It seemed like only a year ago we had buried the Super Bowl censorship debate for good.
When Paul McCartney took the stage with his piano in January 2005 for twelve of the most saccharine, inoffensive minutes in the history of musical performance, it was as if our bad memories of Janet Jackson disappeared. All thoughts of “wardrobe malfunctions” seemed to go the way of the “na na na’s” from “Hey Jude,” which innocuously floated out from Sir Paul’s lips into deep space where, some day, they will reach a race of super-advanced, soft-rock-loving aliens, convincing them to spare our planet.
But now once again we are asking ourselves about what’s appropriate in prime time. We’re wondering if TV will ever outlive the virtual lap dance that Ms. Jackson inadvertently gave our families two years ago.
If you didn’t see the game this year, you have considerably less company than you’d think. According to ABC, Super Bowl XL attracted an estimated 141.4 million viewers, an XL-sized number despite the lack of a surefire ratings powerhouse like the Cowboys, Giants, or dancing, washed-up celebrities. And keep in mind that of the approximately 160 million Americans who didn’t tune in, many are infants, or live in militia compounds.
If, however, you did catch the game, and somehow still missed the halftime hubbub, you’re not alone. That’s because the imbroglio surrounding the Rolling Stones’ mini-concert in Detroit concerns what wasn’t beamed through our televisions. In 2004, it was indecent exposure that assaulted us with varying degrees of clarity, depending on whether or not we had CBS HD. It became the most TiVo’d moment in TV history, and incurred the FCC’s largest fine ever. In 2006, controversy came in the form of the silent treatment. ABC execs approved a plan to turn down Mick Jagger’s mike as he sang a double entendre about the male anatomy, and then later quieted the questionable, last line of “Start Me Up.” It was a direct effect of the Jackson fiasco of ’04. And it went totally unnoticed by the 141.4 million of us who aren’t members of the Rolling Stones.
But nobody bowdlerizes the biggest-grossing geriatrics on earth without a fight, so the Stones have raised a stink. In the days following the gig, the band’s publicist called the censorship “absolutely ridiculous and completely unnecessary.”
In fairness, what artist doesn’t take it personally when his self-expression is silenced or sanitized? Does anyone think these lyrics were as offensive to the average American as outright nudity? The Stones have dealt with U.S. censorship before and they’re sick of it. Let’s face it they’ve been carrying a chip on their shoulders since their 1967 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, when the legendary host forced the Stones to change “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” to the slightly more cumbersome but G-rated “Let’s Get to Know Each Other Respectfully Over Several Years of Responsible Courtship, Get Married in a Church and then Politely Consummate Our Marriage Across Separated Twin Beds.” Brady bunches everywhere approved.
While I have some sympathy for Mick and company, I can’t say I share their viewpoint. There are plenty of cynics who claim that the Super Bowl was forked over to advertisers long ago, or who see nothing wholesome about a glorified brawl on synthetic turf. For me, however, the Super Bowl remains a family affair, not the place to test the FCC.
But wrestling with obscenity has become a national obsession, and the Super Bowl remains our biggest stage. When Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson two years ago, it sprayed shrapnel through every battle over decency in the so-called culture wars. It left many viewers distressed about a general dearth of breast-free programming. It caused Bible Belt conservatives to issue evangelical fatwas against anything more risqué than Big Bird. And it inspired the despicable Howard Stern to re-invent his struggle with the FCC over flatulent strippers as a martyrdom for free speech, at least long enough to sign a lucrative contract with satellite radio. Unless you count Howard, nobody’s a winner.
Thanks to a few controversial military operations here and there, the U.S. also has a growing national obsession with what other countries think of us, and Super Bowl XL has put that issue front and center again. Though few are saying it, the latest halftime controversy is a clash between European and American sensibilities. Europeans like Jagger didn’t understand the fuss over obscenity two years ago, and they certainly don’t understand it now, as networks fearfully clamor to tidy up their acts. In Britain and elsewhere in Western Europe, networks often broadcast softcore porn after 9PM. So when Janet stripped, Europe yawned. Many mainstream newspapers in Europe even devote a full page each day to introducing readers to bare-breasted models. Not since the heyday of 1980s comedy have we seen such impressively systematic, non sequitur toplessness (see Nerds, Revenge of the).
Maybe the British press has a point when they chuckle at our old-fashioned, American squeamishness. But maybe we Yanks are onto something by drawing a line somewhere, anywhere. Perhaps there is space to negotiate between hell and holy water.
But then again, maybe I’m missing something.
Oh that’s right, a football game actually bracketed the Rolling Stones’ performance and the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks 21-10.