For the first time in six years, I missed an episode of 24 this week. I didn’t just miss it. I actually, incredibly, forgot that it was on.
I used to write about the show after every episode but had to give it up last year due to time constraints. But I still looked forward every week to vegging in front of the TV for the 8-9 hour and getting lost in Jack Bauer’s world.
Longtime fans of the show would probably agree that this year’s incarnation of the series is ludicrous — a pale, insipid caricature of a program that once inspired serious debates among intellectuals about its meaning to American politics and culture. Indeed, as I have written on several occasions, 24 through the years reflected America’s increasing doubts about the war in Iraq and the war on terror. It brought torture front and center in a way no political or legal debate among experts ever could, making the issues accessible for ordinary people to contribute to the fray.
24 was a cultural phenomenon and Jack Bauer was an icon both admired and despised depending on which side of the culture kampf you stood. It was the favorite show of the political class, both right and left. In its heyday, it generated big ratings and even bigger controversy for its unabashed point of view that showed America as the good guys and the terrorists as evil. It was one of the only shows on TV with a recognizable conservative slant — a perspective that was maintained until the conservative creator of the series, Joel Surnow, handed off day-to-day responsibilities for the show to others.
Surnow is gone now and the character of Jack Bauer has been radically altered. This is a kinder, gentler Jack who doesn’t torture suspects anymore, has a much lower body count, seems to work much better with the national security bureaucrats who used to stand in his way of saving America, and is even — in the ultimate smack down to the “old” Jack Bauer” — more tolerant of authority. In short, Bauer is now about as edgy as a snowball, and half as interesting to watch.
Jack Bauer has become a parody of a cultural icon. He is proof that, when in the proper hands, what was once a vital, complex, morally conflicted, and multi-motivated character can become a scoop of vanilla ice cream — a milquetoast ghost of the old Jack. Now Bauer has become the “anti-Jack” — a deliberately crafted near-opposite of the symbol who was adopted by conservatives as a totem for the kind of war we were fighting against enemies as pitiless and ruthless as their real-life counterparts.
The sense of duty is still there, but to what? All Bauer seems to have left is a personal code of honor to which he is loyal. Gone is the clear notion that Jack was fighting for America, replaced by a much more individualistic sense of “me vs. them.” Bauer fights a private war now, for his own goals and his own reasons. It diminishes him in ways that reduces his impact on the culture. It’s like Bauer has gone from Captain America to Captain Crunch.
It isn’t so much that Bauer has become a liberal, or now reflects liberal sensibilities about the war on terror. That’s not entirely accurate. Instead, the character is now a parody of the old Jack, a notion reinforced by the writers deliberately eschewing the tactics used by the old Bauer, while steering the new Jack away from almost all controversy. The old Jack not only tortured suspects; he routinely thumbed his nose at the bureaucrats and his superiors. He seemed to have adopted the old Davy Crockett motto: “Be sure you’re right — then go ahead.”
Now, Jack Bauer defers to authority in ways he never would have in the first years of the show. He has been defanged in an effort perhaps to widen his appeal. Instead, the effect is to parody what made Bauer such a powerful image of American strength and determination to take the fight directly to the terrorists. The old Jack Bauer probably belonged in a cage. The new Bauer only needs a leash. And the difference is a reflection of how pop culture has changed the last decade. Cynicism and a general malaise have overtaken the explosive and often over-the-top exuberance that was once the hallmark of the American pop scene.
The embodiment of this change is another pop icon, Lady Gaga. It’s almost as if the purveyors of pop all of a sudden noticed that there was a lack of absolute outrageousness and limit-busting characters on the scene. They “discovered” Gaga, who filled the tastelessness gap that had been vacated by Madonna some years earlier
In truth, the woman has some talent, as well as brains. In that respect, she has it all over Madonna. But any evocation of the former Material Girl is done in a playful, irreverent manner. This holds true for her other big pop influence, the glam rocker Freddie Mercury of Queen. She also has a nose for publicity, an eye for over-the-top haute couture, and an ear for what sells in today’s market.
I like Lady Gaga. Unlike the grating, repetitive, and self-important music of many pop artists today, Gaga has the good sense to laugh at herself while allowing us to laugh along with her. Her videos are stunning compilations of images, although a little gimmicky at times, and of course, titanically oversexualized. Her latest production — a “min-epic” at more than nine minutes — is called “Telephone” and features some smart and sassy lyrics to a very average tune.
But it is the outrageous video that has raised a ruckus. Conor Friedersdorf points out that, unlike older artists who created videos with images that related to the music, the Gaga “Telephone” video seems to be deliberately disconnected from the art:
As it happens, “Poker Face” makes me want to pour concrete into my ear holes whenever it is forced upon me in a bar or even via the ambient ring tones of strangers. “Telephone” is definitely less annoying. But “unremarkable” is the best thing you can say for it. Why would anyone buy it disaggregated from the visuals? And even with images intact, the video suffers due to the sub-par lyrics: they don’t seem to have anything to do with what’s happening onscreen, whether you’re casually watching or a hard core fan versed in all the background.
Gaga disassociates her music from the images because she is using the video as a vehicle to send up iconic pop culture images and hence, pop culture itself. It is one gigantic inside joke that almost everyone is in on.
Her send-ups are not performed with any reverence or sense of homage, but with a desire to impose an ironic juxtaposition between the pop culture images she mocks and her own over-the-top personae. And in so doing, she consciously brings herself full circle from pop icon to a self-mocking caricature of a pop artist — a cardboard cutout so depthless and shallow, so deliberately provocative and outrageous, that the creative product — her music — actually aids in the parody by standing at arms length from the “art” of the delivery system. The art ignores the reality Gaga has created onscreen, imposing its own pleasant association with another world.
In the “Telephone” video, for instance, she is bailed out of the “Prison for Bitches” (following some rank lesbian and fetish images both designed to shock and evoke amusement) by formerly squeaky clean Beyonce. The two then take off in a Thelma and Louise adventure, parodying Quentin Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill films as well as Pulp Fiction by driving in a vehicle named “The Pussywagon” (Kill Bill) and stopping at a diner (Pulp Fiction) just long enough to poison the patrons by slipping a toxin into their food. They then drive off, the sound of police cars pursuing in the distance, and the imitation of the iconic raised handclasp of Thelma and Louise right before they drove over the cliff is used as a parody of solidarity between the two mega-stars.
What exactly are we amused at?
Lady Gaga may be a talented singer and pianist, but when she makes the jump from wild theatrics and sexually-charged lyrics to releasing a video soaked in sexploitation — the complete reification of women as sexual objects in accordance with pornographic stereotypes that the women’s movement thought it had put to rest 30 years ago — doesn’t someone have to stand up to the Gaga juggernaut and ask if this is really art or rather vulgar media manipulation in the service of selling her product?
Art, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. From my perspective, Gaga’s shtick is neither art nor the “reification of women as sexual objects.” It is what it is — just another product line in the boredom killing business. We are a society where many of us need the shock of a Gaga or a prurient peek into the multi-mistress world of a Tiger Woods in order to shake us out of our stuporous languorousness for a few minutes every day just to assure ourselves that we can still feel something, that we’re still emotionally alive.
The challenge Gaga now faces is that every day brings danger to her position atop the pop ziggurat. She must outdo her own record-shattering, barrier-breaking, taboo-smashing, performances or risk a fall from grace. From edgy, to ordinary, to boring is not a long journey from where Gaga is starting.
How can she top “over the top”? That question will define the remainder of her career.