The Breast and the Brightest

It has come to this: The Federal Communications Commission has announced that it plans an investigation into the exposure of Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl halftime show. "That celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt," FCC commissioner Michael Powell said. He wasn’t referring to Josh Groban’s freakish tribute to the Columbia astronauts, which featured a man in a space suit standing goofily on a fake moon surface, not that the Columbia astronauts actually walked on the moon, but whatever. "Our nation’s children, parents and citizens deserve better," Powell said.

If you’ve been living in a cave since Sunday morning, a quick recap. The Super Bowl halftime show featured a medley of performers including Janet Jackson, P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock and Justin Timberlake. Technically, Jessica Simpson was part of it, but she didn’t actually sing anything. Then again, it didn’t look like any of the other performers actually sang anything either. Lip-synching was the order of the day.

Anyway, Justin and Janet danced a duet, and at the end of it Justin grabbed the leather cup covering Janet’s right breast and ripped it off. If you believe Timberlake, a red liner was supposed to cover Jackson’s skin, but he ripped that off too. For about half a second, if you looked really hard, you could kinda-sorta see Jackson’s breast. But even then, not really -- as the Drudge Report later showed in great close-up, Jackson was wearing what I can only describe as a throwing-star nipple ring, which suggests either that she had wisely prepared for the incident or that Janet Jackson wears some really funky jewelry.

The outrage came fast and furious. The NFL announced that MTV wouldn’t be producing another halftime show anytime soon. Deeply offended newspaper columnists wrote articles like The Boston Globe’s "Jackson & Co. sink to new low," which would, in fact, be an interesting thesis to debate.

And inevitably, cultural conservatives saw a prime opportunity to engage in a little fundraising. Both the Family Research Council and the Parents Television Council, headed by right-wing media critic (i.e., nut) Brent Bozell, cranked out high-minded criticisms. Predictably, CBS "deeply" regretted the incident, and Timberlake apologized too. (In my vision of heaven, I dream of having to apologize for ripping off Janet Jackson’s breastplate at halftime of the Super Bowl.)

This is what semioticians would describe as a "dense" cultural moment, so let us unpack some of its ironies.

First, CBS and MTV are both owned by Viacom, which obviously saw a chance to exploit corporate synergy by hiring MTV to produce the halftime show. I don’t know about you, but it warms my heart when massive media corporations try to foist corporate synergy on the unsuspecting public and wind up being investigated by the FCC.

Second, CBS is the company that wouldn’t air an anti-Bush ad by because it didn’t want to offend the White House and conservatives, just as it spiked a Ronald Reagan mini-series to avoid offending the White House and conservatives. And then it runs a halftime show which offends the White House and conservatives. How quickly all the previous sucking up is forgotten.

Third, let us not forget that this outrage is all about a half-second of partially nipple ring-covered breast. This in an hour-long game of brutal violence -- CBS certainly didn't hesitate to show blood spilling from one player's nose in the first quarter -- in a sport with a steroid problem, many of whose players have taken to owning unregistered guns, while other players are encouraged to become so obese that they risk dying on the field. Yes, it’s definitely the breast that we should get worked up about.

At least there wasn’t any other female flesh to tempt the God-fearing men of America! No scantily clad, artificially enhanced cheerleaders whom CBS kept using as a segue into and out of commercials, for example. And I’m sure that Visa used the bikini-wearing women’s volleyball team to promote the summer Olympics simply because of its athleticism.

What’s really going on here? Well, American hypocrisy about sex, of course. We run ads for drugs that help men get erections without ever mentioning the word "sex"; we grow irate at an exposed breast amidst an orgy of capitalist decadence. We nurse from the breast as children, but we fetishize it as adults, make it an object of lust and taboo -- so that showing a breast, a source of human life, becomes worthy of government investigation.

It is, literally, a clash of human nature versus corporate culture. The Super Bowl has become the first American corporate holiday, a nationwide celebration of capitalism. (We watch it for the ads!) Any element of spontaneity threatens the corporate control of people’s minds and, yes, bodies. That’s why I loved the rebellious symbolism of the guy who streaked across the field (which, of course, CBS wouldn’t show). That’s also why the corporate producers don't mind the lip-synching -- mouthing the approved words is the perfect metaphor for this synthetic event, actually preferable to the authentic but imperfect human voice.

The Super Bowl is capitalism's equivalent of the Soviets' May Day parade, or North Korea's beautiful but robotic gymnastic demonstrations featuring tens of thousands of thoroughly indoctrinated pawns. In contrast, Justin Timberlake’s baring of Janet Jackson’s breast reminds me of the American soldiers who broadcast hidden hand signals as their Iraqi captors were videotaping them -- a clandestine attempt to subvert monolithic propaganda. For the individuals involved, the stakes are very different, of course. But the ideological conflict -- man versus machine -- is much the same.

So, of course there will be an investigation. With so much at stake, how could there not be? I have just one suggestion: While they’re at it, couldn’t they investigate Led Zeppelin for selling its songs so Cadillac can hawk SUVs? Now, that’s one musical travesty that's got to be stopped.

Richard Blow is the author of 'American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr.'

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