From Elvis Presley and the Beatles to Madonna and Lady Gaga
On How We Have Mainstreamed Musical Muck
Dr. Mark S. Latkovic
February 26, 2015
When I was growing up, my friends and I had two general rules for whether we would even give a minute’s listen to a rock band: they could not use the expression, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll” in any of their songs. Nor could any band member sing without his shirt on. Now, if a woman singer wanted to go topless, that was an altogether different story…Chalk up the inconsistency to teenage hormones.
I think of this “rule” every time I hear someone express a version of the following well-worn argument: “Just like our parents’ generation had Elvis and the Beatles, and we ourselves had Madonna, now this present generation has Lady Gaga.” This is moral-aesthetical bankruptcy masquerading as argument.
Sure, Elvis swung his hips…wildly. But if you don’t see a qualitative difference between the King’s hip gyrations (while fully clothed) and today’s music videos, where the performers sing and simulate having sex in every imaginable orifice, then…there’s a problem.
Sure, on their 1968 “White Album,” the Beatles sang, “Why don’t we do it in the road?” But if you don’t hear a qualitative difference between that and “I want to f— you up and down, bang you till you moan and groan,” well then, paraphrasing Aristotle, you don’t deserve to be argued with, you deserve to be beaten!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all endorsing violent methods! But you have to hand it to Aristotle. He saw the utter futility in trying to reason with someone who is not only “clueless,” but perpetually clueless.
Let’s be honest. Many of the music videos of Lady Gaga – among other pop sensations such as Beyoncé and Rihanna – are essentially porn set to music. True, unlike many of the famous who are famous simply for being famous (Kim Kardashian comes to mind), Lady Gaga does in fact have talent (If you heard her sing that medley of songs from the Sound of Music at the 2015 Academy Awards, that point is quite obvious). I fully recognize that. But it’s not her talent that I’m faulting; I’m faulting her immoral use of her talent. Recently she has been touring and collaborating with Tony Bennett, the two of them singing the old standards. Good for her. But she doesn’t appear to have had a change of heart.
Many of today’s artists are really all about the shock without the awe … and without the talent. They are about the transgression of a society’s traditional values. But any musical illiterate can drop his pants, grab his crotch, flip her skirt, or raise the middle finger for the camera. Where’s the talent in that? Or am I missing something? It could simply be my age (early 50s), but I don’t think so.
No, Lady Gaga is not this generation’s Elvis or Beatles or Rolling Stones in the sense that, 20 years from now, we’ll look back at her and wonder what all of the fuss was about. The subjective effects of her show on her audience might be similar to the subjective effects of Elvis’ show on his audience – lust, but there is an objective difference in the actions (and the lyrics) of much of what she and other performers do on stage and video today, despite the fact, as I am willing to admit, the artists of yesterday could be pretty raunchy themselves.
For example, when Roxy Music released their album Country Life in 1974, with a cover that featured two scantily-clad models, it was considered pornographic and even censored in some countries, including the U.S. To look at that cover today and remember the controversy is to realize how tame it actually was by today’s “standards” – if we can call them standards. We could just as easily find underwear models posing in a similar way in a contemporary Sears’ fashion catalogue.
But something’s fundamentally different between Elvis Presley and the Lady Gagas of our own day. A line has been crossed, a change has occurred – a radical one. And I long for a more innocent time – even if each generation has had a similar lament.
I guess my point is this: With echoes of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase “defining deviancy down,” we have by now in 2015, “mainstreamed musical muck.”