Lady Gaga reportedly spent $25 million on pop art to jazz up her new and apparently underwhelming album. In contrast, Miley Cyrus’ sexual twerking at the MTV Music Video Awards earned her more millions by exposing her rather unimpressive anatomy. Both make the once vulgar Madonna seem like June Cleaver, but at least raise an existential question: how much lower can we go?
Meanwhile, hip-hop artist Kanye West is promoting his own new music video. He seems to be having sex with his girlfriend Kim Kardashian while riding a motorcycle. If you did not know that Kanye West was the singer of the background music, by the quality of the lyrics and beat, you might think that a fourth grader was spewing rhymed obscenities, in the fashion that Gaga and Cyrus make up with obscenity, both spoken and visual, what they lack in musical, dance, and artistic talent.
In the two-second attention spans of our app culture, a bare nipple, a potty-mouth obscenity, or a multimillionaire’s flippant reference to a “ho” earns followers and thus big money in a way that even once cutting-edge Elvis Presley’s melodies or an against-the-grain Van Gogh impressionistic painting or a T.S. Eliot poem could never quite seem so shockingly profitable.
Professors know that bored students do their Facebooking rather than listen to lectures. Commuters fear that texting while driving is more dangerous than drunk driving. Pedestrians are hit by other strollers whose heads are glued to iPhones. No one believes that such fixations arise from watching the History Channel, googling the Renaissance, or reading the Economist. No matter — in our therapeutic culture, in theory millions of students could do all those things, so the next new fad for our broke universities and trillion-dollar indebted college students is to provide them all with free iPads. Only the absence of an iPad robs us of future Edisons and Einsteins.
The radically egalitarian ethos demands always the descent to the lowest common denominators of taste. A world without requisites is the fairest. To capture the most attention of the masses requires a Cyrus, Gaga, or West. Once classical canons of artistic, literary, or musical expression were torn down, and once those classically trained rebels who ripped them apart have passed on, we are left with the ruins of trying to shock what is perhaps beyond being shocked. What more could Miley Cyrus do — wear two foam fingers? Could Mr. West mount his girlfriend, and sing and dance while riding backwards?