Kermit Snelson on Sat, 7 Feb 2004 14:15:10 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> God's Machine

What is left for the American intellectual to do?


Janet exposed our inner Clockwork Orange

The Globe and Mail
Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004 - Page R1

The least interesting thing about the Super Bowl entertainment was Janet
Jackson's half-exposed breast. I watched it with a bunch of friends and
we all saw it and no one commented.

We were too stunned by the weirdness of the rest of the spectacle. In
the crazy quilt of visual references in this show, there were:  a
uniformed marching band, dancing hip-hop style, a gothy SM outfit, and a
lot of jazz dancers wearing white overalls with braces and bowler hats
that were inspired by Kubrick's 1971 film _A Clockwork Orange_.

In the hysteria that followed the sight of half a breast -- less breast
than you regularly see on Fashion Television, about as much breast as
you can see any weekend on any female bartender in a dance club in
Toronto -- no one mentioned _A Clockwork Orange_.  No one mentioned that
this film was, at the time of its release, widely considered to be
offensive and obscene, and it was banned in several countries.

In case you've forgotten that film's gruesome two hours (and most of us
have forgotten, which is why it's on the Super Bowl), the banning was
provoked by an extended and graphic rape scene.

The passing of this ultra-violence into the most mainstream, the most
mundane, the most unadventurous of all art forms -- the mix of hip-hop
and jazz dancing that turns contemporary pop music into Broadway
musicals for moms -- is surely evidence of ... something odd.  Of what,
exactly?  This is such complicated semiotic terrain it's really hard to

There are two possible explanations.

1) Violence is part of the Super Bowl, as it is part of patriotism, as
it is part of hip-hop. The costume designers of the musical dance number
wanted to cleverly underline these shared tropes in a subtle visual
joke. The outfits of futuristic thugs on very non-frightening gay
dancers echoes the blurring of the ugly and the saccharine that occurs
when the menacing Blackhawk helicopters rumble over Beyoncé, who's
singing an overorchestrated national anthem. The same overlay of real
violence and Hollywood schmaltz occurred when another young pop star
sang his new soft 'n' sugary ballad while an actor dressed in a
spacesuit planted a U.S. flag on a plastic piece of moon, in an obvious
reference to the famous staged photograph of U.S. marines planting a
flag on Iwo Jima. The point of the costume designers -- either cynical
or subversive -- was that all violence turns into entertainment, and
that the line between the frightening and the white bread is blurred
right now, or perhaps that this link is precisely what exemplifies the
American Way.

2) Nobody thought about any of this. Somebody remembered some cool
costumes in an old film. They thought it would be fun. Those costumes
have been so copied and pastiched and referenced that they have become
simulacra: They are representations of which there is no original.
Right now, the costumes from _A Clockwork Orange_ are no longer such;
they are free-floating visual styles. To the designers, and most likely
to the vast bulk of the audience, they are completely meaningless, just
another image. In a spectacle made up of widely disparate visual styles
-- marching band, spaceman, pimp-rapper, stripper, real military
hardware -- the addition of a really off-the-wall reference is not
incongruous, it is actually the point. This is a collage, like a David
Salle painting, except it is not conscious, not a point about
postmodernism but postmodernism itself.  We're living it.

Obviously, I think the second explanation is the more plausible. There
isn't much that's self-conscious about this euphoric conflation of a lot
of different American aesthetic values.  When Janet Jackson sang her
song about "gettin' together" to solve the world's problems, in the next
breath encouraging us to think for ourselves and be different, she was
not attempting to subvert the powerfully conformist atmosphere of a
televised, nationalistic sporting event. The words don't really mean
anything. They are interjections, rather like the military cheer
"Hooah," symbolizing all-purpose good vibes and positive energy.  Words
in pop songs are not really differentiable meaning-units, but styles.
Just like the rapid-fire editing of visuals, their meaning is not
lexical.  Another way of saying this might be that their meaning is
symbolic rather than referential.  They only have meaning as part of a
total package, a package of surfaces.

The Federal Communications Commission was not in fact outraged by the
gratuitous references to ultraviolence, but to half a female breast.
They are threatening to fine each affiliate station of the network
$27,500.  As far as I can make out, their outrage is based on the idea
that seeing half a female breast would be harmful to children.  Nobody
has attempted to explain this, but then explanation is really not part
of the American Zeitgeist, is it?

Here's something that needs no explanation:  Americans were so outraged
by the breast-baring stunt that those who subscribe to the TiVo digital
television service registered a 180-per-cent spike in replay activity
after the half-time dance. TiVo has said that the incident was the most
replayed moment of all TV moments it has ever measured. The second most
replayed moments of this year's game were the commercials.

Michael Powell, the chairman of the FCC, is such a big fan of TiVo that
he once called it "God's machine."

It is here that the most dedicated and objective of postmodern analysts
cannot help but throw up his hands and say quite simply that this is the
weirdest culture we've ever seen.

© 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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