The end of Western Civilization may be at hand. When a respected online news source follows an article about the latest actions taken by the Secretary of State with an explanation of why Miley Cyrus sticks her tongue out so often, oblivion cannot be far away. This manifestation of what we might call pop news is related to our society’s fascination with being fascinated. The pursuit of piquancy apparently justifies squandering brain power on some truly absurd material. What was once repugnant is now embraced for its very repugnance.
Cole Porter famously contended that “in olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows anything goes,” but that’s not quite true. Our craving for fascination requires us to be shocked, even by things that aren’t shocking. The current drumbeat of Cyrus stories is hard evidence of our affection for the din and the draw of the old circus midway. For now, this interest in the bizarre might as well be called Miley Cyrus Syndrome.
The condition used to be associated with Janet Jackson, Mother of the Wardrobe Malfunction, in honor of her outrageous (and obviously staged) performance at Super Bowl XXXVIII. Just as they are now, the people of that time were abuzz with chatter over the incident. People were astonished by the unastonishing “event.” And just as now, the “event” overshadowed real news stories.
You probably didn’t need Maria Puente’s recent USA Today article to tell you how many more people were interested in Miley during the days immediately following her bizarre teddy bear showstopper than they were in what was happening with Syria. The explosive overseas conflict was no competition, even though – unlike the static Cyrus story – the Syria details changed significantly every other minute.
This is far from the first time that an unsavory gyration – literal or figurative – has eclipsed matters of actual importance, setting the public mind temporarily afire. Back in 1896 Thomas Edison outraged audiences with his short movie depicting a kiss between two Broadway actors, May Irwin and John Rice, who were recreating a moment from the play in they had starred, The Widow Jones. One critic of the time declared that “The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions . . . it is absolutely disgusting.” Imagine what the reaction would have been if Edison had thrown dancing teddy bears into the scene.
Miley is no match for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the movie comedian who attended a lavish multi-day party in September of 1921 and ended up in the Twilight Zone when a young reveler died and he was falsely accused of her murder. Could Miley stand on the same stage with Mae West who rocked Broadway with a risqué play five years after the Arbuckle incident, and spent a week in jail on a charge of “corrupting the morals of youth”? As entertainment fans know, Miss West went on to feed the public appetite for outrage on radio and in movies. Responding to public criticism, NBC banned her and the mention of her name from their stations.
Can Miley compete with actress Jayne Mansfield who exploded the outrage meter in April of ’57 with the unthinkably low cut gown she wore to a Hollywood dinner party held for Sophia Loren? The image of Mansfield leaning over the irritated Loren as she stopped by her table for a scene-stealing “Hi” is iconic. Miley can bump and grind to whatever inadvisable level she chooses without ever touching that long ago moment.
A been-there-done-that malaise unavoidably descends over the Cyrus saga when one remembers real Hollywood news stories. When Ingrid Bergman, famous for playing a nun, threw her husband away for an Italian director, it was news. When Lana Turner’s daughter fatally stabbed the actress’ gangster boyfriend it was news. When A-list celebrity Frances Farmer was dragged kicking and screaming out of the Knickerbocker Hotel and subsequently placed in a psychiatric ward (no, Lindsey Lohan wasn’t the first wild one) that was news. Miley Cyrus is not news.
In 1975 Frank Sinatra, having retired, staged a comeback. Puffy faced and paunchy, the former “Chairman of the Board” received some scathing reviews. One critic roasted “Old Blue Eyes”, saying that “Tony Bennett out sings him; Mel Torme out swings him.” Suffice it to say that Miley Cyrus was out sung and out swung long before her birth. Judy Garland was an authentic troubled talent. Miley Cyrus is, well, not Judy Garland.
In the afterglow of her publicity grabbing teddy bear dance, Ms. Cyrus has favored the public with a “topless” Rolling Stone cover (Thank heaven the only thing exposed is her bad taste) and has even offered the bottoms of her feet to photographers, the right tattooed with “Rolling” and the left tattooed with “$tone.” This is the stuff that overshadows stories about terrorism in Kenya or debates over health care. We don’t need to ask ourselves why because we know the answer. For one thing, Miley is manageable while events in the nation and the world are not. It’s more fun to shake our heads over aberrant celebrity behaviors than to bow our heads in disbelief over the real news. In addition, the American public has an appetite for the lurid. The success of pulp fiction in the early 20th century is now the success of the so-called reality show. Larger-than-life characters engaging in unbelievable stunts against colorful backgrounds make appealing distractions. Many enjoy a steam bath of scintillating specifics to lift them out of their otherwise mundane lives. And finally, there is a strange bonding effect to sensational occurrences. People either huddle together to giggle over the details or they gather to lament the latest evidence of Western Civilization’s fall. Either way, whether to the positive or the negative, a sense of unity is provided.
So the next time a celebrity starts figuratively “twercking” or a well-known politician sends unfortunate pictures to someone on his I-phone, remember there’s a national audience eagerly awaiting the details, no matter how redundant they may be. As Anna Jameson has so perceptively pointed out, “Conversation may be compared to a lyre with seven chords – philosophy, art, poetry, love, scandal, and the weather.” In our day, it looks like we’re down to scandal and the weather.