Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Editorial: How Mass Media Shapes Our Tastes

For better or worse, mainstream mass media will be here to stay as long as we remain a technologically-connected global village. Film, TV, the Interwebs, mobile devices, and monitors at every bus and gas station populate our visual landscape. When it comes to depicting hip hop and street dance, it seems that we've fallen into some familiar stereotypes again in film and television. Most of this is due to show and film producers having to target a specific audience in order to stay financially viable. For TV, it's selling a brand name of the show as well as promotional space for advertisers. For filmmakers, it's a challenge to get a demographic to buy tickets. So, as a commercial strategy, it's a smart move to pick the teenage and young adult groups as the audience for most dance shows and films. But is this limiting the artistic possibilities for dancers in these media fields? (Photo above is from a Google Images search for television.)

While many current dance shows and films are enjoyable, will we ever see stories funded by major entertainment networks and studios that have more diverse storylines? Right now, it seems that there is a stockpile of familiar characters in every dance film. But our real lives show that street dancers come in all shapes and sizes. We have multiple interests, careers, and backgrounds. We're teachers, graphic designers, dedicated college students, architects, and much more. But these traits rarely appear on screen. Due to their financial considerations, maybe we can't expect studios and networks to provide the more diverse portraits of dancers on screen. Perhaps we have to take responsibility for that and initiate a grass-roots movement. That's why there's so much emphasis within the underground community on education of our history and technique. When we pass things on to another willing mind in person, we're planting the seeds for their own personal growth. Mass media may have initially shaped these students' perceptions of hip hop dance culture, but we can better inform them to help them think critically about our artforms. Right now, it seems that there is a whole subculture of information arising through the Interwebs. Online forums, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter are becoming alternate sources of information that we can investigate to compare what we've seen on the big screen.

Mass media shapes our tastes only if we allow it to dominate our thinking. Yes, our awareness can be informed by these mass media products, but we can take steps to make personal statements that reflect more truth from our experiences. What if street dancers started making their own dance documentaries and distributing them online through Youtube and social networking? What if we organized a stronger teaching network so that experienced instructors could share their history in more direct ways to a new generation of students? And what if we put our stories out into the global blogosphere so that folks outside of our community can get a better picture of our lives? We can do it. The tools are right in front of us. Even as we speak, there is a growing population of aspiring dancers and appreciative fans who are searching Google, Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter for any shred of information that feeds their appetites for our dance culture. Studios and networks know this so they package carefully-constructed programs and films that cater at a certain level. But here's the challenge. Let's package our own stories on our own terms and distribute them for free to the world.

That sounds like a crazy idea, doesn't it? Give away our thoughts and stories for free. This isn't a path recommended for all of us. Understandably, we as artists should be financially compensated for our art if we choose it as a career. But for those of us who are willing, the truth about our lives and experiences shouldn't carry a price. After all, it would be a powerful statement of how we value our experiences in a commerce-driven world. Even the automatic thought of just placing a fee on our stories...doesn't it strike you as something necessitated by our money-hungry world we live in? If we really wanted to be counterculture, we'd go the free route. Like Napster. Or peer-to-peer file sharing. Is there a crazier idea out there?

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