At the Wall Street Journal, Lee Siegel looks at “America the Vulgar” and asks, “Whatever happened to the subtle thrill of real transgression?” It was easy for the left to push against cultural norms when rock and roll really was the counterculture — but that words implies a more conservative primary culture to push against, which no longer exists:
Normalized by TV and the rest of the media, the counterculture of the 1970s was smoothly assimilated into the commercial culture of the 1980s. Recall the 15-year-old Brooke Shields appearing in a commercial for Calvin Klein jeans in 1980, spreading her legs and saying, “Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” From then on, there was no going back.
Today, our cultural norms are driven in large part by technology, which in turn is often shaped by the lowest impulses in the culture. Behind the Internet’s success in making obscene images commonplace is the dirty little fact that it was the pornography industry that revolutionized the technology of the Internet. Streaming video, technology like Flash, sites that confirm the validity of credit cards were all innovations of the porn business. The Internet and pornography go together like, well, love and marriage. No wonder so much culture seems to aspire to porn’s depersonalization, absolute transparency and intolerance of secrets.
An essay like this typically ends with a set of prescriptions to solve the problem laid out in the previous paragraphs. But when the culture of vulgarity is produced by so many different factors—commercial, economic, social, aesthetic—there is no end in sight. One can only hope that, as happens so often in America, restless impatience with the status quo will carry the day and the pendulum will swing to the other side—not toward censorship and repression but toward the sacred power of sexual self-assertion and outlaw imprecations.
From Miley Cyrus’s brilliant, purposeful, repeated travesties of her wholesome image—”This is what culture is really about now,” she seems to be saying—to songs by Eminem, Lady Gaga, Kanye West and others that express disgust with their own celebrity and wealth, pop culture itself seems to yearn for a time when obscenity and graphic sexual images were morally potent rather than merely titillating and profitable. So maybe there is hope, and we will find, after all, some relief from the relentless hum of casual coarseness and vulgarity.
Good luck putting that genie back in the bottle — as Bill Whittle noted back in August, Miley Cyrus represented an American culture having gone full Weimar…
…As to what happens after that, well, one “artist” desperately yearning to find something, anything, that’s left to epater le bourgeoisie is already there: “Achtung, baby: MySpace tart Tila Tequila comes out as a Nazi sympathizer.”
Related: In another dispatch from the cultural abyss, Kathy Shaidle writes that everything you know about the Rolling Stones’ December 1969 concert at Altamont is wrong, particularly if your only source of information on the event was the Maysles Brothers’ (admittedly riveting) documentary, Gimme Shelter.