Thicke Liberty in the Internet Age

Perhaps I scrape the bottom of the barrel for catchy titles. Then again, it’s my platform; I can snark if I want to, snark if I want to, snark if I want to; you would snark, too, if you happened to be providing cultural criticism about an undertalented preener in aviator sunglasses and a striped suit with a name like that.

The Thicke/Cyrus twerkfest was a bunch of bullshit. It happened at a music awards ceremony, so there was no other way. Regarding the awards ceremony antics of either of those two losers with anything but complete indifference is a fool’s errand; H. L. Mencken looks down on the orgy of pearl-clutching and grins heartily at his own prescience. An observer unfamiliar with either Robin Thicke or Miley Cyrus might watch their song and dance and, upon being told that they are “celebrities,” wonder why a nation would celebrate a male “vocalist” who looks and sings like a frat boy at a Halloween karaoke party and a female “vocalist” who looks like she’ll throw up shortly on a bouncer in the Gaslamp Quarter. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that this observer enjoys both white performers who have that old black rhythm and sex in the arts, two of the things that caused the great scandal of Miley Cyrus’ twerking, the former majorly so. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to listen to some Bob Seeger tracks and then watch an SVU episode in which Benson hooks up with one of the junior detectives, only to have their tryst cut short by another weird-ass sex crime call? “I used her and she used me but neither one cared/we were animals.” Jim Croce would work, too: “Thank you for your time/you’ve been so much more than kind/say, if I give you another dime, maybe you could take me back in the alleyway and, shall we say, hug me?”

Hey hey hey!

The handwringing about cultural appropriation seems a bit overwrought. Oddly, Thicke doesn’t seem to be taking much flak for appropriating black culture, even though he’s a white guy from LA whose singing style is noticeably black. The real freakout has been that Cyrus appropriated a black style of dance and degraded it on stage. My objection, an objection that I suspect I share with those who have bitched about Cyrus’ cultural insensitivity as a fig leaf, is that Thicke and Cyrus just sucked, Cyrus most mightily so. These critics probably find it more expedient to accuse Cyrus of racism than to merely argue that her performance could have sucked off a Clydesdale at a commercial stud farm. When Bob Seeger gets away with equally appropriative work, it is probably because his work doesn’t have any of that horseblowing effect. The same thing goes for Jim Croce’s ballads about black underworld bruisers. Complaints about the racial insensitivity of such troubadours are too ridiculously whiny and petty to be seconded beyond the most sheltered precincts of the ivory tower.

Thicke and Cyrus should be nobodies. If one came across them out on the town in the Gaslamp Quarter, one might regard them as nothing more than two additional data points with which to chart San Diego’s civic decrepitude. The worthwhile analysis of their performance, then, is the metaanalysis. They themselves are hacks who would more appropriately be pestering low-wattage community radio station bookers for airtime, but everything tangential to their performance is rather interesting. We do, indeed, live in interesting times, just as the old Chinese curse would have it; perhaps too interesting.

First, consider that these two were given a national broadcast stage in the first place. Only under awfully liberal definitions of the arts can they sing and dance. Yet they were not given the stage that they might be mocked, as is often done to the shittier contestants on American Idol. They weren’t even booked that they might be appreciated ironically, like Kid Rock or the lesser works of Hall and Oates.

No. They were given the stage so that the audience would admire them in all earnestness. There wasn’t anything hipster-like  about the interest that Miley Cyrus elicited in her fans, their arms outstretched to nearly the ridiculous extent of their idol’s tongue. Besides, awards ceremonies are, for all their efforts to forcibly inject humor, ultimately quite self-serious affairs, as Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand will surely agree. Gervais discomfited some notables by airing their dirty laundry a bit too openly, and Brand well and truly rattled his hosts with a commentary that included a review of their past ties to the Nazi regime, but those two are exceptional. Most “celebrities” are far too craven to rock the boat. Doing so might offend the powerful, wealthy interests who act as cultural gatekeepers for hoi polloi, and being shut out of that wide main gate would mean less money and fame, a lot less if they really overplay their hands.

In other words, it only looks transgressive. Cyrus was edgy in the sense that she’d get into trouble for doing that kind of thing at a church service (or not, if they’re that Pentecostal), but by her own community’s prevailing standards, she’s reliably, and unthreateningly, mainstream. Sure, her community is Hollywood (the sleazeball-infested institution, not the hobo-encrusted, half-Disneyfied, half-dilapidated neighborhood), which would suck for anyone whose notion of civic infrastructure transcends upmarket alcoholics’ clubs and the Church of Scientology, but it’s doubtful that this desultory civic environment much bothers the young Miss Cyrus, and judging from the “work” of her old man, there’s a decent chance that it runs in the family.

If you’d like to see something that wasn’t just pretend-transgressive, try Angus T. Jones: Charlie Sheen’s little buddy on television, “don’t watch that soul-destroying filth” evangelical Christian convert in real life. That stuff is like Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the Temple. It rattles the living fuck out of the big cheeses and gives Carlos Cardinal Warlock Estevez another opportunity to note that they’re all Jews like Chaim Leibowitz. Jones didn’t rock the boat for the lulz. Apparently he had a heartfelt conversion that left him unable to countenance the garbage he was helping create as Jake. I reckon he drank a bit heartily of his mentors’ Kool Aid; I’ve run in similar circles, and the hardcore evangelists like to brew it good and strong; but regardless, it was all far too principled for Hollywood. Those who serve God cannot serve Mammon as stipulated in their contracts.

That, bizarrely enough, is the pop cultural context in which Miley Cyrus scandalized everybody: a wildly popular broadcast sitcom about an oversexed narcissist helping his undersexed, hopelessly nerdy whiner of a brother raise his scatological little brat. Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised and shocked, SHOCKED about that kind of fare, since anyone with a lick of observational skill can quickly identify families, and especially their rude, off-color little rugrats, as one of the greatest threats to family values. As I correctly (I think) noted in the SDPD Pre-Investigative Questionnaire, I have never annoyed a child, but I didn’t have the heart to more correctly note that children had certainly annoyed me more times than I could count. LT SALGADO Y U NO USE PASSIVE VOICE? Anyway, annoying, shit-obsessed little brats are a fact of life, but do we need a television show about them? More to the point, do we need one of the Big Three legacy broadcasters to produce a sitcom not only about such a porcine, scatty pain in the ass but also about his badly disordered father and uncle, and to pay the uncle enough to asphyxiate himself hourly in coke and hookers, then shitcan him in favor of a hack like Ashton Kutcher because he got manic and goofy in public?

The themes of Two and a Half Men are universal, I guess, and it stands to reason that the lowest common denominator is more universal than higher denominators. The show has occasional redeeming virtue: it’s unusually hooker-positive for a TV show, and it’s about as well written as such a horrible concept can be; but as smut goes, it’s no Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“Cunt–is that what we just did?”). Did the Supreme Court have such a thing in mind, let alone the FCC? Yet it passes official censorship unscathed, while George Carlin’s “there’s just enough bullshit to keep this country running” does not. Never mind; it has a much wider audience than the average FCC directive. My parents consider Kutcher a talentless toolbox, but they love the older episodes. They have terminal degrees and keep WHIMPUR maps in their cars, yet that’s what I get to listen to at dinner when I visit, with the bad feeling that it may conflict with the McLaughlin Group. (What, shouting matches aren’t universal?)

This mind rot has entered the national conscious. Argue if you will that it only did so thanks to the subversion of liberals, Jews, liberal Hollywood international Jews, or whatever, but it’s there. By the way, if it got there through subversion, the obvious alternatives suck, too. Listen to SRN News if you don’t believe me. If you haven’t spent much time around the Christian right, it’ll knock your fucking socks off. Charlie Harper may be a prick, but he has more respect for pluralism than that. He doesn’t regard Alan’s dorkitude as a matter that must be addressed by public policy, the way the “family values” lobby regards your sex life. These two options, however, leave something of a vacuum between censorious authoritarianism, known in its extreme forms as theocracy (at least when Ralph Reed’s fellow-travelers in the Taliban and al Shabab, the Students and the Boys, implement it) and idiotic license. There is a middle ground between what Ted Haggard preached before he got caught with the male meth whore and, at the other extreme, the whoring and the meth that he did with the male meth whore, but it isn’t  that marketable. Worse, it gives the little people too much self-determination. If a creepifying fixation on inarticulate sweet sixteens were regarded as a personal hobby that oughtn’t be imposed on the nation, Chris Hansen might have to wait tables at Denny’s for a living. His manager would be left cleaning up the messes left by him and the junior waitresses in the walk-in, and probably additional messes from his dominatrix sessions with beat cops, because that’s a chap who clearly wants to be punished by the Tonya Harding-sexy Police Women of Cincinnati, but it would be his manager’s problem, not his country’s.

And this is the context in which Miley Cyrus caused scandal? Are we psychotic? For luridness, her act had nothing on SVU. Or was the problem that it was consensual? Maybe it’s acceptable if a girl gets raped and humiliated by a bro like Thicke but not if she comes on to him, because that kind of forwardness would indicate mens rea for the crime of marriage-wrecking sluttiness and way too much self-determination. The American hive mind may actually be that depraved. 

The marriage-wrecking meme is particularly absurd. All the nosy nutters came to the yard to concern-troll the marriage of a Hollywood musician who sings, in the second person, about animalistically banging a “good girl,” to the accompaniment of rhythmic monkey shrieks. It’s not like she thrust her ass up against Mark Driscoll’s crotch (although he totally wants it, but not as much as he wants to hate-fuck Stephanie Drury). One might reasonably decree a prime directive against getting randy with the prudes, even if they do want it, if for no other reason to spare the libertines the hot mess, but prudish doesn’t exactly describe a bro who works in one of the most divorce-ridden industries on earth and whose lyrics include “tried to domesticate you/but you’re an animal/baby, it’s in your nature.” It’s not like the lady married Fred Rogers.

It didn’t matter. The busybodies were too busy calling Miley a marriage-wrecking skank to ask Mrs. Thicke for her opinion on the act. It turns out that she had seen it in the rehearsals and liked it. (It’s assortative mating: the husband hasn’t any taste, and the wife hasn’t any, either. Cherchez la femme.) Maybe it was anticipatory schadenfreude: “That bitch with the successful musician husband should have him run off on her with a twenty-year-old like my ex did.” Maybe it’s that the Thickes have lives of their own and consequently don’t need to live vicariously through the drama, real or imagined, of “celebrities.” I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here, but they deserve it more than anyone who flipped out because a Hollywood marriage was being threatened by a vaguely grown-up child star and her butt moves. Maybe Robin Thicke is the inverse, stylistically and ethically, of Newt Gingrich. Maybe the joke is on all the goobers in flyover country who daftly assume that the Thickes and everyone around them are playing by the same code of sociosexual honor that is proclaimed (but not so much lived) in Lubbock and Salina and Dubuque.

One thing is clear: the “skank stop rubbing up on a married family man” meme is severely disordered. The insanity is doubtlessly exacerbated by Cyrus’ role as Hannah Montana, a capacity in which fathers across the country (and a few mothers, I assume) had to studiously ignore her obviously budding sexuality because she was a minor trafficking kid stuff, and one wouldn’t want to be visited by Pedo Bear, or by his cousin, Pedo Hansen. The girl herself doesn’t exactly look steady-as-she-goes, either. She’s another strong data point suggesting a vacuum in the American middle ground: notice how she whipsawed, well after hitting puberty, from saccharine asexual purity to underwear-clad tongue-contorting grind artistry. It wasn’t a particularly mature maturation: “Look at me! Fuck me in the ass, Uncle Robin! I just discovered hip-thrusting human sexuality!”

Not before Elvis, you didn’t. Dude could shake his booty in his bell bottoms, and the whole nation, from rapidly engorging teenyboppers to repressed, pearl-clutching parents and civil authorities to a young James Traficant, took notice. Think of Elvis Presley as a version of Miley Cyrus who could sing, dance, and write, and who was much less bashful around the peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Like Marlon Brando, the man learned how to eat.

Does anyone who’s sexually sated give a damn about any of this Thicke/Cyrus nonsense? It occurs to me, although I’m not familiar enough with Continental European pop culture to say so for sure, that neither the legally whorish Germanic countries north and east of the Maginot Line nor France, whose bougies love them a hot mess of a slutfest with other individuals well-enough bred not to explicitly mention crude bodily functions, traffic such deranged forms of prurient quasi-puritanism in their popular culture. Italians are known to traffic flagrant bullshit about how the only reason their generation was conceived was the Fiat 500, as opposed to the unmentioned alleyways and parks where no young Italian couple has ever copulated, but the point there is mere Italianate fib-telling, not Neovictorian morality-whoring by the pathologically repressed. The Italian consensus, if there is one on the matter of Cyrus’ exhibitionism, is probably that the young lady is a sort of village whore turned famous, understandably so if one considers her father, but maybe she should get a 500 and be decent about it. The French consensus, I have to guess, is that she’s another gauche American, or maybe a performance-art parody commissioned to punk Europeans into believing that Americans really are like that. From Amsterdam to Zurich, the thinking is probably (and I’m more confident about this) that she’s just fucking weird about sex, exactly as one would expect of an American in an uncharitable moment.

It isn’t that Europeans are transcendental wonders when it comes to sexuality. They know that sex sells, because their involved in selling it, too, in both senses of the phrase. What they don’t do, however, is sell it so bizarrely. To European sensibilities, and to less-disembrained American sensibilities, Miley Cyrus’ behavior is the hallmark of an ill-bred young woman, and not merely because she’s a tart. Are your slutty friends sticking out their tongues while assuming the position for the foam finger? If so, they’re probably alcoholics, but it’s all good because they’re also probably well-dressed gutter drunks who frequent the finer clubs, not abject poors who are reduced to sneaking a forty of Olde English behind the dumpster at the 7-Eleven. But you probably have other slutty friends who are classier than that. In France, they might be chanteuses who work their magic through witty innuendo, not through what they say but through what they artfully leave unsaid.

Speaking of chanteuses, is Sara Bareilles a slut? How about Hillary Scott? These are germane questions, if you’re a prurient freak. Nobody but the most disordered voyeurs or hardcore smitten groupies gives a damn about the circumstances in which these ladies spread their legs. The reason is isn’t an issue is that they don’t make it one. By the way, they both head up extremely popular musical acts; Scott is the frontwoman for the very sentimental Lady Antebellum. Demureness works for these ladies because they have talent. It ain’t exactly so for the Cyrus family.

Even in a country as sexually disturbed as the United States, there’s strong demand for music that is poignant, thoughtful, and demure. These are virtues that give tradcon scolds great and glorious civics wood at the mere thought of such a cultural reformation; call your doctor if the prospect of reasserting 1950’s decency standards in the film industry causes an erection lasting more than four hours. Just think of it: a popular modern-day song about not giving one’s boyfriend or girlfriend anything more than a “kiss goodnight” because “I don’t wanna mess this thing up; I don’t wanna push too far.” (That’s what he said.) Or, as Prince put it, when he wasn’t putting it in through her out door at Old Man Johnson’s farm, “baby, you’ve got to slow down.”

Let’s keep in mind, however, that these are not moralistic social controls, but rather self-determined concessions to prudence in the interest of avoiding entanglement in teh hawt mess. Lady Antebellum also sings about late-night drunken pining for their love, which most certainly is not prudent if one is near a telephone and one’s love does not reciprocate. Bareilles, for her part, is really into weird drowning references. Still, “who died and made you king of anything?” is a step up intellectually from “You want to hug me; what rhymes with ‘hug me?'” Ooh, do tell, Mr. Thicke! The suspense is killing me! Is it “bug me?” Women do that, right?

One has to figure that Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus target a lower sort of audience than does Lady Antebellum or Sara Bareilles. More importantly, one has to figure that the VMA organizers targeted an even more debased audience than that, the kind of people who would be titillated and scandalized by the sight of Miley Cyrus being naughty in underwear. As a commentator at Return of Kings put it, the spectacle was doubtlessly calibrated by “a team of psycho-sexual dirt-bags whose job it is to determine the most lucrative way to use her as possible.” He’s right; events of that ilk are focus-grouped to death before they go live. The men behind the curtain know their audiences, and they are not bashful about doing the immoral deeds necessary to make their audiences drool.

Who exactly was the audience for the twerking bullshit? A few constituencies come to mind, including teenagers, mainly girls, many of whom had yet to find their way sexually, overly concerned and overly attached parents, and horrible gossips who live through the sexual sordidness of “celebrities” because they don’t have lives of their own. A spectacle like that isn’t about the music. If it were, it would look more like Austin City Limits and less like a bad documentary about strippers. The organizers started with hardcore fan bases that were, in Cyrus’ case, socially and sexually callow and, in Thicke’s case, sexually prurient and a bit officious, then stirred the pot to attract the attention of the class of marginal busybodies who like to swoop in on popular culture donnybrooks to express their concern or outrage over the shocking indecency.

Some of the latter are probably the same people who wrote to the FCC on cue from “family values” demagogues to express their shock over Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” but Miley didn’t show any tit this time, so the FCC staffers didn’t have as solemn a duty to take action on the crank mail. In addition to psychosexual dirtbags, Hollywood producers employ legal dirtbags, attorneys who know cold all the regs about how much of the T&A can be shown without risking a trip to the FCC woodshed. Holistic appraisals of decency, artistic merit, compelling public interest, or whatever are immaterial in a regime governed by technical regulations on the minimal margin of clothing around the genitalia, buttock cleavage, and female nipples. There’s no “she looks like a fucking ten-dollar greenhorn streetwalker trying to distract the townsmen from the good hookers with her stupid theatrics” clause. Common sense at common law is not how the FCC rolls.

I wonder: are the people who flipped out over this nonsense getting laid? In a way, I don’t even want to know, since an affirmative response would make it even worse. As sex goes, the twerkfest was pathetic. Can the yucky-yucky nook-nook of the marriage bed possibly be as bad if a marriage is any good? Can an average fuck-buddy arrangement plausibly get so debased? There’s no way things could get so stupid at a massage parlor unless either the masseur or the client is a total nutjob. Even the average sloppy drunk out on the town manages to be more coherent than Miley Cyrus looked; even if she’s loose as a goose and slurring, she’s probably looking for a more meaningful sexual connection with any hookup she can land than Miley and Robin had in mind.

Did I mention that those two aren’t fucking each other? I don’t know it for a fact, but I can deduce. She looked ready to settle for a doorknob if he wasn’t hard and ready, and he looked ready to tell her to get her ass out of the way because he was trying to watch the football game. That’s because it wasn’t about each other; it was about the folks at home. That is, it was pornography, and bad pornography at that; I know Olivia Benson, and Miss Cyrus, you’re no Olivia Benson. (And no Jack Kennedy; she doesn’t have that classic steroidally bloated JFK vigah, for one thing. And I wish I “knew” Mariska Hargitay. This has to change. Olivia. My office.) Notice that Cyrus was paying more attention to the audience than to her dude. That’s totally a pornographic trope, a trite and true industry standby. They were about as sexually interested in each other as John Mayer is in Temple Grandin after six hours of high-volume intercourse with groupies.

We be n00bs.

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