A “classless, crass, deplorable stunt,” huffed Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and he was not referring to his father’s role in the WMD deceit. “A gratuitous display,” chimed his commissioner, Kathleen Q. Abernathy. She too was not griping about visiting Shock ‘n Awe on Iraq.
I am staring at a photograph of the object of their scorn – the sack of silicone-filled skin, awkwardly positioned on Janet Jackson’s chest. Few will forget how pop singer Justin Timberlake released The Thing from Jackson’s bustier during the Super Bowl halftime show.
Add the effects of age and gravity to a surgically over-stuffed breast, and you end up with a veiny mass, mounted inorganically on the breastbone. Take my word: This is not something you’d want to wave about. It looks like a stretched-to-the-limits Bota Bag (also known as a wine skin), only not nearly as inviting.
The photograph also captures the gaze on Justin Tinkerbelle’s girlie features. The reviewers, mostly groovy hip-hop heads, described the sequence as “a sex-charged duet.” Justin, Jackson’s partner in the “stunt,” looks as turned on as a surgeon removing a suture. The “sensuality” was, er, a bust.
Janet’s fakeness – she’s been modified, face and front, almost as many times as her famous brother – strikes me as rather significant, perhaps even symbolic of the event … and beyond.
Middle America is offended and wants the Nanny State to step in. I’m glad people have taken offense. But when I look around me, things don’t quite add up. American parents seem very permissive and indulgent – I saw throngs of them flock to see “Bad Santa” the sodomizer. In tow, they had their pint-sized tarts … in Britney getup.
Speaking of Spears, Timberlake was clearly bent on a bit of a tit-for-tat – he was seeking to upstage Spears for her lewd lip-lock with Madonna. Be that as it may, this tempest in a C-cup is a matter for CBS, MTV, their owner – Viacom – and the NFL to resolve. In a free country, the parties involved ought to be able to put on any show they like. In a free country, the fans make the proprietors face the music through the power of the buck and the boycott, not the bureaucracy.
The fracas, however, provides a significant snapshot of the power of American popular culture.
In this context, a perfectly banal moment during the war in Iraq turned into a rather defining one for me. As a young girl growing up in the Middle East, I’d listen to and watch many Arabic performers. The Friday afternoon Egyptian film, broadcast on Israeli television, was the week’s highlight. One powerful singer, revered and respected throughout the region by Muslim and Jewish Arabs alike, was a woman called Um Kulthum.
Fast-forward to 2003. I was watching TV footage of a large, good-natured American soldier who was thrusting his pelvis this way and that a la the Super Bowl “stars,” as he “entertained” Iraqi youngsters with carnal, Lopez-like yelps. A thought crossed my mind: Iraq can say goodbye to Um Kulthum and her heirs, and hello to “50 Cent.”
Which brings into focus another contradiction. Pious homilies about the troops aside, what music and entertainment does Middle America imagine our young conquistadors are listening to over in Iraq? What is being piped through the U.S. government-controlled Iraqi “Radio Sawa”?
It’s not J. S. Bach’s Cantatas. If so many Americans don’t like being exposed to the “artists” of the “Toilet Bowl” halftime, pity the people of Iraq. You can be sure that our top-40 radio – J.Lo’s caterwauling and Jay-Z’s gutter grunts – are part of the democratic deal there.
American mass entertainment continues to spread around the world like the cultural kudzu it is, not because of its quality or the vigor of its values, but because, in form and in content, it’s as easy as a prostitute on a street corner. It demands nothing but for the performer and his audience to relinquish artistic standards and shed inhibitions.
After all, it’s easier to do an attention-grabbing striptease than to stay clothed; it’s easier to shake your “booty” and stomp with abandon than train to dance; it’s easier to bellow than to harness the vocal cords; and easier to bang and strum than play an instrument proficiently.
And it’s easier to “sample” sounds than write or compose music.
The artistry of those who were recruited for the halftime hump-a-long involves zero skill. The P. Diddy or Missy Elliot-type electronica entails taking ready-made sample CDs on which drums, keyboards and guitar have been recorded. Aided by a computer program operable even by a simian, the mouse is used to drag and drop these samples anywhere along the track. Riffs and beats can also be dropped in the software way into the “song.” An entire band of backing tracks is thus “produced” with a computer and more often than not without a single instrumentalist.
Once this cut-and-paste effort is finished, “virtuosos” like Nelly and Murphy Lee howl and growl on top of it. Add a video and what you have now is soft-porn performed to the sounds of a primordial, synthetic thump.
This Super Bowl-type tit-illation, viewed by close to 90 million people in 222 countries, will continue to permeate the world, because it’s as intoxicating as it is toxic.