers of their own star texts. In essence, Virtual Laguna Beach allows teens to revert to childhood, playing dress-up and make-believe all over again. In a candid moment during season three, while the camera focuses on various couples walking to prom, Kyndra and Cami appear in the periphery of the shot, posing to take a quick self-portrait. They smile and quickly flip the camera to regard their digital image: “oh my GOD!” they scream, “who ARE we?” One might say they’re whoever MTV wants them to be. But, perhaps more optimistically, they’re whoever they want to be, so long as it allows them to achieve their goals. That, like the best melodrama, speaks to the moral issues of our times: they’re trying on roles, figuring out how best to be adults. Melodrama, like stars, evolves with the times—and in an era characterized by its reliance on digitization, surveillance, and consumerism, Laguna Beach and its stars indeed provide, for better or worse, a salve for the twenty-first-century teenage psyche.