Gut Check: Speculating on Spectacles

As we mark the ten year anniversary of “nipplegate”—yep, it’s been that long since Justin Timberlake ripped off Janet Jackson’s breastplate during the abysmal halftime show during Super Bowl 38—it pays to ask: was the outrage worth it?

The outrage over the event was justifiable—but for reasons other than one might think. Sure, parents could be very angry over this business happening on the TV, right in front of their children’s eyes, in the sanctity of their living room. But I’m not sure two seconds of breast tissue is going to scar them for life. Believe me, they’ve seen worse—and the only reason you don’t know that is because the little brats know how to clear their history.

What bugged me about “nipplegate” is that it reflected a world moving in a direction away from quality entertainment, to spectacle as entertainment. I get that “show” is part of “show business,” but we’ve moved into new territory, where “show” becomes “show-off.”

I read somewhere once that spices were invented to mask the taste of meat gone bad. I get the feeling our entertainment is now becoming spice masking spoilage, nonstop.

My opinion could be the product of an aging mindset, but that would not explain why I’m still a fanatic over weird music and art others find objectionable. I like sinister things, death metal, and foul-mouthed comics, so I’m not entirely a curmudgeon.

Here’s what I’m getting at—and forgive me if you’ve heard my rant on graphic design before—but in that world I find the “spectacle as substance” problem so obvious, and especially irritating.

I despise logos and writing of any kind that features shading or variations of lettering created to suggest more than one dimension. What I desire in life is to be able to absorb information through a straightforward collection of alphabetical letters; I do not need to be impressed by them. There is no part of my being that demands to be blown away by a stocky, towering letter O. A flat one is fine by me. If I were building a nursery, I’d use cute building block lettering for the walls to spell out the kid’s name. But we don’t need them to sell me football or foot powder. A baby can be tricked by it. I’m only irritated.

I feel the same way about most things, including Super Bowls. Who really sits at home and thinks, “Wow I hope the NFL really outdoes itself this halftime! I really hope the Red Hot Chili Peppers deliver a great set!”  No, we are more interested in the game, which used to be enough for us. If I were planning on going to see an extravagant display of nonstop noise, I’d visit Beckel.

The great thing about last Sunday’s halftime was Bruno Mars. He was simple, understated, and fully clothed. He sang, he danced, he entertained. That’s a big deal. Then they had to ruin it by adding shirtless aging hipsters (the Chili Peppers) to sing a medley of their most annoying hits. Again, they couldn’t leave well enough alone. It’s like adding a third breast to Katy Perry. Not needed, pal. She’s fine as is.

But now that spectacle has become a staple of the game—a noisy mess that’s expected each year—it suggests we’ve grown bored of life. We are dissatisfied with the very things that used to bring us pleasure. Marching bands used to do the trick. Now, like Brylcreem, it’s for old men.

Distractions are necessary at times of great stress—to keep your brain from imploding due to facing all of life’s horrible problems at once. We need to string the misery out, and distractions fill the void. But what happens when the benefit becomes the problem? When we replace the meat with the spice?

Speaking of food, when I eat dinner, I’m not a mixer. I keep the meat away from the potatoes, and I keep the peace, by keeping the peas away from the cobbler. But the ever-encroaching lava that is pop culture knows no such discipline. It spreads into everything—contaminating sports, education, even health care. There is no halftime for pop culture; it marches over everything and takes no prisoners. I only wish it would focus on sports that could use a little kick. Soccer could use the Chili Peppers—not the NFL. Flea and Kiedis could be used as goal posts.

Ideally, spectacle should arise when it’s supposed to. Now it’s shoehorned into everything. Isn’t the game enough? No. Perhaps spectacle might be a finite pie—where as we scream and dance in one arena, we find it lacking in others.

Likewise, in other countries where they burn our flag and swear death to us, there is no opportunity for slavish devotion to Madonna. So perhaps violent chaos is their spectacle. I should be happy that we have our problem, and not theirs.

Although I think I wouldn’t mind if our sound and fury was spread out a little bit. What if the psychos in the Middle East saw us burn THEIR flags once in a while? What if we were dancing like mad men in the street, shouting death to (insert country here)? Talk about a spectacle.

Maybe that’s why we need spectacles at halftime. We are terrified to create them anywhere else.


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