Lee Siegel has an essay on obscenity and vulgarity in The Wall Street Journal this weekend. It's godawful, of course, but it's not godawful for the usual reason such essays are godawful.
Does Siegel do the obvious thing? Does he bewail the fact that obscenity and vulgarity are everywhere in our depraved modern culture, all the while looking back to a Golden Age before the Fall? Well, yes -- and no. His point seems to be that obscenity and vulgarity should be subtler, the way they used to be -- except that at times they used to be not so subtle, but then they were obscure, at least. Or is it that the subtle stuff used to be obscure? I can't tell. My head hurts trying to make sense of it.
Siegel starts with standard-issue get-off-my-lawn-ism:
"What's celebrity sex, Dad?" It was my 7-year-old son, who had been looking over my shoulder at my computer screen. He mispronounced "celebrity" but spoke the word "sex" as if he had been using it all his life. "Celebrity six," I said, abruptly closing my AOL screen. "It's a game famous people play in teams of three," I said, as I ushered him out of my office and downstairs into what I assumed was the safety of the living room.But Siegel wants to make it abundantly clear to you that he's no bluenose:
No such luck. His 3-year-old sister had gotten her precocious little hands on my wife's iPhone as it was charging on a table next to the sofa. By randomly tapping icons on the screen, she had conjured up an image of Beyonce barely clad in black leather, caught in a suggestive pose that I hoped would suggest nothing at all to her or her brother.
And so it went on this typical weekend....
My favorite movie is "Last Tango in Paris." I agree (on a theoretical level) with the notorious rake James Goldsmith, who said that when a man marries his mistress, he creates a job vacancy. I once thought of writing a book-length homage to the eff-word in American culture....Oh-so-predictably, this means Elvis's hip-wiggling. Less predictably, it also means the lyrics to a lesser-known, slightly risque bluesy number Elvis once sang called "Power of My Love" ("Touch it, pound it, what good does it do"). This is where Siegel's essay fails to slow while taking the sharp turn and begins to pitch itself off the rails:
I'm cool, and I'm down with everything, you bet, but I miss a time when there were powerful imprecations instead of mere obscenity -- or at least when sexual innuendo, because it was innuendo, served as a delicious release of tension between our private and public lives....
... such allusiveness maintains social norms even as they are being violated -- that's sexy. The lyrics of Elvis's "Power of My Love" gave him authority as a respected social figure, which made his asocial insinuations all the more gratifying."The lyrics of Elvis's 'Power of My Love' gave him authority as a respected social figure" -- what the hell does that even mean? That Elvis (who'd been a superstar for more than a decade when he recorded the song) wasn't "a respected social figure" prior to recording this relatively obscure tune, but became one on its release? That's what the actually existing words in Siegel's essay imply, but I can't see any level on which this is true. I suppose you could say that Elvis retained a level of respectability by singing a suggestive rather than an overtly obscene blues lyric, but what's so special about that? People had been singing suggestive rather than overtly obscene blues lyrics for half a century at that time. Did that make them all "respected social figures"?
Siegel briefly moves on, surprisingly, to Madonna:
The same went, in a later era, for the young Madonna: "Two by two their bodies become one." It's an electric image because you are actively engaged in completing it.Wait -- when did Madonna become a paragon of erotic understatement? Was this when she wasn't writhing on the floor in a wedding gown on the MTV Awards, or starring in a book of semi-porn, or writing odes to S&M and spanking?
So Siegel is just an aging nostalgic sugar-coating the past -- right? Well, no:
Everyone remembers the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar," whose sexual and racial provocations were perfectly calibrated for 1971. Few, if any, people can recall their foray into explicit obscenity two years later with "Star Star." The earlier song was sly and licentious; behind the sexual allusions were the vitality and energy to carry them out. The explicitness of "Star Star" was for bored, weary, repressed squares in the suburbs, with their swingers parties and "key clubs."I wouldn't say that "few people can recall" "Star Star," given that it was on the Goats Head Soup album, which went triple platinum. (The song has been covered not just by Joan Jett, but by, among others, a Croatian band called Psihomodo Pop, who released their version in 1993. No word on whether it was recorded after a suburban key party.)
So the problem is ... what? Unsubtlety? Or ubiquity? At times Siegel suggests that it's just the latter:
These days, with every new ripple in the culture transmitted, commented-on, analyzed, mocked, mashed-up and forgotten on countless universal devices every few minutes, everything is available to everyone instantly, every second, no matter how coarse or abrasive. You used to have to find your way to Lou Reed. Now as soon as some pointlessly vulgar song gets recorded, you hear it in a clothing store.Um, you heard "Walk on the Wild Side" at the Gap in 1974, back when the Gap was a place to buy bell-bottom Levi's. "Walk on the Wild Side" was a Top 40 hit. Admittedly, you didn't hear "I Wanna Be Black," which Siegel greatly admires:
The late Lou Reed's "I Wanna Be Black" is so full of racial slurs, obscenity and repugnant sexual imagery that I could not find one meaningful phrase to quote in this newspaper. It is also a wryly indignant song that rips into the racism of liberals whose reverence for black culture is a crippling caricature of black culture.So the Stones' "Star Star" is rejected for its excessively explicit use of the word "starfucker," even though it's an album cut rather than a hit single, but Reed's "I Wanna Be Black" ("I wanna be black, have natural rhythm, shoot twenty feet of jism too, and fuck up the Jews") -- also released by an A-list rocker on a major label -- is a cultural landmark? Isn't the taxonomy here merely Stuff Lee Siegel Likes vs. Stuff Lee Siegel Doesn't Like?
And if the logical twists aren't making you sufficiently vertiginous, it turns out that Siegel thinks the provocations of Miley Cyrus -- one of the dozen biggest pop stars in America right now -- are "brilliant."
Siegel's essay is so incoherent that he can't even settle on an opinion of Kanye West. At one point we're told:
But we've lost the cleansing quality of "dirty" speech. Now it's casual, boorish, smooth and corporate. Everybody is walking around sounding like Howard Stern. The trash-talking Jay-Z and Kanye West are superwealthy businessmen surrounded by bodyguards, media consultants and image-makers.Six paragraphs later, Siegel writes:
From Miley Cyrus's brilliant, purposeful, repeated travesties of her wholesome image -- "This is what culture is really about now," she seems to be saying -- to songs by Eminem, Lady Gaga, Kanye West and others that express disgust with their own celebrity and wealth, pop culture itself seems to yearn for a time when obscenity and graphic sexual images were morally potent rather than merely titillating and profitable. So maybe there is hope....This Kanye is presumably not the same Kanye whose lyric "I sent this girl a picture of my d--. I don't know what it is with females. But I'm not too good with that s--" Siegel attacks in the early part of the essay.
The Journal has posted a video interview with Siegel to accompany this essay. There's some fun to be had watching the Journal interviewer trying to figure out what the hell Siegel is actually trying to tell us. But not that much fun. The whole enterprise is a mess, and Lee Siegel is a hack.
BONUS: Here are the Barbe-Q-Barbies covering "Star Star" in 2011. They're from Finland, and they don't look as if they go to a lot of key parties: