Flashes & Backlashes: A Social Commentary

Lately I’ve been skimming the headlines of the Wall St. Journal. It gives me the illusion of power, like I’m hobnobbing with the big money that runs this country. Fellow musicians will agree that it’s not unlike playing an uppercrust cocktail party and getting to go through the buffet line with the guests. You feel like you belong with the genteel moneyed class, as long as you don’t abuse the open bar or hit on the rich folks’ daughters. You get a certain lofty perspective, prying your head above the sucking mud that is one’s daily milieu.

One of the stories that caught my eye was the wild popularity of Valentine’s Day in Iran. The main reason seems to be that over 50% of the country’s population is younger than 25 (kind of a Logan’s Run scenario – the guardians of morality keep coming up with ways to kill off the older folks, perhaps). So you have an ultra-conservative government ruling a predominantly hormone-crazed populace. Sounds like a perfect laboratory condition for a grand social experiment. I’d bet American conservatives are keeping a close watch on the situation, to pick up some valuable pointers. In Iran, officials from the Office of Vice and Virtue patrol restaurants, cafes and shops to make sure that young folks do not engage in public displays of affection. Sounds like a bad Ray Bradbury story, but anyone who has been single and alone on a major holiday might feel a secret moment of vengeful glee (how many of us have had to watch couples swapping spit and talking baby talk while we nurse our watery beers, muttering “Get a room”?).

What does this have to do with Janet Jackson’s breast? It must have some connection, since the media-fomented uproar over her Superbowl antics leads one to believe that every social problem is somehow breast-related. Even if there isn’t a rightwing drive for a constitutional amendment outlawing Janet’s mammary (maybe a rider to the anti-flag-burning shtick), the boob seen ’round the world has become a rallying point for the morality police. The bureaucracy of these guardians of decency is still somewhat uncoordinated (spread out between federal, state and local levels), but with the Office of Homeland Security serving as a shining example, the day cannot be far off when we have our own American-style Office of Vice and Virtue. In the interests of national security Janet’s breast will have to be incarcerated at Guantanamo or someplace, far from the susceptible eyes of America’s youth.

Once the Office of Vice and Virtue (OVV? Surely we can come up with a better acronym; how about the Office of Virtue, Unity and Maturity: OVUM) has secured the Jackson hooter, its agents can move on to other offenders in the showbiz industry. Then shall we surely be running for cover. Of course, us sidemen will snigger and grin as we take covert sips from our pocket flasks. The morality police will be going for the stars, the chick singers jiggling their goods in leather and latex, the foul-mouthed rappers fondling their manhoods, while the backup bands go unnoticed. But, as any student of German history or bad science fiction can tell you, it won’t stop there. Once the superstars have been felled, there will be plenty more suspects to round up. Censoring nudity and obscenity opens the door to more generally offensive forms of free speech, things like sexual innuendo (one of the reasons “Friends” is censored by Chinese television), decadent behavior, and ideas which endanger the public safety. From there it is a short step to censorship based on aesthetic judgment, and musicians will wake up playing in the orchestra at the Ronald Reagan Theme Park. I hear it pays well, but if you try to play jazz they haul you off to the re-education center.

Okay, I did have one serious thought while reading about teens trying to sneak a kiss in Iran. Since the days when jazz first snapped the rest of the world awake almost a hundred years ago, American music (and by extension American popular culture) has been the worldwide symbol for modern freedom, artistic freedom, sexual freedom, mental freedom. But it has also simultaneously been tied to the downside of American culture: decadence, materialism, gluttony, and anti-intellectual superficiality. That, to me, is the issue with regard to Janet’s breast. Is it a breast of freedom or decadence? Is it a breast that feeds our creative imaginations or just a silicone-stuffed twinky to jam in our pie holes and muffle our voices? I think the clerics in Iran love Janet’s breast, because it validates their antiquated worldview. I think the conservatives in America feel the same way. For every flash, there’s a backlash. During the backlash the difference between freedom and decadence gets obscured and we move backwards along the path of social progress. Let’s just try to keep our breasts pointed in the right direction, shall we?

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