Janet Jackson and the Frog

On Saturday night Sept. 8, 2001, I did something unusual. I went to Madison Square Garden to watch the taping of a Michael Jackson special that was soon to be aired on CBS. A friend had come to town with tickets and we decided to meet for dinner and go together. We thought it would be fun because we thought it would be strange.

We had no idea.

The special was aimed at celebrating Michael Jackson’s career. He was newly under the heavy cloud of scandal, and his advisors had cooked up a new story—a reunion of the Jackson family—to replace the scandal story.

Thousands of young people showed up, and some people who were not so young. Top tickets went for thousands of dollars. Michael Jackson, dressed in his black glitter suit, came out and danced with his brothers and sang and grabbed his crotch. The crowd screamed and cheered. Liz Taylor came out in a stiff gown, looking like a statue in Madame Tussaud’s that had been designed to retain water. She sat silently in a sort of little balcony overseeing the action, saying nothing but waving like the queen mother. Marlon Brando too was a guest star. He sat at the center of the stage with a mike in his hand and spoke for about 10 minutes in a kind of deranged if harmless free association. People booed. They couldn’t tell what he was saying, but they didn’t spend this kind of money to see a fat man in a chair say things that might be serious. Liza Minnelli came out and did a number that was either an homage to or a wan imitation of her mother. And then Witney Houston came out.

This part you may remember, for photos of her made their way across the newspapers of the world. She was emaciated, like a person in a terrible famine. Just a few years before she had been America’s sweetheart, singing with perfect poise and pitch. Now there were repeated reports in the tabloids of drug abuse, and her appearance seemed to buttress them. “Skeletonism,” I said to my friend. “I think it’s a disease now. You get famous and then turn into a skeleton.”

There were other acts and other odd moments, and throughout them the crowd cheered and yelled.

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Later, as we got into a cab, we said nothing. It was odd to go from such sound to such silence. But we were both pondering.

It wasn’t that any individual moment during the evening was so stunningly bizarre. (Mr. Brando, for instance, was only as bizarre as Brando is.) It was that taken as a whole the night yielded an unmistakable sense of decay and disorder. “I feel like we just witnessed the end of our culture,” I said.

“We are,” he said. “It’s a freak show now. The whole thing, it’s just a freak show.”

Two-and-a-half days later came 9/11 and the ending of a world. When my friend and I talked again he said, “Remember that night? You could see it coming then.”

Why am I treating you to a bad memory? Because I am disturbed about our culture and can’t stop thinking about it. I’m embarrassed by our culture too, and made anxious by it. Aren’t you?

For a while after 9/11 we seemed to sober up. There seemed a new seriousness. It wasn’t heavy and somber, there was a lot of humor and wit, but we were perhaps a little chastened, a little more mature. Sept. 11 was such a shock to the national system that after it the culture’s long slide into narcissistic netherworlds seemed momentarily stopped, or at least slowed. But it’s picked up again.

Last Sunday night I joined some friends at a Texas barbecue restaurant in Manhattan. We were a football-free zone, marking the birthday of a friend from San Antonio. We had a great time eating what Texans call barbecue and we call brisket. I got home about 9 p.m. and put on the television. It looked like a good game. I logged on to Drudge, and saw the big picture of Justin Timberlake, whose expression could have been described as evil if his face had more intelligence, turned toward Janet Jackson, whose famous breast was exposed to show the famous nipple decorated by the famous Goth-looking metal sunburst.

Oh no, I thought. We’re back to the pre-9/11 freak show.

You have all followed the great controversy, although I’m not sure controversy is the right word for an incident the facts of which no normal human would debate. Was it deliberate? No, the Goth pastie, the lyrics “I’ll have you naked before the end of this song,” and Janet Jackson’s slowness to cover her breast and quickness to enact what she thinks is a look of shame, make it clear it was all an accident. Did MTV know it would happen? No, when they put out the announcement promising “shocking moments” from Ms. Jackson, they didn’t mean anything by it. Did the—let’s be generous—perhaps retarded Justin Timberlake realize he’d gone too far? Of course—that’s why he issued the winking statement about “wardrobe malfunction.” Was the NFL taken aback? Gosh, they must have been—who would think MTV would do something vulgar and highly sexualized? Will an FCC fine of $27,500 stop the networks? Oh sure, in their tracks.

Now they’re saying the answer is a tape delay. Believe me, half the country would like to put the entire culture on a tape delay.

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Why was the piggy paganism of the Super Bowl so obnoxious? Our culture has been sick for a while—highly sexualized, violent, inspirational to the unstable. Our media have for decades been robbing our children of the not-knowingness that is the hallmark of childhood. It’s not new; it’s just worse, or perhaps I mean more obvious. This was the Super Bowl, after all, a football game in early-evening prime time with children watching, and nice people who hadn’t bought into the concept of seeing a sex show.

Blogger Mickey Kaus raised most quickly some big points. “The issue isn’t nudity but the implicit endorsement of acting out male fantasies of violent and invasive non-consensual sexual behavior. Never mind the message it sends to international audiences—say young, angry Muslims, to pick a random example, who may have been wondering whether America really is immoral.” He added that this year’s game was telecast to 229 countries and territories, including China for the first time.

But at least indignation is broad and deep. So broad and deep there may be hope in it. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, in stepping over the line, could wind up being remembered as the entertainers who reminded us there is a line, or should be.

This might be a frog-in-the-water moment. You remember: You put a frog in a nice cool pot of water, and he’s happy and swims around. But if you put a flame underneath the pot and slowly raise it, chances are he’ll boil to death. On the other hand, if you dump a frog in a boiling pot of water, he’ll jump right out and be saved.

Our culture has been on a boil for years. Then it cooled a bit. The other night at the Super Bowl they put the flame higher and the water began to boil. The frog—that would be us—is still alive. And may, in his shock, jump out of the water.

But the question is: How? How to turn it around. I wonder if all the sane adult liberals and conservatives couldn’t make progress here. But how. Readers?