American warships are steaming toward another confrontation in the rapidly disintegrating Middle East, the economy continues to sputter along with millions of Americans out of work, further details of serious scandals undermining the public’s trust in the government are slowly seeping out, staggering amounts of national debt continue to accumulate, and yet all the talk around the nation’s water coolers and coffee machines is about the hootchy-kootchy dance some scantily-clad chanteuse performed on a cable television awards show.
We weren’t tuned in to Sunday night’s “MTV Video Music Awards” program, as we are grumpy old men who long ago cancelled our cable subscription and every other link to contemporary popular culture, but anyone who tries to keep abreast of the news couldn’t help but hear about it. Apparently some young woman named Miley Cyrus stripped to a flesh-colored bikini and writhed erotically against some young man named Robin Thicke, poking him suggestively with one of those oversized foam fingers seen at sporting events, while the two performed some song with suggestive lyrics that is apparently all the rage with the youngsters. It all sounds quite mundane by the prevailing standards of entertainment, and downright wholesome compared to the hard-core pornography that is just a few clicks away from this site on your internet machine, but for some reason it has provoked a widespread reaction. The Parents’ Television Council and the usual conservative party-poopers have predictably weighed in with their disapproval, but this time even the supposedly cutting-edge in celebrities in attendance at the show reportedly expressed shock and disgust. The famously dissolute Bill Maher went so far as to liken the performance to a strip club act, although it is not clear if the comedian and professional blasphemer meant that as a compliment or insult.
So far as we can tell much of the shock value comes from the contrast to Cyrus’ previously squeaky-clean public image. She once starred in a Disney-produced television show popular with the pre-teen set, and is the daughter of country and western performer Billy Ray Cyrus, who we remember as being briefly famous back in the ‘80s or ‘90s or one of those long-ago decades for his hilarious mullet hairdo and an annoyingly catchy line dance number called “Achy Breaky Heart.” Her duet partner reportedly has a famous father of his own, who once starred in one of those cloying sit-coms with cute kids, and the family histories made the decline of western civilization angle too hard to resist for most commentators. It’s as if Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s son had made scorching rock ‘n’ roll records with James Burton on the electric guitar, although that also happened and western civilization somehow survived.
As we much as we’d love to join in with all the tsk-tsking, being quite convinced that western civilization has been in decline pretty much ever since Ricky Nelson recorded the irresistibly rockin’ “Waitin’ In School,” the most outraged reaction we can muster is a yawn. At this point we have seen far worse than what Cyrus and Thicke had to offer, and much of it was far better. Eroticism and even lewdness have been essential components of popular entertainment since at least the days of ancient Greece and its bacchanalias, and have always played an illustrious role in America’s grittily democratic popular culture. Lest you think us prudes, our extensive collection of American vernacular music includes such favorites as an astoundingly foul-mouthed zydeco song by Boozoo Chavis called “Louisiana Women Love Uncle Bud,” a track by the great ‘50s doo-wop group The Clovers with a title too raunchy to repeat here, a classic slice of western swing by Smokey Woods and the Modern Mountaineers called “Everybody’s Truckin’” that repeatedly rhymes “truckin’” with a still-popular obscenity, and an especially saucy rendition of “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” from the ‘20s that would surely make even the immodest young Miley Cyrus blush to a shade far redder than her flesh-colored bikini. Throw in the more subtle double-entendres from any number of records made by Dinah Washington before her cross-over to respectable pop music, or the few secular records made by the great gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, or the sly insinuation of the Light Crust Doughboys’ ‘30s western classic “Pussy, Pussy, Pussy,” and we’ve enjoyed a good many songs both raunchier and worthier than anything young Cyrus is likely to produce.
Those songs were sold behind the counter, though, and their illicit status was no small part of their appeal. Cyrus and Thicke are both second-generation show-biz legacies performing on the 30-year-old MTV awards shows, which is the modern equivalent of the “Ed Sullivan Show” as an imprimatur of official entertainment industry approval, and we must agree that it is a darned shame when such raunchiness is at the forefront of the popular culture rather than at its outlaw depths. The spectacle of Cyrus’ shimmying is as good an occasion as any for lamenting the decline of standards that infects our politics as well as our entertainments, but it’s also worth noting that our pop-cultural icons aren’t even very clever about in this dismal age. Perhaps the squares are getting harder to shock in our jaded era of presidential fellatio and “tweeted” underpants photographs, but Cyrus’ shenanigans just seem dull.
The great internet satirist Iowahawk is now “tweeting” rather than “blogging,” so he’s already beat us to the obvious observation that that Cyrus could have created a far greater controversy by donning a rubber mask resembling President Barack Obama and allowing a bull to chase her around an arena at the Missouri State Fair. When a rodeo clown recently did that he was banned from the fair, his accomplices were fired and forced to resign from their positions with a rodeo organization, and all future rodeo clowns at the fair were ordered to take “sensitivity training” to ensure that such outrages would never again stain the fair’s wholesome reputation. Being truly anti-establishment and transgressive these days seems to require being old-fashioned and traditional, and although that actually does involve courage and independence it’s not good for a career.
— Bud Norman