American Culture

Is this what our culture has come to?

Miley Cyrus VMAsMiley Cyrus is a Girl Scout compared to Wendy O. Williams, whose performances were getting her arrested for lewd conduct 30 years ago.

Three faculty colleagues and I spoke informally last week at a lunchtime program for people who work at the university but don’t teach. They invited us to talk about what it’s like to host a weekly show on the university’s student-run radio station.

One of the speakers is in his early ’70s, I would guess. He’s a good guy: cordial and well traveled, with deep knowledge about a wide range of topics. He began by saying he had seen a clip from an MTV music awards special that showed Miley Cyrus being her faux outrageous, self-promoting self.

“Is this what our culture has come to?” he asked earnestly.

Of course it is. The goal for a number of artists in each generation (not just musicians), and their fans, is to offend people—the older the better. When I was in high school, I was in my bedroom one time listening to “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s “We’re Only in it for the Money.” The song is Zappa’s cynical take on the San Francisco hippie scene, and during the outro, the singer tells us how he’s going to ‘Frisco:

First I’ll buy some beads
And then perhaps a leather band
To go around my head
Some feathers and bells
And a book of Indian lore
I will ask the Chamber Of Commerce
How to get to Haight Street
And smoke an awful lot of dope
I will wander around barefoot
I will have a psychedelic gleam in my eye at all times
I will love everyone
I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street

That last line brought my father charging into my room, bellowing threats of doing me bodily harm—not to mention demolishing my stereo—if he ever heard that line again. This was much more satisfying than his usual semi-threatening shouts to “turn it down, Patrick!” It made for a great story to tell my friends.

Popular music—mostly but not entirely rock ’n’ roll—has always been about “Is that what our culture is coming to?” Each successive decade includes acts that have a higher shock hurdle to jump because of the hijinks of their predecessors: Alice Cooper, the Sex Pistols, Wendy O. Williams, Marilyn Manson, Madonna, more rappers than can be counted, Miley Cyrus—and those are just the acts I could think of while writing that sentence.

Perhaps the best example of the rock zeitgeist of my times involved Zappa and Cooper, who at the beginning of his career recorded on Zappa’s private record label. A story had spread that someone had thrown a live chicken onstage at a Cooper concert and that Cooper had bitten the chicken’s head off and thrown it back into the crowd. If I remember correctly, the dialog went like this:

Zappa: “Did you really bite the chicken’s head off?”
Cooper: “No!”
Zappa: “Good. But don’t tell anyone.”

“Is this what our culture is coming to?” The question implies decaying morals and standards of taste. But things weren’t more innocent back when the crew-cut set thought the Beatles had hair so long that they looked like girls. Rather, our society was more naïve.

Look at all we’ve learned since then. We’ve had our noses rubbed in wars waged under false pretenses that have killed tens of thousands of American troops—Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. We endured the cynicism of Richard Nixon. Reagan should have been impeached for Iran-Contra. The war criminals Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld left a trail of scum across the American flag. Our political system has turned into a cesspool of corruption thanks to big business and billionaires. Wall Streeters and the 1 percenters are sucking the hope out of the middle class. Tens of millions of people live below the poverty lines. Tens of millions of children go to bed hungry every night. Black men—young black men in particular—are being shot to death by police who go unpunished for the murders. We have an incarceration rate that is the shame of the world. Men from the Middle East will die in Guantamano Bay without ever being charged with anything related to Sept. 11, 2001—so much for our hallowed due process. Our intelligence agencies (talk about an oxymoron) torture people and, on the few occasions when they’re caught, deny it or call it by euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And we barely look up from our smartphones when the corporate media offer the occasional peeps about these sins.

So how is a popular entertainer expected to get our attention if all we do is shake our heads and say “too bad” after we carelessly bomb a hospital or, worse yet, kill thousands of innocents—sorry, I mean collateral damage—in an unwinnable war against a concept (“terror”) that has no boundaries and no shape and is constantly on the move and evolving?

Yeah: This is what our culture has come to.

4 replies »

    • I’ve got no problems with Miley or any artist in any genre who is trying to shock or offend me. I usually find it amusing. On the other hand, I didn’t care at all for Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio but was in no way opposed to its public exhibition. The same for Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” If all art were “safe,” so to speak, the world would be a duller place. That said, artists must work harder to shock people in our times. Look at the public reaction to the Buñuel/Dali film “L’age d’or” in 1930, and compare the outcry to the public reaction to the vilest forms of internet pornography. It’s not even close.

  1. Try and remember, most “popular” music is actually not popular: it is commercial.
    And like all products of a capitalist industry, it is a commodity. It is not the expression of a people, their history, their unique methods used to adapt to changing social situations.

    It is a corporate commodity produced by a private (but politically supported) bureaucracy using all the forms of market manipulation known at the time. It is produced for people who have lost their cultural history, understanding of how their society works: good and bad, and a vision for a better collective tomorrow.

    It is entertainment. It means very little except for its associations with an individual’s life events. It is meant to be used and, later, discarded (planned obsolence).

    It is based on fashion, fades and unwarranted celebrity. It connects very little to the regional folk music traditions that it ethnocides from existence.

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