rebelling against low expectations

Merchants of Cool: Teens, Culture, and MTV


In January of 2004, David Kupelian, vice president and managing editor of and Whistleblower Magazine, published a shocking, but excellent, exposé of modern youth culture (Link: Part 1Part 2), based in part upon a 2001 PBS Frontline documentary called Merchants of Cool.

CAUTION: Due to the nature of the topic, Mr. Kupelian’s article and the Frontline documentary contain graphic language, as well as disturbing themes, images, and descriptions. This post includes choice excerpts, in hopes that you won’t have to dig through any grime to find them yourself.

Both article and documentary were targeted at an adult audience, however, much of the information is of arguably greater importance to young people themselves. In this post I will be letting Mr. Kupelian and others speak for themselves, with brief additional commentary. Please consider carefully what they have to say:

“They want to be cool. They are impressionable, and they have the cash. They are corporate America’s $150 billion dream.”

That’s the opening statement in PBS’s stunning 2001 Frontline documentary, “Merchants of Cool,” narrated by Douglas Rushkoff. What emerges in the following 60 minutes is a scandalous portrait of how major corporations – Viacom, Disney, AOL/Time Warner and others – study America’s children like laboratory rats, in order to sell them billions of dollars in merchandise by tempting, degrading and corrupting them.

Think that’s a bit of an overstatement?

It’s an understatement.

Both Mr. Kupelian’s commentary and the Frontline documentary confirm many of the messages we’ve written about here on The Rebelution. They do so by going in depth and undercover into modern, media-defined youth culture:

“Today,” [Frontline correspondent Douglas Rushkoff] discloses, “five enormous companies are responsible for selling nearly all of youth culture. These are the true merchants of cool: Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Universal Vivendi, and AOL/Time Warner.”

“The entertainment companies, which are a handful of massive conglomerates that own four of the five music companies that sell 90 percent of the music in the United States – those same companies also own all the film studios, all the major TV networks, all the TV stations pretty much in the 10 largest markets,” University of Illinois Communications Professor Robert McChesney reveals in the documentary. “They own all or part of every single commercial cable channel.”

Professor McChesney echoes the theme of The Rebelution’s post My iPod Is My Best Friend, explaining how the entertainment companies use all forms of media to shape and mold the character, and consequently, the desires of young people:

“They look at the teen market as part of this massive empire that they’re colonizing… [A]nd their weaponry are films, music, books, CDs, Internet access, clothing, amusement parks, sports teams. That’s all this weaponry they have to make money off of this market.”

And as The Rebelution wrote in The Myth of Adolescence:

[M]edia-saturated youth culture, not only follows trends and fads, but it creates them. Classrooms, TV shows, magazines, and websites, are not only addressing us at the level of social expectations, but they are in fact dictating those expectations.

Mr. Kupelian agrees, describing the same concept with even greater candidness:

[C]ompanies are creating new and lower and more shocking… marketing campaigns, disguised as genuine, authentic expressions of youthful searching for identity and belonging, for the sole purpose of profiting financially from America’s children…

This would be bad enough – if corporate America were just following and marketing the basest instincts of confused, unsupervised teenagers. But they are not following, they are leading – downward.

According to Rushkoff, it’s a vicious cycle:

“It’s one enclosed feedback loop,” Rushkoff says. “Kids’ culture and media culture are now one and the same, and it becomes impossible to tell which came first–the anger or the marketing of the anger.”

And as Frontline reports:

[O]bservers say [that] as everyone from record promoters to TV executives to movie producers besieges today’s teens with pseudo-authentic marketing pitches, teenagers increasingly look to the media to provide them with a ready-made identity predicated on today’s version of what’s cool.

Both Mr. Kupelian and the documentary spend a considerable time addressing two such “cool” creations of corporate youth-marketing: the “mook” and the “midriff.”

The mook, Mr. Kupelian states, is a caricature of the wild, uninhibited, outrageous and amoral male. Take for instance, professional wrestling, the most-watched shows among teen males today.

The midriff, on the other hand, is a mini Britney Spears, obsessed with appearances — a sexual object, but proud of it. While the mook is arrested in adolescence, the midriff is prematurely adult. As was written in The Myth of Adolescence:

In what could be considered the most maddening aspect of this crisis, not all areas of maturity are being stunted… It is heartbreaking that so many young girls, while constantly pressed to become more and more sexually alluring, are not expected to attain any notable level of character beneath the surface.

And of course, the media is very careful to undermine the young person’s ability to receive and benefit from the wisdom and experience of their parents and other God-established figures of authority:

[S]ays Miller, “it’s part of the official rock video world view, it’s part of the official advertising world view, that your parents are creeps, teachers are nerds and idiots, authority figures are laughable, nobody can really understand kids except the corporate sponsor.”

The purpose of Mr. Kupelian’s article (and the purpose of this post) is not to create a feeling of hopelessness, but to call us to action — to wake up and recognize the lies of our culture for exactly what they are: lies. As Mr. Kupelian concludes, our only hope in combating the culture is to “create (or plug into) another culture entirely – a subculture.”

Mr. Kupelian, sir, thank you for stating the truth with such boldness. Allow me to introduce you to The Rebelution.

For those of you who have been around since the beginning, you may remember the post “Rebelize” Your Youth Group, where the following was written:

The only way to truly combat cultural expectations is to create a [counter] culture that results in an entire community of mature and responsible young people.

Brett and I believe that it was for that very purpose that this blog, and now the conferences, came into existence. Our sidebar of links to fellow rebelutionary’s blogs and websites (like Regenerate Our Culture) is just the beginning of an online counter-culture that is quickly becoming a very real Christian youth movement — a movement of young adults rebelling against the rebellion and corruption that is being constantly thrown at them.

Thoughts, ideas, or questions? The comments section is open.

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About the author

Alex and Brett Harris

are the co-founders of and co-authors of Do Hard Things and Start Here. They have a passion for God and for their generation. Their personal interests include politics, filmmaking, music, and basketball. They are both graduates of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.


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  • Wow. I wish I had seen that documentary. It’s so easy to fall for all this stuff, though. I do it myself. Just goes to show you how important a moral grounding really is.

  • Wow! That was fascinating and eye-opening…and scary. I agree with Caleb–even though we are aware of this “brainwashing”, we get sucked into it (or at least I do). Thanks for the post–it’s given me a lot to think about.

  • The article from WND does a great job of illustrating the omni-present nature of youth culture: from television to clothing to “body modification”, the culture has managed to satisfy every carnal urge found in teens today. That leads to my question: Have we given up the high ground? Are we fighting in an arena we cannot hope to win in?

    Much of CCM and the Christian youth culture is an “alternative” to the secular world. Are you into Limp Bizkit? Try Thousand-Foot Krutch. Like Vanessa Carlton or Sarah McLachlan? You can listen to Jennifer Knapp. There are alternative clothing lines, alternative comic books. The whole kit and caboodle.

    The point is: who said that this is what teens had to listen to, to read, and to wear? Haven’t we let someone else define the battleground? Just because youth culture appeals to the base senses of teens, why does that mean we should accept that as our goal? Why shouldn’t we call Christian youth to partake in higher art, such as classical music or jazz? To enjoy Romance or Modernist Art? Rock and roll and classic R&B were predicated on a “sexual beat”, one that our grandparents found so offensive. Is that what we hope to use our abilities for? Let’s face it: modern youth culture is based upon sexuality and utter indulgence, and Christian alternatives, by definition, can’t match secular stuff in those departments. No matter how hard we try, we can’t be as angry, as promiscuous, as rebellious, as the secular alternatives.

    I deeply appreciate the efforts many Christians have made in CCM or in other youth outreaches. It strikes me however, that what has happened is rather than being “in the world but not of it”, the Christian culture is “of the world but not in it.”

    I’d love to hear others; thoughts, especially Alex and Brett.

    (Full Disclosure: I’m a 21 year old college student in the Midwest, so please no charges of “old fogy”.)

  • Snowden: We’ll see if Alex and I get a chance to respond in the near future (however, this is definitely an issue we plan to address).

    You need not fear accusations of being an “old fogey” . . . The question we must ask when confronting modern youth culture is “What must be rejected and what can be redeemed?”

    There are ditches on both sides of the road; either we try to redeem everything, or we try reject everything.

  • Very interesting and thought provoking, guys! I’m in full agreement with your thoughts and exhortations. Thank you for calling us to action!

    I’m getting really excited about RoC and the mass of Rebelutionaries everywhere. The Lord seems to be working powerfully in this generation.

    (Just a side note: Allison, I didn’t expect to see you here!!!!! What a pleasant surprise! How did you find the Rebelution?)

  • Wow. That was definitely an eye opening article. Our culture is definitely empty, self indulging, and overtly sexual. A great article–it kind of shocks me; because this is not just any generation or people’s culture–this is my generation being inundated with crap. Go rebelutionaries.

  • Great article! It is scary to realize how targeted our generation is, targeted to not think, just feed our flesh.

    Thank you, Brett and Alex, for all you are doing to make us (the future of our country) aware of the many challenges we are facing.

  • David, hi! Wow–fancy meeting you here! I stumbled upon The Rebelution about 4 months ago and I was blown away by what these guys are saying. It really exhorts me to be excellent. How are you doing? My email is [email protected] in case you want to continue this conversation elsewhere (so we don’t bug everyone else!) Good to hear from you. Allison

  • Hey guys, I found an article on, “Grups” and the Peter Pan syndrome. But this one tackles some additional questions, such as: “What will the kids of these Grups become?” Despite three F words in the middle, this article is well worth the read.–+New+York+Magazine&expire=&urlID=17698366&fb=Y&url=

  • HAVANA (AP) � Photographs of Fidel Castro standing and talking on the phone were published Sunday in Cuba’s state-run media, a day after the ailing leader appeared in a video to dispel rumors he was on his deathbed.

    The Communist Youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde dedicated its front page to the Cuban president, printing a blown-up picture of a pensive Castro with the title “Always fighting for something, and fighting with optimism!”

  • I found this blog as a link from LAF (Ladies Against Feminism). I thank you so much for calling Christians of all ages to godliness through this site.
    Though primarily aimed at youth culture, I find it fascinating that many adult women my age (35) fall into this trap conforming to what is hip, cool, and popular. At my age, according to the media, the worst thing you can do is actually look and act your age, have a family, and be happy and content about it.
    In reading Snowden’s post, I have often wondered myself if the Christian youth culture has done more harm in seeking to do good. Do we really need an “alternative” to what the world gives us? I do think some things we try to redeem are not of the redemptive sort at all.
    Thanks for letting me write. My daughter has enjoyed reading some information here and I thank you again for your ministry.

  • I wonder. How often do we think that we are safely “in the world but not of it”, when in actuality we are deep in the mindset of the world? I, for one, have fallen into this trap, and have spent a lot of time trying to get out.

  • […] Our Take: Though Alex and I could be considered Mac fans it is important for us and every other teenager to realize how many millions upon millions of dollars Apple and other brands spend to secure the $150 billion teen market. Check out our post Merchants of Cool for further reading on this topic. This is a cultural dynamic we can’t afford to miss. Read Article » […]

  • I’m sorry to be a “prude” but after curiosity got the better of me, I watched this documentary and I have to say that I’m sorry I did. Even though it had a lot that we need to hear, no Christians should watch it. I wish I could wash my eyes and ears of the things in it. I recommend that you remove the link above so that other Christians aren’t subjected to the filth that is shown. Thanks. *side note, I am a 28 year old female*

  • […] The official definition of the ‘rebelution’ is “a teenage rebellion against the low expectations of an ungodly culture.” When you look around today, in terms of godly character and practical competence, our culture does not expect much of us young people. We are not only expected to do very little that is wise or good, but we’re expected to do the opposite. Our media-saturated youth culture is constantly reinforcing lower and lower standards and expectations. […]

  • […] The official definition of the ‘rebelution’ is “a teenage rebellion against low expectations.” When you look around today, our culture does not expect much of us young people. We are not only expected to do very little that is wise or good, but we’re expected to do the opposite. Our media-saturated youth culture is constantly reinforcing lower and lower standards and expectations. […]

  • […] The official definition of the ‘rebelution’ is “a teenage rebellion against low expectations.” When you look around today, our culture does not expect much of us young people. We are not only expected to do very little that is wise or good, but we’re expected to do the opposite. Our media-saturated youth culture is constantly reinforcing lower and lower standards and expectations. […]

  • […] The official definition of the ‘rebelution’ is “a teenage rebellion against low expectations.” When you look around today, our culture does not expect much of us young people. We are not only expected to do very little that is wise or good, but we’re expected to do the opposite. Our media-saturated youth culture is constantly reinforcing lower and lower standards and expectations. […]

  • AMEN!
    This is a great article and though I think many of us see what is being presented before us a standard and role model, we, at least I know I do, become so used to it that I find my self no longer angry about it. That’s terrible and I constantly have to give myself a mental shaking to get me back on track. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should react in rage and deface the front of all the Khols and burn every Playboy magazine we can lay our hands on. I think apathy is our biggest danger right now and Jared, I have to say I’ve thought the same thing many times. But that’s exactly what Satan wants us to think, once we’ve given up on ourselves and others it gives him free reign to make it bigger and worse. I believe it starts with us each individualy and unless we purposely stop it, the light will spread. WE, must set the example and follow the standard given us by Christ, not the Paris Hiltons and Brittney Spears of this world.
    Blessings, Hannah

  • its so true but soooooo hard not to get sucked into “youth culture.”

    remember, fellow strugglers, in just a moment it won’t matter how cool you were.

    it will matter how many people you pointed to Christ!

  • Practicaly all the “kid” shows on the disney channel (!) are full of disrespect for parents, immodest dress, and teen dating scenarios-and these shows are “supposed to be” for 8 and 9 year olds!

  • I wish I could say that I am not of this culture, but there are times when I just want to “Fit in”. I guess another idea that has been hammered into us is if we’re different, we should be ashamed and try to “fix” ourselve so that we will be like everyone else.
    I guess we can “win”, as Jared Shipley puts it, by trying our best to love God and glorify him in our lives so that others around us will see Him working in us and be turned toward salvation. We don’t have to follow the world’s example.

    “It’s like you got to walk like him,
    got to talk like her,
    got to be like them,
    Everybody knows you follow the crowd, or get singled out,
    But God says who you are,
    not the world or movie stars”- Leeland Let it Out Now

  • Every rebelutionary’s home will be an island of sanity. Thumbs down to cool stuff. Our culture has gone downhill, as well as our music.

  • This is so true!
    I find it sad that the “Christian” alternatives look and sound just like everything else.
    We know what is wrong and what is right, but we want to fit in so we stick God in there a few times and put a Christian label on it and we think God will not notice!
    Whatsoever is good, whatsoever is pure, whatsoever is lovely…….I don’t know about any of you, but some of that “Christian” music people listen to is far from sounding lovely.
    People may think I’m weird because I have praise and worship, and classical on my ipod, but I will not let it bother me.
    I want to glorify my Savior with whatever I do everyday, not just on Sunday or when my parents are in the room.
    God is holding us to a higher standard and with His help I want to meet that standard!
    Alex and Brett: Thank you for all you do.= ) Before I heard about The Rebelution something was missing in my walk with God. I had the doctrine down pat, I was “doing everything I was supposed to”, but I was missing a passion for God and the action to go along with it.
    Now I am on fire for God and I will never be a complacent, lukewarm Christian again!
    Everyday I cannot wait to share the message of Christ’s love and the hope of a rebelution with a fellow teen. Thank you again, I am forever indebted to you both!
    In Christ Alone,

  • […] Here’s the beginning to how they describe it on their website: The official definition of the ‘rebelution’ is “a teenage rebellion against low expectations.” When you look around today, our culture does not expect much of us young people. We are not only expected to do very little that is wise or good, but we’re expected to do the opposite. Our media-saturated youth culture is constantly reinforcing lower and lower standards and expectations. […]

  • It’s so true, it seems like the media is controling the culture. It also seems like a lot of what is supposed to be the Christian alternative isn’t much more moral than what the world offers. For example, I’ve seen that a lot of the “Christian” bands out there have some lyrics that actually contradict Scripture. So we must be careful. (Go to my website to read my music-related testimony.)

  • seance all of that music is out there, some songs give people the wrong idea of gods roll in his/her life. what if we putt bible verses in the heard core music not just bands that don’t have language or a sexual meaning in the words. but actually help spread god’s word in the modern society.

  • wow. After I read this I felt even more pulled to get a band together for Christ and start getting music out there that isn’t “cool” although I define cool diferently than most of the world does. To me cool is doing something for someone else or God or both and being proud of being a Christian and living for God and others and being the exact opposite of what the wolr dthinks is “cool” because the world id not cool in my definition. And I’m gonna get working on that Christian band. Thanks for posting this 🙂

  • What happens is we get so desensitized to the world’s ways, we can watch practically anything without caring a bit! Things which once were frowned upon by whole nations are now applauded and even expected! Our morals can crumble so quickly. Take Elvis Presley for instance. Nicknamed ‘Elvis the Pelvis’, he did dance moves that had fans gasping for air! Did he really do that?! Then, fast forward a few years, and you’ve got Michael Jackson, grabbing his crotch and touching every inch of himself sensually. His music videos on tv at the time were considered ‘so rude’. Then fast forward a few more years and you’ve got Britney, Justin Timberlake, etc. I can’t even look at the music videos they play on tv. What started with Elvis the Pelvis, then graduated to touchy-feely Michael Jackson, ended with sex stars like Britney and Justin. Can you believe even touching below the hip area was once considered, dare I say it, rude? Now we see people on tv having sex! We see them on tv wearing next to nothing. Can you believe that morals can slip that fast in just 50 years?! We as Christians need to prevent this world from becoming even more sinful (if that’s even possible!) with the help of God. If we can mess up the world this quick, we should be able to fix it that quick.

  • I totally agree with what Kiley says .All things Disney are becoming less and less innocent.For example the show Hannah Montana was a cute little show when it first started up and as Miley got older and older she started to act like the world.

    She claims she’s a Christians, but last time I checked Christians don’t go around taking pictures of themselves in their underwear with a expression that makes you think shes about to seduce you . Its disgusting and she tries to be taken seriously as an adult but that’s not the way you do it.I used to like Miley Cyrus but now I don’t know who she is and she doesn’t know who she is either. (Or it seems) That’s what Hollywood does to you.

    Even people with a strong moral ground can lose themselves in a place that tells you life is all about you . And also in a place where media sets the standard for you.

  • omgggggggggg that is so true, we kids get drawed intio this media that is messing up our minds and it also draws us away from god

  • […] expected to do very little that is wise or good, but we’re expected to do the opposite. Our media-saturated youth culture is constantly reinforcing lower and lower standards and […]

  • WOW!! that is so heartbreaking to see that this is what almost all of the teenagers of today are doing, makes you want to do something about it!!!! good thing is YOU CAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • 23. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I don’t know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you are not already 😉 Cheers!

  • all i can say is, WOW! It’s humiliating how easy it is to fool this generation. My parents are both teachers and my mom is in school for christian counseling. I have seen so many high schoolers who are really strong in their faith take a step too far and one is in jail and another got pregnet out of wedlock. Just yesterday me and my dad were talking about MTV when my dad was a kid and how drastically its changed. I mean back in the 80s Madonna and Brittney Spears wearn’t kissing on live television. Without God we would all be totally crappy

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  • […] expected to do very little that is wise or good, but we’re expected to do the opposite. Our media-saturated youth culture is constantly reinforcing lower and lower standards and expectations.The word […]

rebelling against low expectations

The Rebelution is a teenage rebellion against low expectations—a worldwide campaign to reject apathy, embrace responsibility, and do hard things. Learn More →