The Internet Monk
"the power of opinion, the phenomenon of speech, the impact of truth"
A Webjournal edited by Michael Spencer
by Michael Spencer
The cultureWatch effort here at the Internet Monk is to try, through sophisticated analysis, research and state-of-the-art information gathering, to discern those currents in our culture that effect us all. In that effort, our crack team of researchers often runs the risk of missing the obvious while looking for the emerging trend. So today we will take note, not of what is new on the horizon, but what has moved into the neighborhood over many decades, and slowly come to be accepted as "respectable."
Cultural evolution has always made some accommodation for what we might call the "shocking." In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare no doubt shocked his Elizabethan audiences with rape, dismemberment and cannibalism. Lucy and Ricky shocked viewers by discussing pregnancy and childbirth on live television. Elvis shook the pelvis, and civilization has never been the same.
We might note that these instances of "shocking" the public hardly undermined society, though many surely thought each one signaled unheralded decadence. In fact, being "shocked" became a standard response of the cultural conservative and particularly the pious. Religious and proper people are regularly shocked at contemporary mores, art and manners. I would suggest that the acceptance of being "shocked" as a stock response to cultural evolution now almost defines the line between culture and counter-culture.
Yet, how much a divide really exists? Corporate America certainly has discovered that it is very profitable to shock the public. The sexual humor of films like "There's Something About Mary" and "Scary Movie" are shocking to many, but successful in a commercially intentional way with most Americans. It is not so much artists and musicians who are shocking main street, it is the corporate owners of the music and cinema empires. And are they really shocked? Are we really shocked? Or is it all just a game?
I would like to suggest that appallingly shocking behavior has now become quite establishment, and no one is really shocked anymore, but simply moved along a predictable line of acceptance of crasser and crasser portrayals of human behavior. Our cultural reaction to violence, sex and blasphemy has now been scripted into the entire show and very little could shock us anymore.
Marilyn Manson probably qualifies as an example of an artist who seemed to set out to shock the public. His name, lyrics, appearance and performances all pushed the envelope of legality in the nineties. Yet today it is apparent that Manson is about as shocking as a Saturday morning cartoon. The so-called anti-Christ superstar turns out to be articulate, philosophical, even whimsical. These days, Manson's crusade to shock America seems to fit right in with the Letterman show, and one expects to find parents taking their kids to the shows and buying the T-shirts. Manson is quite welcome on Politically Incorrect, and was recently interviewed by Bill O'Reilley. Next, we might expect something on the Food Channel or perhaps a tour on Celebrity homes..
Rock music, in general, has lost its desire to shock and has become a pale echo of its once angry self. With bands like Staind sounding more like depressed guests on the Oprah Winfrey show than angry rockers, no one is really shocked. They pretend mild annoyance and buy their kids the cd. Only certain forms of metal and rap seem to retain the sort of fearsome shock power that ignores commercial concerns and scares the heck out of sane people. Believe it or not, even Jerry Springer has become boring.
I find young people only mildly annoyed to be forced into the admission that MTV is a 24 hour commercial, telling them what to wear, who to listen to and how to behave. The most shocking thing on MTV is how much skin Jennifer Lopex might show in her next personal appearance. The artistic, authentic drive to make a statement has been wholly subsumed in the quest to make a buck.
Before you shake your head in agreement, go a bit further. How many conservative Christian ministries make a good dollar off regular mailouts decrying the shocking decline of Hollywood and the major media? How many conservative radio hosts and writers go to the well of cultural decline for this week's article and appeal for support? How many conservative politicians use Manson asnd others to get votes and media time? Am I saying they are wrong? No way, I am simply saying we have a symbiotic relationship here, and shocking behavior has become a necessary part of American cultural life. Thereby rendering it, quite unshocking, and really, rather respectable.
Am I praising the shocking decline of our culture? No, I am demonstrating that it's decline is not measured by the shocking behavior of individuals, but by the corporate corruption at its heart. Our decline is now predictable. We are not so much driven by our pursuit of sexual depravity or further excursions into violence, as by our simple greed. We are bored, not shocked, and the most shocking behavior will hardly awaken us anymore. It all seems to arrive on schedule and we simply eat our popcorn.