The Cyrus fiasco, however, is symptomatic of the still heavy influence of Madonna, who sprang to world fame in the 1980s with sophisticated videos that were suffused with a daring European art-film eroticism and that were arguably among the best artworks of the decade. Madonna’s provocations were smolderingly sexy because she had a good Catholic girl’s keen sense of transgression. Subversion requires limits to violate.
Young performers will probably never equal or surpass the genuine shocks delivered by the young Madonna, as when she sensually rolled around in a lacy wedding dress and thumped her chest with the mic while singing “Like a Virgin” at the first MTV awards show in 1984. Her influence was massive and profound, on a global scale.
But more important, Madonna, a trained modern dancer, was originally inspired by work of tremendous quality — above all, Marlene Dietrich’s glamorous movie roles as a bisexual blond dominatrix and Bob Fosse’s stunningly forceful strip-club choreography for the 1972 film Cabaret, set in decadent Weimar-era Berlin. Today’s aspiring singers, teethed on frenetically edited small-screen videos, rarely have direct contact with those superb precursors and are simply aping feeble imitations of Madonna at 10th remove.
Pop is suffering from the same malady as the art world, which is stuck on the tired old rubric that shock automatically confers value. But those once powerful avant-garde gestures have lost their relevance in our diffuse and technology-saturated era, when there is no longer an ossified high-culture Establishment to rebel against. On the contrary, the fine arts are alarmingly distant or marginal to most young people today.
Great minds think alike, as the kids say on the Interwebs, and that last paragraph sounds awfully familiar. As I wrote last Wednesday, linking to Paglia’s recent interview in Salon:
Pop culture, whether in the form of the original modernists, or pop music, in the form of rock and roll in the 1950s and early Beatle-era 1960s, only really produces anything interesting and new when it has a more conservative and traditional overculture to push against. The original modernists had a millenia of tradition to rebel against — or reject outright — in the late 19th and early 20th century. At least until another group of leftists, led by their own wannabe artist, were even more eager to “Start From Zero” in Germany’s post-Weimar era. (Philip Johnson, who founded the Museum of Modern Art’s architectural department really hedged his bets, by maintaining a concentration camp in both groups.)
By the 1960s, there was nothing left other than modernism, which is why every office building built in America looked like Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and 860 Lakeshore Drive, and every corporate and government logo incorporated Helvetica:
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Similarly, MTV was the perfect platform for Madonna to mount (OK, pun slightly intended) to release her early videos, to blow off (sorry) 30 years of the network Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters. Once that was gone — and particularly, once Madonna released her Mapplethorpe-inspired “Sex” book in 1992, where else could the culture go?
As I asked last week, how does an artistic movement continue its “nostalgia for the mud,” once it’s wallowing in it?
In a 2008 retrospective of the late Pauline Kael, the influential New Yorker film critic, who championed the violent, transgressive product of the “New Hollywood” of the late 1960s and pre-Star Wars 1970s, beginning with 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, Robert Fulford of Canada’s National Post wrote:
Kael, whose critical reputation was in its early stages, used Bonnie and Clyde as the opening shot in what turned out to be a war against middlebrow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road taste. Her New Yorker piece began: “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on? Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate. The audience is alive to it.”
She announced no less than a revolution in taste that she sensed in the air. Movie audiences, she said, were going beyond “good taste,” moving into a period of greater freedom and openness. Was it a violent film?
Well, Bonnie and Clyde needed violence. “Violence is its meaning.”
She hated earnest liberalism and critical snobbery. She liked the raw energy in the work of adventurous directors such as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. She trusted her visceral reactions to movies.
When hired as a regular New Yorker movie critic, she took that doctrine to an audience that proved enthusiastic and loyal. She became the great star among New Yorker critics, then the most influential figure among critics in any field. Books of her reviews, bearing titles such as I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and When the Lights Go Down, sold in impressive numbers. Critics across the continent became her followers. Through the 1970s and ’80s, no one in films, except the actual moviemakers, was more often discussed.
It was only in the late stages of her New Yorker career (from which she retired in 1991) that some of her admirers began saying she had sold her point of view too effectively. A year after her death (in 2001) one formerly enthusiastic reader, Paul Schrader, a screenwriter of films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, wrote: “Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline.”
Kael assumed she was safe to defend the choices of mass audiences because the old standards of taste would always be there. They were, after all, built into the culture. But those standards were swiftly eroding. Schrader argued that she and her admirers won the battle but lost the war. Acceptable taste became mass-audience taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film’s worth, sometimes the only measure. Traditional, well-written movies without violence or special effects were pushed to the margins. “It was fun watching the applecart being upset,” Schrader said, “but now where do we go for apples?”
Where indeed? But nobody who was standing behind the Panavision movie cameras of the ’60s and ’70s, or the television minicams of the 1980s was asking that question; they were too busy kicking over the applecart. Unfortunately though, “you can only be avant-garde for so long before you become ‘garde,'” as former Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts once warned her fellow leftists. Similarly, a century ago, when bohemian French modernists coined the phrase, “Épater la bourgeoisie!”, evidently, they never stopped to consider that the bourgeoisie would eventually long grow inured at efforts to shock them.
Or that the bohemians would become more than a little bourgeois themselves, along the way.
Related: “The most disturbing thing about this ex-Disney star’s sordid routine? My teenage daughter’s blasé reaction.”