Growing up outside the standard grade school system means Janet Jackson never learned a valuable fourth grade lesson: One kid can spoil it all for the group.
Suggestions and ramifications of Janet’s breast-baring at the Super Bowl, have run from the silly to the absurd. Music and televison have never been on the best of terms, but there’s enough history between the two that television executives should realize there may be a price to pay. Forty years ago, it was Mick Jagger singing “Let’s Spend the Night Together” or in the early ’90s a drunken Slash mumbling obscenities on MTV. In another day and age, CBS’ switchboard would have lit up with people objecting to Kid Rock’s American flag poncho.
For better or worse, that’s what rock stars do: They shock people. The appearance of a bare breast, considering the level of sexuality that permeates modern pop music, has an air of obviousness about it. Besides weren’t most people commenting in their living rooms on the size of her piercing?
Janet Jackson has ramped up her sexuality for more than a decade, her last album cover photo was of her laying naked in bed with a sheet placed just so. Her subject matter included one night stands and orgasms — not clouded in metaphors, but directly.
She’s hardly the only one changing the image. At the NRJ Awards in Cannes last month, Britney Spears performed her current single “Toxic” and toward its conclusion, the songstress was blindfolded and had her hands bound behind her. She slid into chair, spread her legs and a dancer simulated oral sex on her. That, too, was broadcast on national TV, albeit in France, though no outrage was recorded.
Blaming modern American music and its performers for “shocking” behavior is an old and tired response. And since the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, one of pop music ‘s boundaries has always been set by sexuality. Nuance in that area, though, has been eroded. Music is sold as a form of pornography that’s safe for mass consumption.
Modern corporate music companies, in the video age, sell lifestyles as much as they sell records and Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake thrill audiences by making listeners feel like they’re being invited into the performers’ boudoir. Yes, Jackson should have kept her shirt on. But then, who would remember the show?
Everyone who ever paid attention to a Super Bowl halftime show has wondered whatever happened to Up With People. Maybe next year we’ll get the reunion.
Phil Gallo is associate editor of Daily Variety.