I generally don’t like the phrase ‘controversial’ as its used to describe conduct by politicians or celebrities.
A controversy involves a fundamental disagreement that two or more parties have for an extended period of time. In the context of politics, controversial is often used to describe remarks that are either:
a) clearly racist or prejudiced, which is almost always followed by some manner of apology (or dedicated non-apology), or
b) factually incorrect. It’s not ‘controversial’ to claim that the Earth is about 6,000 years old, it’s wrong.
The word seems to end up everywhere. Jonah Hill saying some bigoted shit a couple days ago is controversial. So is abortion policy. And the status of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. If most celebrities apologize for their behavior when confronted, there really isn’t some protracted disagreement. Perhaps the grave Alec Baldwin has been digging for a while might qualify, but that’s a rare instance. It’s not controversial, it’s cringe-worthy. Or just simply dumb.
The summer of 2013 brought with it the annual onslaught of blockbuster culture. Sequel-laden film offerings came each weekend, often with budgets in the hundreds of millions. Huge music festivals brought incredible amounts of people- Rock am Ring and Rock im Park, twin festivals in Germany each June, has over 150,000 attendees. If you want to see modern consumer culture at its largest and boldest, summer is the time to do so.
Of course, with big-scale popular culture comes big-scale popular scandal. Miley Cyrus joined Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens (let us not forget the bonkers Spring Breakers was released in March) as Disney products turned edgy publicity magnets. Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ continues to cause controversy over its ambivalent views on sexual consent. It’s shocking, it’s appalling.
The VMAs, run by VH1 and MTV, which is run by Viacom, produce culture for consumption in which white people have both the numbers and the money to dictate trends. The VMAs don’t say to me “look at these terrible people dancing through Gomorrah v. 2.0” it’s “I can’t believe the conglomerate that made this pays no taxes and has almost no competition.”
Pop culture is operated by very few people at very few companies. When we look through the hundreds of television channels we have, or the thousands of new releases at the iTunes store, we’re looking at a lot of false competition. In music, it’s now four labels.
Clear Channel has a huge portion of all the radio stations currently in business. Big-budget film is limited to a small group of studios with that kind of cash cushion.
So this “controversy” is invented, and it works quite well. Remember Britney’s transformation with “I’m a Slave 4 U’? It’s key to look at what has happened with Robin Thicke as a product of a larger structure. Thicke is one of the biggest pop acts in the world. There are hundreds of people with their hands all over his music, including its message. The ambiguity about sexual consent is not accidental, nor is it an artistic leap. It gets an audience.
My disgust isn’t so much the racial, sexual, or class implications of such nonsense. It’s that this conduct is hugely profitable, and the companies that profit suffer no real consequences. Viacom pays a 14.1% corporate tax rate. There are so many barriers to entry that media with a more progressive message will likely play to small audiences and small readerships.
It is good that intelligent people are calling bullshit on these scandals and recognizing how they are manufactured more than anything. Making them unprofitable and a thing of the past is a more difficult undertaking.