It’s difficult at times not to suspect that American popular culture aspires to the condition of pornography. Either that, or it’s got a serious crush on smut. Turn on the television, if you dare, and you’re assaulted by all varieties of obscenities, delivered by persons publicly misbehaving, in different stages of undress. From the shores of New Jersey to Miami, whether they’re famous nonentities in their twenties or thirties, desperate housewives, guests on daytime talk shows or hormone-maddened teens on vacation, it seems everyone’s gone wild. Of course, to say this in our unflappable age of cynicism and mass distraction is to sound like a relic, or worse, a prude. But I’m neither. I’m a 39-year-old artist who believes in Art and Culture in a Big Way, yet find myself wondering, time and again, What’s going on?
I understand there’s always been a place for unedifying noise. But the top of the charts is not that place. Enter a bookstore, if there are any still around and drop to your knees in despair. Once upon a time, books were written by writers who had something to say and the talent to say it well. Now it’s all celebrity memoirs. It’s nice that celebrities can write, or be ghostwritten, and that more and more people feel their stories are worth sharing with the world. But when did books become hardcover tabloids? And what life lessons can we take away from the memoir of a teen pop star? Don’t you have to have lived a rich, remarkable life first? And if it’s not bubblegum musicians, it’s another brash talk show host writing of her sex-capades (with not one but two of her books simultaneously on the New York Times bestseller list).
Question: When exactly did it become socially acceptable to launch your career with a “leaked” sex tape? Answer: when narcissism and shamelessness became qualities to celebrate as well as to try to emulate. When celebrity ceased to be about celebrating extraordinary achievement and became instead a celebration of itself. Hard to distinguish the shiny women’s magazines at the checkout dispensing racy how-to advice from the dodgy men’s magazines at adult stores. And with porn and prostitution glamorized and de-stigmatized, it’s not uncommon to hear of regular college girls turning to either to supplement their incomes.
Check out a random selection of music videos or episodes of so-called reality TV shows and it appears the stripper is the new cultural icon. (Why else, of all the ways to get fit, would pole dancing become a fad?) In the exhibitionistic world of pop music, adept at concealing depths while revealing surfaces, there’s an incorrigible figure who best personifies this vulgar, sexually aggressive New Woman. Refusing to cover up, this 54 year-old one-trick pony has spawned a legion of pantless or pantyless imitators. Out the window are complexity, ambiguity, restraint, subtlety or sensitivity. In their place, the crotch in your face. And the younger starlets take after their pop mother, schooled in the art of cheap provocation or minimum effort and maximum effect. Nothing is sacred for this new crass class of loud-mouthed attention-grabbers. They court controversy at any price, pimping serious issues – Freedom, Love, Religion, Revolution, Tolerance, you name it – all in the name of further self-promotion and exposure.
Dispiriting stuff. And, speaking of commodifying ideals, there’s a bunch of popular (once-called) dating shows, where ordinary-seeming folks go about finding “the loves of their lives” while a nation of voyeurs drools. Heavy words are lightly thrown, girls are kissed, fondled, discarded, and, boys, too, toyed with and broken-hearted. Strange business, this amusing ourselves with the real emotions of strangers. But one mustn’t wag the moral finger too sternly. Nothing is personal anymore; inner life is an oxymoron and we must share, share, share within an inch of our lives. Besides, it’s all entertainment, the way news in the United States is entertainment – and entertainment is news. By way of example, shortly after the young female hostages in the Ohio kidnapping were released just recently, one of the rescuers was swiftly turned into a caricature for mass consumption, his TV interview transformed into an inescapably catchy tune.
But back to the pornification of culture. What happens when sex sells … out? When no one bats an eye when ads for major American clothes lines seem to be peddling – how to put this delicately – kiddy porn? Or at the other end of the spectrum, mommy porn? When the erotic novel that captures the public’s imagination is kinky sex for the middle aged? Mercifully, I had the discipline to not read 50 shades of kinky sex, but even squinting across the room at its so-so prose, it’s fairly surprising to consider it was embraced by the mainstream.
Sure, there have always been intrepid adventurers at the fringe, the avante garde – artists, activists and rebels of all stripes fall under this class. But what happens when the extreme becomes the mainstream: can the center still hold when it folds upon itself? If we are all at the transgressive forefront, how do we know when we’ve gone too far? Isn’t part of the real danger of being on the margins the fact that one might fall off the cliff altogether? What happens if we’re all following, blindly, unshocked, unshockable, when we face a real abyss?
Just last week, a new TV show aired that gave me pause for thought. It’s light-hearted and jokey, in a nervous sophomoric way. Only in this post-shame age, it’s not sex it’s jittery about, but the G-word. You see, the premise of this unlikely comedy, Save Me, is that a vocally unreligious woman discovers that she’s become a prophet of sorts and receives divine messages. (Full disclosure: as a poet and person I am prone to turn to mystical literature and the lives of saints for inspiration and sustenance, so, this treatment was particularly intriguing to me). Of course, there’s no telling how our awkward TV visionary will fare, either within this conflicted culture for which belief is the love that dare not speak its name, or within the context of the show itself, which seems embattled as to whether its heroine is authentic or psychotic. But what does it mean that it’s on primetime in the first place? Could it be this fast-food culture of disposable entertainment, quick fixes and gurus-to-go is sounding some sort of alarm, and is in need of Saving?