MTV, the Philippines Typhoon and Grotesque

By Daniel Isler

Grotesque: adjective. comically or repulsively ugly or distorted.  incongruous or inappropriate to a shocking degree.” (Oxford Dictionaries). 

A cute guy with a perfect nose comes out of a rain of confetti. He is accompanied by a robot-like figure, covered all in white and wearing a robot-mask. The cute guy is wearing a leopard print scarf and a red jacket.  The crowd is ecstatic, just as it has been for the last two hours. What will the cute guy do next? This evening is full of surprises, and the crowd is hungry for another one. Surprisingly, the guy and the robot do not start dancing, twerking, or lighting a joint on stage. The cameras do not fly around them, no music is being heard. the guy addresses the audience, ask them for their attention:  “um… I’d like to invite you to join me in a moment of silence for the people in the Philippines that are suffering because of this horrible typhoon that’s affected this country”. The audience is obviously baffled. This whole evening they are encouraged to party like there is no tomorrow. Now this pretty-boy wants them to be silent? The “moment” lasts 10 seconds, as it is clear that a lot of people in the crowd did not understand what he asked for, or worse – they did understand, but genuinely do not give a rat’s arse.


We salute you.

The event is MTV European Music Awards 2013, the venue is the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam and the cute guy is Jared Leto, a movie star turned into a rock star. Leto continues: “we’re celebrating today, but we are thinking of you and other places that can’t be here with us celebrating tonight, so make some noise, let them know we love them, and we are thinking of them today.” Noise? This is easier for the crowd, that respond to this request with a big high pitched “wooooohooooo”. Now the people of the Philippines can sleep quietly – there are people “making noise” for them. This moment strikes the intelligent viewer with embarrassment. It folds in it the huge cognitive gap between western hedonism at its purest, and global tragic events happening in “other places”.

Since its birth in 1981, MTV was used as a symbol for superficiality, with tags such as “MTV generation” being pointed at its viewers, and not in a positive way. The moment of silence is definitely a reassurance of this notion, with its grotesque way of attempting to relate a hyper-commercial event with a normative and moral message. The audience in the Ziggo Dome and at home probably heard about the typhoon that hit the Philippines only two days before and took over 4,000 lives. They have heard of it through social media, some pictures and videos. They commented on it in a brief way, and moved on to the next item, probably including Miley Cyrus doing something obscene.


And not your artificial sympathy.

“If we can be part of the solution rather than the problem, then that’s a wonderful thing”, said Leto in an interview afterwards. But in a consumerist society, there is no time for real solidarity or grief. This does not comply with market demands, and it risks the ongoing party we live in. True solidarity cannot be presented as a moral value, and no one even thinks of spending more than 40 seconds on it. MTV’s solidarity with the disaster sums up to several programmed gestures, a lip service that will give the product a fake feeling of social responsibility. The music stops, the lights are static. Jerad Leto wares a serious and concerned face, and a deep, compassionate voice (he is an actor, after all). Even the robot stands still. And so we receive a detached, sad and grotesque moment, emphasizing once again the disconnection of the post-industrial societies of the west and those “other places”. Don’t you worry, Philippines people – the robot is with you in your loss. And now to the next award.

[If you would like to watch the moment on video, click here. But be warned: watching more videos from the event might cause permanent brain damage.] 


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