Jackson flap exposes ennui

Posted: Feb 04, 2004 12:00 AM

jI don't know who's to blame for "Boobgate" - and I'm not referring to Howard Dean's ability to spend $40 million just to lose a series of primaries pretty badly. No, I'm talking about the exposure of the most infamous mammary in Western civilization - for this week at least - revealed during the Super Bowl's halftime show.

The, er, "fallout" from Janet Jackson's and Justin Timberlake's stunt has sent shockwaves throughout the world of broadcasting. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue issued a statement making it clear he plans a Stalinist purge of anybody tainted by the Jackson, um, flap. CBS has apologized. MTV has apologized. Timberlake immediately offered a mea culpa saying that he was the victim of a "wardrobe malfunction."

Let me take a quick break from the weighty issues in this column so I can get on the record right now. My daughter isn't quite 1 year old yet, but in (God willing) 20 years, if some boy thinks he can use a "wardrobe malfunction" as an excuse for similar behavior, he'd better wear a pretty protective wardrobe himself.

Jackson and Timberlake claim that the plan was merely to pull off her skirt, to reveal her tights, but the skirt proved too cumbersome for Janet to bump and grind in. So, according to America's leading minds, the duo decided in the dressing room that Justin should tear off the front of her bodice, exposing her red lace undergarment. Alas, Justin didn't know his own strength and managed to rip off the entire bodice and the undergarment as well.

Now, I don't find this entirely believable. Did they call in a seamstress to make the bodice a breakaway at the last moment? Moreover, this version of events would mean that Janet (or Miss Jackson if you're nasty) normally wears that sun-shaped pewter thingamajig under her bra and never expected anyone to see it. Ick. And, the lyrics of the song in question were "I'll have you naked by the end of this song," not "I'll have you in your underwear."

Whatever. I guess "What happened to Janet Jackson's bra?" will join "What happened to the second gunman?" "Where are Saddam's WMDs?" and "Whoever said Ben Affleck can act?" in the great pantheon of unanswerable mysteries of our age.

Who cares? Timberlake and Jackson's motives were the same nonetheless: to shock and titillate.

I respect and sympathize with those who were deeply offended by the whole half-time show, particularly parents with small kids. And I don't just mean Janet's flash, but the whole grinding, crotch-grabbing, semi-transgendered, transgressive saturnalia. I'm legitimately outraged that we live in a country where Toby Keith could be considered too controversial for a 4th of July special on ABC, but a frenzy of strip-club impersonators got the green-light by allegedly family-oriented CBS.

But, I must say, I'm also bored. I'm a product of the MTV generation, which means I've been watching people grab their crotches on TV for most of my entire life. Whether you think it's offensive or not is one thing. But as a matter of artistic expression, it's just a yawner.

Maybe it's a tragedy that millions of Americans have grown inured to stylized groping and pelvic gyrating, particularly in tight Gestapo leather. Or maybe it's something less than a tragedy (though I'm at loss to see how it's a good thing).

Tragedy or not, millions of Americans were equally offended by the triteness of their act and by the fact that a sex culture we've made a reluctant peace with broke out of its well-defined borders and into the family dinner hour.

This episode demonstrates how much the professional counterculture is played out. For more than a century now, the art world has increasingly thrived on its ability to "shock" the middle class. Some of this art was good, some of it was bad, but sticking it to the bourgeois was, for many, a higher value than aesthetics itself.

Think of the more outrageous art controversies of the recent past. Karen Finley covers herself in faux feces to say something "shocking" about capitalism or something. Robert Mapplethorpe did "new" and "exciting" (translation: proctological) things with inanimate objects. In other words, truth and beauty long ago took a backseat to shock and titillation.

Predictably, this idea eventually trickled down from high culture to popular culture. And, for a while, some of it was legitimately both shocking and creative. But at the end of the day, shock is neither a high artistic value nor is it easy to maintain.

Janet Jackson's act, whether the nudity was intended or not, was a clich?et to music. Indeed, Jackson and Timberlake's desperation to "reveal" something - anything - strikes me as a sign of addiction. They don't know how to get a buzz from their audiences on the merits. So, they went for the now outdated play of shock and awe, only to discover that it's now schlock and yawn.