February 16, 2012

Decently Indecent

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In case you missed it, M.I.A. gave 114 million people the finger on live TV during the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Looking directly at the camera, she flashed the gesture casually while performing “Give Me All Your Luvin’” with Madonna. Then again, it wasn’t easy to spot if you were restocking on snacks or your favorite watery American light lager for the second half.

The scandal shared media attention that week with Gisele Bündchen’s post-game analysis. A few talkingheads compared M.I.A.’s finger to Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction, which also aired on CBS back in 2004. That incident led to Congress increasing the FCC fine for an indecency violation to $320 million. It’s true, M.I.A. is no stranger to controversy. Remember when she came to Barton Hall shoeless in 2010 and handed bottles of Patrón to Cornell students in the front row? Or when her entourage struggled to remove her from the speaker stack she had placed herself on top of in a drunk and shoeless state? That’s to say nothing of her equally provocative lyrics or music videos.

But the NBC and the NFL have something to sell, which is a spectacle. Why bring the New York Philharmonic when you can put three of the most controversial women (Madonna, Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.) in the music business on the same stage. So at least in the world of investment returns, indecency is here to stay.

Among artists, it’s more of an indecency arms race. Otherwise, nobody would pay attention. It gives them marketability, which I suppose qualifies as value within the business. It’s why Lady Gaga dresses up as meat and Nicki Minaj turns up at the Grammys as Little Red Riding Hood with a fake Pope. Every year movies get increasingly ridiculous, yet people still buy tickets. I’ve been meaning to ask the Sun editorial board how much readership goes up on those Thursdays the sex columnists appear. Indecency is out there because it works.

Whatever the FCC decides, it risks missing the forest for the trees. Why the hoopla about a gesture when there’s a cadre of backup dancers on their backs humping the air?So far the FCC has levied no fine against NBC or M.I.A. and the story drowned out in the noise of constant news analysis, but still issues with indecency on public TV linger. The Supreme Court is expected to decide on Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations this June. The case is a continuation from 2009, when the Supreme Court decided the FCC could punish stations for what it deems indecent and that indecency can be defined fairly subjectively. The court has yet to decide whether the FCCs censorship of indecency would be constitutional.

I expect that FCC vs. Fox is going to be a landmark censorship case, one that might change what we see on TV and in the media for good. If the FCC can no longer censor “free speech”, will there be a flood of objectionable content onto your TV station? Vice versa, TV producers may find it impossible to get certain currently acceptable projects approved, like Family Guy cartoons featuring nudity.

Perhaps instead of confronting this issue directly, producers and consumers of media could raise their own standards. The Super Bowl will never be high-brow, but it’s time to move forward with a culture beyond reality TV and being provocative to make money. What we demand shapes what is produced and that applies to all forms of media.It will be interesting to see how recent opposition to SOPA, PIPA and censorship of the internet shapes this debate. It’s no secret television networks are eyeing the internet as a future broadcast medium. In that future, does the FCC or any other government agency have the right to regulate what is streamed over the internet?

If you’re out this weekend you’ll probably hear a song being played by someone your parents listened to when they were in college. My parents are constantly surprised that we listen to their music, yet most of us find it funny when our parents listen to the music we like. Try showing the music videos for Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor” or Duck Sauce’s “Big Bad Wolf” to your parents and tell me how it goes. It’s worrisome that our works are readily forgettable, but they’re lots of fun in the short term. Even if it seems that a shock value has reached some ceiling, there is always another artist in line who will do whatever it takes to get noticed in the mayhem of today’s media.

Will M.I.A.’s finger herald the end of fleeting obscenities and questionable (but sometimes enjoyable) public television? Probably not, but stay tuned.

Original Author: Patrick Cambre