It’s safe to say that the only thing anyone will long remember about this year’s MTV Video Music Awards is Miley Cyrus presenting herself rearwards like an animal in heat. But lost amidst the please-God-make-it-stop spectacle of the Disney Channel artist formerly known as Hannah Montana grinding away like a coked-up stripper is a far-less provocative realization: The awards show had all the edge of an old Andy Williams’ Christmas special.
It’s not just MTV and the VMAs, either, folks. Mainstream pop culture, once a font of fear and trembling among everyday Americans, is as safe and good-for-you as skim milk. Elvis’ hips, the Sex Pistols’ sneers, Amy Winehouse’s in-your-face irony, and virtually all other symbols of Dionysian excess and unpremeditated antics have officially left the building.
The VMAs are a case in point. From the opening number by Lady Gaga, whose pleas for social tolerance and acceptance are as heartfelt as they are predictable, to the closing anthem by Katy Perry, the whole affair could have been mistaken for an Up with People rally. I’d argue that even includes Cyrus’ supremely asexual “twerking” with the son of TV sitcom dad Alan Thicke. Does anyone seriously doubt that Cyrus’ masturbatory gestures with an over-sized foam finger set back the average age of sexual initiation by a couple of decades?
Perry’s “Roar,” which quotes from the Rocky III theme “Eye of the Tiger” and provides more lyrical uplift than one of the mechanical bras for which she is justly famous, was introduced as her biggest hit yet despite its recent release, thereby telegraphing the hopes of a recording industry that’s on the ropes. Another former Disney property, former Mouseketeer Justin Timberlake, didn’t bring sexy back or disrobe Janet Jackson as he did during the last (read: the only) memorable Super Bowl halftime show. In accepting an award for Video of the Year, he generously thanked his grandmother and grandfather (whose shirt he appeared to be wearing).
It’s all touching (really) and boring as hell (really). When it started out in the 1980s, MTV was railed against by the likes of Al Gore and his wife Tipper. Tipper, who started the Parents Music Resource Center and denounced raunchy rock lyrics, complained to Rolling Stone that her kids were “confused and alarmed” by Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” video, which featured a teacher stripping down to a bikini.
Maybe she had a point. Long before Madonna affected a fake British accent and started collecting orphans like so many Pokemon, she stunned fans and critics alike by rolling around the floor in ersatz wedding dresses, eroticizing statues of saints in videos, and publishing a book of graphic sexual fantasies. However misguided her SEX book might have been, such a gloriously risky act of artistic independence is unthinkable among today’s leading stars. Even shock jock Howard Stern’s stomach-turning, irreverent, and hilarious turn as “Fartman” – a bare-cheeked superhero given to flatulence – at the 1992 MTV awards is inconceivable in today’s scene. These days, Stern is more likely to talk about animal rights than mock the very idea of an awards show.
I’d argue that the taming of pop-culture creators stems from two basic sources. Part of it comes from the immense amounts of money at stake. Stars, their handlers and interlocking corporate interests are mindful that being too edgy or being way out there is often bad for business. “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose,” sang Bob Dylan, one of the few artists whose actions seem genuinely guided by his artistic vision rather than anything resembling cold calculation. The reverse is true too: When you’ve got a lot, you’ve got a lot to lose.
The other source of what might be called the blandification of pop culture? Ironically, artists themselves have internalized the argument long pushed by moral crusaders that they are somehow responsible for their fans’ ethical development and behavior. As Lady Gaga told MTV in 2010, “I find it so important now to be a role model and a figure.”
Well, no. In the end, artists are responsible only for their art; they should leave the preaching to, well, preachers. Those of us in the audience are responsible for our own thoughts, lives, and actions. And the more that artists and audiences acknowledge that, the better off all of us will be.