If there was any one word that best described the D.C. gate-crashers it was "boredom." Not only did Americans tune out the "scandal" quickly, they never liked it -- or them -- to begin with. They weren’t heroes, not even for a day. Most folks thought they should be locked up and dismissed; certainly not offered a TV show.
The most telling comment I read, posted underneath one of those media blogs, was "I still hate her dress." Yet the networks poured out those endless clips and photos and "Breaking News" bulletins and up-to-the-minute updates on a no-comment-till-we’re-paid couple. Had the media been wiser, they would have listened to the guy who, after all that, just hated her dress. When there’s nothing underneath, the surface becomes the subject.
The only thing shocking about 21st Century culture is that nothing no longer shocks. Even double negatives. If Balloon Boy carries a lesson, it’s that flash is dangerously out of fashion. Andy Warhol, your 15 minutes are up. Tiger Woods gets a different slot because there is something underneath; Tiger Woods. His women will go the way of Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones. (Wikipedia even makes those relics forever accessible.) If you can access this column you’ve seen it all -- hardcore porn, wars, hate sites, mutilation, prostitution, and Ashton Kutcher’s Tweets. And you can’t make a shocking disaster movie after the real one in September.
The end of shock might make you sentimental for those fun, "What’s Gonna Happen Next" ’80s, but there’s light at the end of the MTV tunnel. "Shock" by itself is horror: Michael Jackson’s death -- and much of his post-Reagan life -- a plane vanishing over the Atlantic, your own missing child. The so-called shockers did something else entirely; they grabbed us.
Madonna was labeled the Queen of Controversy, and a shock-pop phenomenon. But the world’s first Reality TV star never existed to get voted off the island. Madonna surprised more than anything else, and we love surprises. Each attention-grabbing headline had a story underneath, be it an infectious hook, a sexual flip-flop, or an era-defining image. No one’s going to read your work if you never made it past the catchy title.
When Madonna’s machinations were visible we tuned out. From "Sex" to "Erotica" to the David Letterman "Fuck" fest, we knew people were about to jump out so we no longer wanted to go to the party. We returned when the star changed her introduction. "Bedtime Stories" had no dance songs, little sex, and a curtain call finish that sold us a bittersweet, vulnerable star. "Take a Bow" is still her biggest hit.
The first time I saw Bette Midler, in 1981, I was shocked. She wore a pyramid gown, she obsessed over her breasts, she glided across the stage in a wheelchair and mermaid tail, and she told jokes that would make a drunken sailor blush. None of that made my jaw drop; it was her unfathomable talent that astounded me.
Lady GaGa is, hands down, the best new star because she grabs the spotlight. Her bubble dresses and razor blade sunglasses aren’t shocking -- they’re ridiculous -- and that brings you to her point. If you’re not going to fit in then fit out in a big way. Once you buy that premise, it’s easy to realize how good her music is. Since she’s a much better singer than Madonna, and a more mainstream vocalist than Midler, her more accurate predecessor is Cyndi Lauper, the other girl who grabbed us with over-pouffed hair and thrift-shop clothes and a Kewpie Doll speaking voice that only showed its true colors on the microphone. Lauper’s mistake was to keep up the charade after people were ready for less.
Gay is no longer shocking, and Adam Lambert might have a point when he says there’s a double standard for what’s considered acceptable entertainment; on the rest he’s got it all wrong. If the past century taught us anything about homosexuals it’s that we expect them to be deviants. Grabbing your crotch, lip-locking in public, and a faux blow job isn’t news; it’s the nearest gay bar. The guy who’d grab our attention at that bar wouldn’t be the Eddie Munster meets Fat Elvis cartoon character; it would be the one who quietly fuck-stares you from across the room.
Lambert’s caricature of a gay sex symbol may have brought him "Idol" accolades -- a show that revels in Nickelodeon hyperbole -- but we’re just as turned off watching him play with himself as we’d have been if Boy George tried to, or when Pee-Wee Herman did. There was an old TV jingle that started with the catch-phrase, "If you really want to grab someone’s attention...whisper." Lambert should take a cue and get rid of the gloss.
Boy George, like "Will & Grace" and "Brokeback Mountain," culture-shocked because he was mainstream entertainment in a gay wig. The Culture Club was Top 40 radio, "W&G" was Nielson Top Ten, and The Gay Cowboy Flick was an Oscar Best Five. Take away the window dressing and you have simple pop music, sitcom shenanigans, and a star-crossed love story. Titillation brought in the crowds, enjoyment kept them there.
Barbra Streisand’s made a few shockingly bad choices of late (Il Divo drowning her out onstage, anyone?), but a singer doesn’t keep selling records on a big-boom voice alone -- ask Celine Dion or k.d. lang. Streisand disappointed -- shocked -- the faithful when she ditched the standards, said "Fuck Off!" in her first non-singing role, a prostitute in "The Owl and the Pussycat," and moved from light rock to disco to pop and Back to Belting. She gained and changed fans as quickly as she switched hairstyles.
Her latest album, "Love Is the Answer," is marketing genius. Gone are the infinity notes (at 67, she can’t reach them), so she enlisted Diana Krall to produce an album of jazz standards for a new, shockingly quiet sound. A live concert at a New York jazz club surprised everyone, and helped give her another "Billboard" Number One album, making her the only artist in history to have number-one albums in five consecutive decades. The CD is, simply, Streisand.
Artists still legitimately shock, and it doesn’t always equal glory. Janet Jackson’s Wardrobe Malfunction went a step too far for Super Bowl fans, and American Purists. The singer, who’s sold over a million albums worldwide, has gone on to record three consecutive flops (it doesn’t help that every other song contains a vagina euphemism). Sinead O’Conner never recovered after ripping up the Pope’s picture on "Saturday Night Live," and, cruelly, it took the King of Pop’s death to put him back on the throne.
The biggest Pop Shock of Post Shock is Britney Spears, who went from teen-tease to tart-tease to tramp-tragedy in just a few years. Most people thought her initial Page 6 antics were PR to show a grown-up woman no longer a girl, but Britney’s televised breakdown turned into a circus of sickness. Not hers; ours. Pop cynics point to Spears’ addiction to attention, while failing to acknowledge our addiction to train wrecks. The Ambulance Chasers were us, and "Us."
Britney Spears made that seminal comeback both celebrated and mocked; we created her, we tripped her, we’re pulling her back up. Once again, there’s more to the story than just trimming down and facing her "scene of the crime" MTV fans. "Blackout" (released at the height of her fall) and "Circus" are arguably two of the best pop albums of the decade, far superior to any of her previous works, and ushering in a new genre -- call it "angry bubble gum" -- that’s uniquely her own. There’s no shock value left in Britney’s vault, thank God, and if she remains on top it will be on the merits of her work.
Shock for shock’s sake, or to simply get a platform, is a disease or a tragedy, or, more often than not, both. AIDS shocked everyone; bareback sex no longer does. Leo Giamani, one of the hottest gay porn stars today, disappointed his fans when he went mainstream and put on a condom. If you really want a jolt, go to any porn site and read the comments below the clips -- thumbs down on the "so last century" Latex lovers. Glenn Beck’s trying his damnedest to spark controversy, most recently asking the Christmas Question: "Do you believe Tiger Woods may actually be O.J. Simpson?" Beck’s selling hate-for-profit, no matter the consequences.
Twelve-Step programs work on the concept that you have to "bottom-out" before you can rebuild yourself. Our country’s at the turning point. Tea Parties and Limbaugh are very much alive; so are their relatives in the Ku Klux Klan; we just don’t plaster them on the front page. We’ve always had celebrity shockers, but the drug and other abusive tales of Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, Tyrone Power, and Judy Garland, among a myriad of others, were mostly hidden.
The nadir of our culture has turned religious, with the Westboro Baptist Church’s "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" cute catch-phrases taking the lead. (Independent Ego Joe Lieberman is a close second, and it’s too bad the country’s not fixated on America’s real whore of the playing field.) Sorry North Carolina, but ousting a City Councilman because he’s an atheist won’t work, although, I have to admit, that science fiction story surprised even me.
The closest thing we came to an actual shock this year was the New York family whose children were injured by a light fixture at the 2005 Thanksgiving Day Parade, and didn’t sue. That’s breaking news in a litigious-default world.
As the new decade approaches, three of the most talked-about movies are, in their own way, shocking. "Nine" has that familiar all-star cast, but it’s a musical. George Clooney’s "Up in the Air" is selling itself as the classic American comedy, only minus the vomit and fart jokes. And "Precious" stars a 300-pound African-American woman in the ingénue role. If the films stay with us after their scheduled departure dates it won’t be because we tripped the girl as she walked into the theater; it’ll be because we couldn’t care less about her dress.