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Interactive or Nothing: The Kids Are Alright

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At an age when I was crazy about all sports, my young son showed no interest in rooting for the local sports teams at all. I shrugged it off as a generational difference much like the one I had with my own father, who never understood most of my passions.

The same was true of watching television, something my son did very little of, and listening to music – he preferred to play rather than listen. His interests and tastes were different than mine, I assumed, and that was a good thing.

But, when, at 16, my son and his friends stopped going out to movies, I began to see that something else was going on that had much bigger implications. Of the things this generation has lost its connection to – newspapers, radio, and television being the most notable – the big-screen movie event is one of the latest to go.

It’s always been a chance for the young to get out of their parents’ watchful gaze, as well as a long-established rite of adolescent passage. The fact that these kids would not want to carry on the tradition of watching bad films with their friends and potential girlfriends in darkened theaters away from home was confusing to me. I was left to wonder if there was a thread that connected this to the general decline of the traditional media experience. Was it a shortened attention span, or did the content – the programming, writing, and performance – not appeal to them? Or was it something else?

Here’s what I found out: no matter how well performed the play, the story, or the song, my son and his friends were just not interested in watching and listening to other people do things. The experiences they value must be interactive.

They want to participate. And the entertainment industry had better be ready; video games are the tip of the iceberg.

Guitar Hero, the play-it-yourself video game that has become an industry juggernaut, represents the most obvious trend here. But as amazing as it is to watch that end of the entertainment business, I was really floored when I attended a performance by the mash-up artist Girl Talk. What’s a mash-up artist? Think of a DJ who knows how to use a laptop and has a voluminous knowledge of music. The “songs” Girl Talk creates are the equivalent of FM stations that promise you will know and like each song you hear. But in Girl Talk’s case, there’s a new song every fifteen seconds, and they all make you want to dance.

You might dismiss this type of performance as the bizarre edge of the avant-garde, held in some off-campus basement, but you would be wrong. The show I saw at a local theater sold out in three hours and was attended by a wide range of high school-to-college-age kids.

Girl Talk, it turns out, is the biggest act you’ve never heard of. The show was all about participation and it dramatized the lack of connection to mainstream entertainment I had seen in my son and his friends. When I went to see live music at their age, it was all about the rock star and a chance to see him (they were all male) performing the songs I had heard on the radio. It was a communal event, and the band’s every move was watched and noted.

Girl Talk’s performance, if you want to call it that, was something completely different. First of all, he didn’t play a musical instrument – he did something with a laptop on a table that I can only assume was connected to the songs we heard. More important was the way he opened the stage to the kids, allowing them to dance with him while he worked his laptop. Those who didn’t go on stage formed a writhing mosh pit at his feet, into which he jumped several times during the show.

It didn’t seem to be about him at all; the kids were the show and the music was just a means to that end. This is, of course, a generation that cut its musical teeth on the $17 CD, the rise of download sites, interactive media via the Internet, and experience-sharing sites like Facebook.

Kids don’t watch TV like their parents did, their iPods are killing radio, and they don’t read the print edition of the daily newspaper even when it’s handed to them every day. Meanwhile, the participatory element of culture is thriving, and now even the parents are coming out to play.

So, when you ponder the future, movie moguls, you had better start thinking about things like multiple endings the audience can vote on, American Idol-style.

Or maybe the answer is to just set aside a space in the theater for the kids to dance. Thank God they still want to dance.

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