It was a week in which the president agreed to an investigation of prewar intelligence failures, a Massachusetts court affirmed gay marriage and ricin was found in a Senate mailroom.
So naturally, everybody is talking about Janet Jackson's right breast.
As you surely know, Jackson "unleashed the breast" (credit the phrase to a student of mine) during a Super Bowl halftime duet with Justin Timberlake. As the song ended, Timberlake ripped away Jackson's bustier and an audience of 90 million people got a flash of Jacksonian bosom, full exposure of which was prevented only by a nipple shield.
Both singers have since issued apologies, blaming the strip show on a wardrobe malfunction. CBS, which televised it, has pronounced itself angry and embarrassed. MTV, which produced the performance, says it is as shocked as anybody. And FCC Chairman Michael Powell, deploring what he calls a "classless, crass and deplorable stunt," has launched an actual, no-fooling federal investigation.
Powell might be serious. But if you tell me you're buying the rest of it, I will personally come to your house and slap the taste out of your mouth. You're too gullible to live.
In the interest of my not getting arrested for assault, please take a few things into consideration:
- In the tune in question, Timberlake vows to "have you naked by the end of this song."
- The network could have, but apparently did not, broadcast on a delay, allowing ample time to omit the objectionable.
- In a post-performance interview, a laughing Timberlake told Pat O'Brien of "Access Hollywood," "Hey, man, we love giving you all something to talk about."
- I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure a woman doesn't wear a nipple shield unless she's expecting to bare the breast.
What you have here, then, is not an accident, but a stunt designed to do exactly what it did: get people talking. From my perch, though, we're talking about the wrong thing. People have framed the episode in terms of pop culture's explicitness. I believe it speaks more to the culture's emptiness.
Once upon a time, back when Elvis wobbled his leg, shock was a natural byproduct of artistic expression. Elvis used to say he wasn't trying to offend anybody; he was just doing what the music dictated, doing what came naturally.
But we are less innocent now and it is increasingly the case that shock is no longer a byproduct of expression; rather, it has itself become the expression. And there is nothing "natural" about it.
So it's no accident that you have Madonna planting a wet one on Britney and Janet baring her mammary gland for the world to see. Shock has become its own reward, has become both means and end. It has become a tool of people who have nothing to say, but are ever more aggressive about saying it.
Jackson, you must remember, is 37 -- an ancient crone in pop years -- and has an album coming out soon. She needs attention, so she uses her breast. What else can she use? Her talent? Ha and ha.
Tuesday morning on "Today," Katie Couric expressed the wan hope that we could now stop talking about this. She was mindful of the irony of saying that after having spent long minutes talking about it before an audience of multiple millions. And yes, I'm aware of the same irony in bringing it up in this more humble forum.
But if you have any appreciation of how exhilarating, revelatory and dangerous pop culture has been and can be, if you understand its power to upend our understanding and rock the castles of complacency, this kind of cheap, calculated shock has to make you sad. Janet's was an act both tinny and tiny, the kind of idea you get when you have no ideas.
So the headline here is not that a woman exposed a breast. It is, rather, that a breast exposed a woman.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.