Daniel Boorstin and MTV Spring Break

From The Image: Or What Happened To The American Dream, by Daniel Boorstin, published in 1962.

The new kind of synthetic novelty which has flooded our experience I will call “pseudo-events.” The common prefix “pseudo” comes from the Greek word meaning false, or intended to deceive.

It is the report that gives the event its force in the minds of potential customers. The power to make a reportable event is thus the power to make experience. One is reminded of Napoleon’s apocryphal reply to his general, who objected that circumstances were unfavorable to a proposed campaign: “Bah, I make circumstances!”

A pseudo-event, then, is a happening that possesses the following characteristics:

(1) It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.

(2) It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media.

(3) Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, “What does it mean?” has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.

(4) Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. [A] hotel’s thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.

Here are some characteristics of pseudo-events which make them overshadow spontaneous events:

(1) Pseudo-events are more dramatic.

(2) Pseudo-events, being planned for dissemination, are easier to disseminate and to make vivid. Participants are selected for their newsworthy and dramatic interest.

(3) Pseudo-events can be repeated at will, and thus their impression can be re-inforced.

(4) Pseudo-events cost money to create; hence somebody has an interest in disseminating, magnifying, advertising, and extolling them as events worth watching or worth believing. They are therefore advertised in advance, and rerun in order to get money’s worth.

(5) Pseudo-events, being planned for intelligibility, are more intelligible and hence more reassuring.

(6) Pseudo-events are more sociable, more conversable, and more convenient to witness.

(7) Knowledge of pseudo-events – of what has been reported, or what has been staged, and how – becomes the test of being “informed.” Pseudo-events begin to provide that “common discourse” which some of my old-fashioned friends have hoped to find in the Great Books.

(8) Finally, pseudo-events spawn other pseudo-events in geometric progression. They dominate our consciousness simply because there are more of them, and ever more.

From I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum.

ADAM CURRY: MTV needed to get alcohol companies to advertise on the network. It was a big deal. We needed beer; we were doing Skittles. A lot of Skittles. That’s how Spring Break was born. It’s not like someone said, “Hey, let’s go film Spring Break.” It was like, “How do we get Budweiser on the network? Let’s go to where Budweiser is.” And Budweiser was at Spring Break. That was a turning point for MTV ad sales—once we had the beer market, because that’s where all the money was.

BETH McCARTHY: Beginning in 1986, I went to Spring Break for nine years straight. It was horrific. Everything was disgusting. We’d work all day and night, and then walk back to a disgusting sleazebag hotel at 1 A.M. It was hilarious, but ugh. Our executives would flash their MTV IDs and whore around with college girls.

NINA BLACKWOOD: Spring Break was a miserable experience. People running around half-naked and drunk, and I couldn’t get a decent meal. Everything was served on paper plates. I came back and said, “I’m never doing one of those again.”

DOUG HERZOG: Daytona was a miserable place. It seemed like it poured rain the entire time we were there. We stayed at the most miserable hotel, the Pagoda, which the MTV staff referred to as the Abe Vigoda. Just the most disgusting place, with shag carpeting in the rooms, and filled with kids who were puking and partying. At the same time, there was lot of fun to be had.

JULIE BROWN: Spring Break, oh my gosh. I wore the highest platform shoes and it still didn’t help me tread through the vomit in Daytona. That was the wildest of MTV. We had the sexy girls, the guys, and you mix that together with booze, and trust me, you’ve got a party.

ADAM HOROVITZ: We did an amazing stunt for Spring Break in 1986. It was a contest where the Beastie Boys would kidnap the winner and bring him down to Daytona. We’re like, “This sounds really stupid. What? We’re gonna get free beer? This sounds really awesome!”

I’d just turned twenty. I didn’t go to college, so I had no idea what frat life was like. I was like, “How do you people get the money to party like this?” It was just drink drink drink. It was totally nasty. But don’t get me wrong: I loved it. There’s nothing wrong with nasty. I’m a fan of nasty.

My favorite part was going to a party thrown by Ron Rice, who owned Hawaiian Tropic. We’re like, “Party at a guy’s house who owns a suntan lotion company? Let’s go!” We walked into the house, and as we were checking out the scene, we saw a super-drunk guy in his midsixties, wearing a captain’s hat, like a broken-down Charles Nelson Reilly. He turns to a security guard and shouts, “Security? Throw me out!” That’s still a running joke. Any time I have a couple too many, I’ll say to my friends, “Security? Throw me out!”

FLEA: We were totally against lip-syncing, so when we were faced with a lip-sync situation, we never just stood there and pretended to play. I’d play bass with my shoe and then jump into the audience, something like that. So we’re onstage in Daytona, and the song starts, “Knock Me Down.” And about halfway through, I leave the stage with the song still playing and leap into the crowd. The first thing I see is a girl in a bikini standing in front of me. She’s jumping around, having a good time. Woo-hoo! So I grab her and pick her up over my shoulders. While I was spinning her around, Chad ran up behind her and spanked her on the butt. I didn’t realize it. The girl and I both fell onto the sand, and she started yelling at me. I yelled back at her, “Well, fuck you, then.” About twenty minutes afterwards I hear this girl is really upset. I was like, “Can I apologize?” I still had no idea that Chad had spanked her.

The next day, the local newspaper runs a picture on the front page of this girl, cowering in fear with me standing over, with the headline FLEA ATTACKS GIRL. I’ve always been crazy on stage, but the last thing I would want to do is hurt someone’s feelings. We go to the next town in Florida, and after our show, Chad and I walk offstage and bam!, a cop places us in handcuffs and takes us off to jail. And that’s when I find out that Chad had spanked her. We were in jail overnight, but the case dragged on for months. We settled it, but the words Flea and sexual assault went out across the national press. What I did was wrong—I shouldn’t have touched her. But to claim that it was any kind of sexual thing was completely wrong.

JANET KLEINBAUM, record executive: I went down for many Spring Breaks. Couldn’t wait to get out of there. Hectic, crowded, freezing cold, filthy beaches. It always looked better on camera than it did in reality.

KEVIN SEAL: They set up huge klieg lights around the pool, so it looked like it was sunny, and kids pranced around in their bathing suits every time a floor manager cued them. We’d cut away to some video and they’d stand there, shivering. It was a bacchanal. The Daytona Police converted a Safeway parking lot into a temporary jail, with chain-link fences. Scores of kids in zip cuffs stood around, shouting at their friends. There were reports in the paper about kids who plunged off a hotel balcony and hit the deck. I dreaded it.

There was the sense of young lives being wasted, which was sort of a pall that hung over my time at MTV, generally. Not only with the audience, but perhaps in my own life as well.

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