Recently, in a performance during half time at the Super Bowl, one of Janet Jackson's breasts was released on national television. That is a simple fact, but it has caused a massive controversy from coast to coast. You may wonder what is the big deal, but Janet Jackson's breast is a very big deal! In fact, her breast is just the tip of the iceberg!
I don't wish to comment on the morality of her display of nudity. The fact that there were children watching at that moment is not my concern. I'll leave that debate to the spiritual leaders and the politicians. What concerns me are the musical implications of her few seconds of infamy. What does Ms. Jackson's breast say about the state of music in America in 2004?
There was a time when being an expert at playing an instrument would lead to fame. This was particularly true if you could compose and play your own compositions. In this category we think of Chopin, Liszt and Paganinni. In more modern times, musicians who could not compose but who were great instrumentalists became famous worldwide. The names Casals, Heifitz, and Horowitz come to mind. In the field of jazz, one had to be an expert improviser, and a good tunesmith, to win fame. In this category, we think of Dizzy Guillespie, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.
With the birth of rock n' roll, all that changed. To be fair, for the most part, in the early days of rock, to get noticed you had to be a decent instrumentalist and have some kind of a distinctive sound. But very early on, a man rose to prominence in rock who became so influential he was dubbed "the king." That man was Elvis Presley, yet Elvis could barely play the guitar! What Elvis did was not so much about being a trained musician as it was about being a performer, creating an image, and stirring up controversy. The main buzz about Elvis was the way he shook his pelvis. Though he was quite a good singer, it was his sensual persona that brought him his fame. In this, he set the pattern for many who would follow in his footsteps, people who were not really musicians, but musical entertainers, or performance artists, commonly known simply as "artists."
A decade after Elvis hit it big, the rock "artist" was still looking for a way to be noticed. In the sixties, the way to be noticed was to do drugs and get wild on stage. A good example of this was Jim Morrison. He happened to be an excellent singer, but his image - that of an out of control drunk, liable to do anything - helped earn him his fame. In fact, Morrison was arrested for indecent exposure. His antics created a constant stream of publicity, but it also took a toll. The attacks on him by the police and the press, not to mention the lawsuits and court appearances, became overwhelming. It was not long before Morrison was found dead of an overdose of drugs, a disease that also afflicted Elvis and many other artists.
Around the time of Morrison, rock had matured to the point where there were some excellent musicians on the scene. Jimi Hendrix was considered the greatest rock guitarist of the time, yet even Hendrix had to do more than ply his craft to get noticed. Hendrix used to set his guitars on fire as he kneeled sensuously over the flames. Other rock groups would break their guitars, smash amplifiers and keyboards, and commit other acts of violence to get noticed. Ozzy Osborne distinguished himself by biting off the head of a bird, and routinely biting the heads off of rubber bats on stage. This trend, of the violent musician, reached its zenith with the Plasmatics, a band that I actually played with for a short while. (They added a string quartet to their madness for some reason.) Admittedly marginal musicians, they became known for chain sawing guitars and chairs, smashing televisions with sledgehammers, and ultimately blowing up whole cars on stage!
Back on the solo artist side, performers kept trying to push the envelope. In the 1980s, Madonna burst upon the scene. Like a female Elvis, she was a decent singer, but became known for her sexuality. In concert, Madonna would hump on a bed or on the floor as if she were masturbating. She also brought in a heavy S & M presence to her stage act, including spankings, whips and chains, and the treating of her dancers as sex slaves. With each CD she pushed further, attacking sexual taboos involving race and religion. She also included nudity in videos and in a coffee table book that bordered on pornography.
Madonna seemed to spawn the next generation of female artists who were even more determined to use sexuality to the fullest. Artists like Brittney Spears and others played on taboos such as the naughty schoolgirl, and the wild girl. They showed as much skin as they could without actually becoming naked, and they made a practice of using the most suggestive dance moves imaginable. On the Hip Hop side of the track, images of guys with multiple girlfriends in hot tubs or in expensive cars or homes became popular. Grinding dance moves with girls in skimpy outfits became standard video fare. One artist, Snoop Dogg, actually crossed over to porn, becoming a player in the "Girls Gone Wild" videos of late night TV fame.
Which brings us back to Janet Jackson's breast. The whole nation was treated to a view of Janet's large round breast, with her nipple surrounded by some type of jewelry piece that looked like a star. With the removal of a little swatch of material, in a matter of seconds, Ms. Jackson crossed a line that no one dared cross before. She was naked on national television on prime time during a family entertainment event! No longer can hinting at sex be considered pushing the envelope: the envelope is open!
Is what she did pornography? Perhaps one could argue that one breast is performance art, but two breasts would be porn. Perhaps one could argue that even two breasts are performance art, but exposure underneath would be porn. Perhaps one could argue that full frontal nudity is where this is all going. Maybe we are going back the days of vaudeville, the days of Gypsy Rose Lee, when an "act" consisted of a woman singing while stripping. Janet certainly opened the door to this possibility. Of course, Gypsy did not strip on television during prime time, but maybe that is what is needed to finally bring this trend to its conclusion.
Breasts and other parts of the female anatomy will always be a source of fascination, but I would like to know one thing: where's the music?! What happened to practicing hours a day, studying music theory, harmony, counterpoint, performance practice? What happened to spirituality, to expressing deep, meaningful ideas through sound? What happened to becoming famous because you are a really great musicianŠeven if you don't shake your pelvis, smash your guitar, or show your bosom?
It is possible that with Ms. Jackson's highly public performance, we are beginning to reach the end of sexuality replacing musicianship. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back to the time when a highly trained, dedicated musician can become famous just for being a great musician. It is with this hope and with this dream that I have been promoting my cello fronted rock band, Von Cello.
If you agree that the trend toward performance "art" has gone far enough, and it is time to reintroduce musicianship to the world of popular music, please support those bands and soloists who are out there trying to make it happen. I am not saying that there is no room in the musical world for Janet Jackson's breast, or any other body parts that she may choose to show us in the future. What I am saying is that there should also be room in the musical world for those who choose to excel at playing their instruments and singing their hearts out!