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'Is this what our culture has come to?'

Miley Cyrus is a Girl Scout compared to Wendy O. Williams, whose performances were getting her arrested for lewd conduct 30 years ago.

Three faculty colleagues and I spoke informally last week at a lunchtime program for people who work at the university but don’t teach. They invited us to talk about what it’s like to host a weekly show on the university’s student-run radio station.

One of the speakers is in his early ’70s, I would guess. He’s a good guy: cordial and well traveled, with deep knowledge about a wide range of topics. He began by saying he had seen a clip from an MTV music awards special that showed Miley Cyrus being her faux outrageous, self-promoting self.

“Is this what our culture has come to?” he asked earnestly.

Of course it is.

The goal for a number of artists in each generation (not just musicians), and their fans, is to offend people—the older the better. When I was in high school, I was in my bedroom one time listening to “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s “We’re Only in it for the Money.” The song is Zappa’s cynical take on the San Francisco hippie scene, and during the outro, the singer tells us how he’s going to ‘Frisco:

First I'll buy some beads
And then perhaps a leather band
To go around my head
Some feathers and bells
And a book of Indian lore
I will ask the Chamber Of Commerce
How to get to Haight Street
And smoke an awful lot of dope
I will wander around barefoot
I will have a psychedelic gleam in my eye at all times
I will love everyone
I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street

That last line brought my father charging into my room, bellowing threats of doing me bodily harm—not to mention demolishing my stereo—if he ever heard that line again. This was much more satisfying than his usual semi-threatening shouts to “turn it down, Patrick!” It made for a great story to tell my friends.

Popular music—mostly but not entirely rock ’n’ roll—has always been about “Is that what our culture is coming to?” Each successive decade includes acts that have a higher shock hurdle to jump because of the hijinks of their predecessors: Alice Cooper, the Sex Pistols, Wendy O. Williams, Marilyn Manson, Madonna, more rappers than can be counted, Miley Cyrus—and those are just the acts I could think of while writing that sentence.

Perhaps the best example of the rock zeitgeist of my times involved Zappa and Cooper, who at the beginning of his career recorded on Zappa’s private record label. A story had spread that someone had thrown a live chicken onstage at a Cooper concert and that Cooper had bitten the chicken’s head off and thrown it back into the crowd. If I remember correctly, the dialog went like this:

Zappa: “Did you really bite the chicken’s head off?”
Cooper: “No!”
Zappa: “Good. But don’t tell anyone.”

“Is this what our culture is coming to?” The question implies decaying morals and standards of taste. But things weren’t more innocent back when the crew-cut set thought the Beatles had hair so long that they looked like girls. Rather, our society was more naïve.

Look at all we’ve learned since then. We’ve had our noses rubbed in wars waged under false pretenses that have killed tens of thousands of American troops—Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. We endured the cynicism of Richard Nixon. Reagan should have been impeached for Iran-Contra. The war criminals Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld left a trail of scum across the American flag. Our political system has turned into a cesspool of corruption thanks to big business and billionaires. Wall Streeters and the 1 percenters are sucking the hope out of the middle class. Tens of millions of people live below the poverty lines. Tens of millions of children go to bed hungry every night. Black men—young black men in particular—are being shot to death by police who go unpunished for the murders. We have an incarceration rate that is the shame of the world. Men from the Middle East will die in Guantamano Bay without ever being charged with anything related to Sept. 11, 2001—so much for our hallowed due process. Our intelligence agencies (talk about an oxymoron) torture people and, on the few occasions when they’re caught, deny it or call it by euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And we barely look up from our smartphones when the corporate media offer the occasional peeps about these sins.

So how is a popular entertainer expected to get our attention if all we do is shake our heads and say “too bad” after we carelessly bomb a hospital or, worse yet, kill thousands of innocents—sorry, I mean collateral damage—in an unwinnable war against a concept (“terror”) that has no boundaries and no shape and is constantly on the move and evolving?

Yeah: This is what our culture has come to.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 26th, 2015 11:56 am (UTC)
I'm curious - did the audience react? Did your school paper cover the conversation? We have a series of lunchtime social justice conversations that aren't well attended - but do get video coverage, that is how I get to participate most of the time.
Oct. 26th, 2015 10:36 pm (UTC)
This post was an after-the-fact riff about the event. The post just fell out of my head.

The event itself was casual: We told stories about musicians, the times we've met them, concerts we'd seen, etc. It all went down at noon, so the student reporters were either in class or eating lunch.
Oct. 27th, 2015 03:59 am (UTC)
I can think of numerous thing that happened in the punk era that were far more explicit than anything Miley Cyrus comes up with.
Oct. 27th, 2015 11:05 am (UTC)
The publicity machines are much improved since then and can spin actions by pretty poseurs like Britney, Miley, Justin et al into events that are shocking, truly shocking—that is, good for ratings, which are good for advertising dollars—as far as the print and TV tabloids are concerned. Yawn.
Oct. 27th, 2015 12:48 pm (UTC)
Good point
Oct. 27th, 2015 10:03 pm (UTC)
Many, many years ago, somebody provided Playboy with nude photos of Madonna taken before she was a celebrity. She fumed, made a fuss and threatened legal action about the unauthorized publication of the pictures. At the time, I thought it was ironic that the Material Girl was being treated like, well, material. In retrospect, I realized the whole faux controversy must have been manufactured. I think Madonna was the best self-promoter since Salvador Dali in terms of turning her personality into money.
Oct. 28th, 2015 03:50 pm (UTC)
Madonna's definitely "MATERIAL" (puns intended)
Oct. 28th, 2015 06:29 am (UTC)
Amen. Also, and I'll probably get myself kicked off your friends-list for this, Myley Cyrus has some pretty good songs.
Oct. 28th, 2015 10:40 am (UTC)
If you like those songs, that's cool. I listen to some stuff you wouldn't like. Life would be boring if all of us had the same tastes.
Oct. 28th, 2015 10:29 pm (UTC)
Oct. 29th, 2015 02:02 am (UTC)

I agree... Miley's a great artist; very talented.

Oct. 29th, 2015 06:40 am (UTC)
It's all the antics that are distracting. And the outfits; my god, the outfits. Those are really very bad.
Oct. 29th, 2015 12:17 pm (UTC)
You mention the outfits, which shows the effectiveness of her carefully crafted image. If people don't notice her for her music (like me), they notice her for her outfits, for having her tongue sticking out in so many photos, for her seemingly outrageous actions and outbursts, etc. If I existed in a media vacuum, I wouldn't know who Miley Cyrus is. But I do know who she is, even though there's nothing about her I find interesting, which is more evidence of how she and her image/media experts are practicing their craft at a very high level of expertise. I got twice as many views of this post than I've ever had for any other post, and I suspect it has everything to do with Miley and nothing at all to do with the post's mentions of Cheney, Nixon, etc.
Oct. 29th, 2015 07:17 pm (UTC)
I actually had to go back and re-read the post, because I couldn't remember Cheney et al. at all. Which again proves your point.
Oct. 30th, 2015 02:25 pm (UTC)
This is VERY true!
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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