The Shaping of a Shapeless Generation : Does MTV Unify a Group Known Otherwise For its Sheer Diversity?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten years later, Douglas Coupland still remembers seeing MTV for the first time.

"I read this description once of an Andy Warhol exhibit: 'The future oozed like a mist out of his paintings,' " said Coupland, 29, author of "Generation X: Tales For an Accelerated Culture," a 1991 novel about people in their 20s seeking identity.

"In the same way, MTV was the future. It was instant. I remember back in 19... well, whenever it was, 1979 or 1980, I saw a Boomtown Rats video, 'I Don't Like Mondays.' It was really just a transformational moment," he said, adding, "I guess that really dates me."

Coupland's memory doesn't date him as much as identify him with a phenomenon currently enjoying its own 15 minutes of fame. Much has been written about the so-called "baby buster" generation--the fairly anonymous group of 20ish young adults struggling to separate themselves from the shadow of the baby boomers. For the past few years the media has tried to pin a label on this demographic--but nothing seems to fit.

The group's newest moniker, "the MTV generation," might be the most accurate description yet. For while much has been made about the generation's lack of a single unifying theme or experience, its members seem to have one thing in common: music videos.

According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., seven out of 10 people between the ages of 18 and 24 tune into MTV at least once a month.

"In the last 10 years this age group was sort of growing up as MTV was coming up," said Lauren Lazin, producer-director of a new documentary titled "MTV Generation."

The documentary, which airs on MTV today, gives a sweeping profile of some of the more than 22 million Americans between 21 and 25 years old. Through statistical information, individual interviews and, of course, music, the show discusses the group's ambitions and concerns and attempts to find some similarities within a demographic group whose main characteristic may well be its sheer diversity.

"The media is always talking about (people of this generation), always labeling them," said Doug Herzog, MTV's senior vice president of programming. "We thought, gee, wouldn't it be interesting to hear what this generation has to say about themselves, in first person?"

Herzog adds that MTV wasn't originally planning to do its own labeling by calling the special "MTV Generation." "But in this generation, for better or for worse, I think we have had a fairly significant influence--from tastes in music to just attitude and style and fashion. (MTV's influence) is certainly not confined to just who's going to be the biggest pop star this week."

All of which raises the question: Just how deeply has MTV affected those who came of age with music video?

"The key to this generation is to keep in mind what environment they grew up in," said John Kenney, 26, who helped found the mock-serious National Association for the Advancement of Time two years ago, when hyper-nostalgic baby boomers were going gaga over the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Love. Kenney, who appears in "MTV Generation," credits MTV with changing the face of music, but he said world events have had more of an impression on his peers.

"This generation grew up watching a President resign, watching 2-mile lines at gas pumps, watching a nation in decline," he said. "Madonna and MTV and Springsteen, that stuff has an influence, but the world has more of an influence."

Coupland, however, said he thinks MTV's impact is profound--and, for the most part, positive. "I was in Europe last summer and MTV is everywhere! It's in the bars, in the homes, in the coffee shops. ... I didn't realize how completely global it was, what it has done to homogenize the ... youth culture.

"It's an interesting theme of modern times," he continued. "They say that the amount of information on this planet doubles every 10 years. Kids get out of MTV the right way of dealing with this information."

"The MTV Generation," Lazin said, directly addresses the pros and cons of MTV, which has been criticized for everything from placing too much emphasis on image to promoting short attention spans and the need for constant entertainment in its audience.

"There are very contrasting views," she said. "One said that we're just bombarded with information all the time. The other camp believes that this generation knows how to process information. They're not mesmerized by television; they can see what the propaganda is behind TV shows."

Brett O'Brien, 25, who started his own Beverly Hills public relations and marketing firm two years ago, agrees with the second view. "Our generation has a competitive advantage (in knowing how to process information). We're in a situation to be a lot sharper than the baby boomers. People nowadays have more to contribute, if they can figure out a way to break through the hierarchy."

Aside from its effect on viewers' attention spans, MTV's liberal political ideas also seem to echo the attitudes of this generation--though it is difficult to tell whether the beliefs originated with the audience or with MTV itself.

"I think, in a sense, people our age really don't know who we are," said Linda Burleson, 24, comptroller for a Texas environmental engineering company and a member of Young Republicans. "It's kind of like when you're a first-time parent, all you know is what your parents taught you. This applies in some ways to television: Whenever you don't know what you should do in some situation, you think about what you see on TV and you emulate it."

Burleson, who said she is conservative economically but more liberal on reproductive issues, added that MTV sometimes "gives the impression that this is it and you shouldn't think any other way. You see so much political correctness. They just beat you over the head with a lot of issues."

But discussing a generation criticized for its apathy, some might argue that any exposure to political issues is better than no exposure at all, even if those messages--anti-racism, anti-drugs, pro-voting--are sandwiched between the video antics of such groups as Guns N' Roses and Metallica.

"I think we need to make our generation understand how issues pertain to us," said Candy Kern, 23, president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Organization of Women. "I think most people postpone their political involvement (until it's too late)."

But MTV's Lazin said she thinks this generation gets a bad rap. "I think they see MTV as more of an environment, rather than this omnipresent force telling them what to think. They see the world around them and take little bits of what they think is best. They see TV as fodder with which to create their own thing."

Certainly, some members of this demographic group would prefer to create themselves in their own image, rather than be labeled as a generation. "The '60s generation, which sort of prided itself on individuality, really had a mass mentality," said John Kenney. "The current generation is a lot more splintered."

And as for being called "The MTV Generation"?

"MTV would like to have us believe that everyone in their 20s is the MTV Generation. That's like going through life with a big product placement tattooed on your head," said Douglas Coupland. "As if they're the only cultural influence on the entire planet."

"MTV Generation" airs today at 2 and 9 p.m. on MTV.

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