The shock industry

Is the entertainment industry enabling an entire generation of shockaholics?

The History of Antics

The music industry has long capitalized on the fact that sexuality and shock value sells albums and concert tickets. We can all name a few artists who would not be nearly as famous if they didn’t have carnal pizazz. From the pelvic gyrations of Elvis Presley to the infamous meat dress of Lady Gaga (which she donned for the 2010 MTV Music Awards), marketing gurus and entertainment masterminds have been scheming up outrageous stunts since the dawn of time.

In 1956, Ben Gross of the New York Daily News declared that pop music “has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley … [who] gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.”

That was over 50 years ago. One wonders what Mr. Gross would have thought of Adam Lambert?

However humorous we modern Americans may find Mr. Gross’ effusions, Mr. Gross had a valid point. He recognized that American culture had become amenable to new levels of lechery. While everyone admits that The King was a dynamite talent, one could legitimately argue that Elvis the Pelvis ushered in an era where overt sexuality was posh.

Blurring the Lines

When does a culture become oversexed? When does an industry cross the line from selling music and art, to selling pure, unambiguous and unabashed, in-your-face perversity?

Would it be an exaggeration to say that Lady Gaga crowd surfing while wearing nothing but some extremely scanty fish-netting was explicit? Would it be judgmental to say that Adam Lambert canoodling with another man on live television – when knows full well that young children are watching – was  inappropriate? When does it become bigoted to question one person’s sexual preference, but not bigoted to throw the moral and ethical proclivities of millions of human beings out the window so that shockoholics can get a fix?

Can overt, televised, sexual acts be considered sexual harassment of the masses? 

Questioning the Efficacy and the Motives

Do the bizarre antics of Lady Gaga and the like really advance the cause of the gay rights movement, or does the association of such raunchy characters do more damage to it than good? There are many conservatives, vegetarians, and protective parents who likely would rather not have been forced to consider how many animals – or tapeworms and bacteria – it took to make up Gaga’s fleshy costume. For that matter, Adam Lambert’s male-on-male snoggings, which caused millions of heterosexuals to wince and gape, couldn’t have been especially productive either.

These ponderings lead us to one important question: Are shock-value superstars really using their celebrity status to help minority causes, or are they using the controversy surrounding said causes to bolster their own careers and line their pocketbooks? A pessimist might sardonically suggest we also consider whether or not Alice Cooper ever truly aspired to lead a revolution of school children against their oppressive teachers. Doubtless many kids made his rock ballad, Schools Out For Summer, their rebel theme song, but no serious person could ever believe Cooper penned the song for any other intent than to have fun and to make money.

Starry eyed heralds of change and progress may want to do a double take. Are your celebrity heroes really backing your cause, or are they using your back as a stepping stool to stardom?

Can a Pelvis Change the World?

Back in the 1950’s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was paranoid that the then scandalous behavior of Elvis Presley was a threat to national security. He was so impressed by the wildness of The King’s new dance moves, that Hoover was open to the possibility that a writhing pelvis could change the world. And it did.

Lady Gaga

Today, just 50 years later, Americans are mildly shocked by depictions of sex on television. Full frontal nudity and graphic action is common place in theaters and movies. People yawn with boredom as the licentious film, No Strings Attached, is promoted in trailers all over the media. If shock were a drug, it could be said that over the past decades, shockaholics have been developing a higher and higher resistance. How long before we overdose?

Where will we be in another 50 years? What will shock us in 2061? Pedophilia? Highly unlikely, since classic shows like Law & Order, Special Victims Unit are themed around rape and child molestation. Of course, the TV drama does decry child abuse as evil. Still, many of its viewers are thoroughly titillated by the scandal and suspense of it all. Does that disturb you? Should it?

And then there’s the wildly acclaimed musical, Billy Elliot, in which an 11-year-old boy decides to become a ballerina. Normally, I would find no issue with this, but there is a sexual undercurrent in the musical because Billy’s childhood friend is depicted as gay. If the children’s characters had been 18 or older, I would not bring up Billy Elliot at all. But there remains the fact that millions of people all over the world are thinking about 11-year-old boys in a sexual context because of this musical. Is that good? Is it normal? Is it healthy for our culture, or for the real live little boys that are cast as Billy in the play? Should children be injected into this kind of sexual context? Does this not tread dangerously close to the realm of pedophilia?

If thinking about under aged children in a sexual context doesn’t bother us today, what will bother us in 2061? Will anything? Possibly polygamy and bestiality. Other than those two offenses, it is hard to imagine what stunts shock-value entertainers like Lady Gaga, Adam Lambert, Madonna, Howard Stern, Marilyn Manson, Ozzy Osbourne, and the like, haven’t already tried.

What about in 2161? Given our current rate of moral entropy, the next 100 years may find that we have completely reverted to the cultural values of ancient Greece, where it was considered acceptable to own harems of adolescent boy lovers.  Do you find the idea of a 50 year old man having sex with a 10 year old boy to be offensive? Or maybe a better question is, will your grandchildren?

You may think I’m crazy for surmising such outrageous things, but then, most people thought Hoover was crazy for thinking a pelvis could change the world. To be sure, it wasn’t a threat to national security, but exposing teens to sexuality is like throwing gasoline on a flame. Now, 50 years later, that flame is still burning strong, and a heck of a lot hotter.

By Jennifer Grassman


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This article has been edited as of Sunday, January 16, 2011

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Jennifer Grassman

Jennifer Grassman is a singer, songstress and pianist who inadvertently became a music industry trailblazer in the wake of the digital revolution. In addition to penning her quirky music industry column, "The Business of Being Diva," Jennifer writes songs and performs concert tours. Jennifer’s accomplishments include being nominated Houston’s best female vocalist and best songwriter and was named best keyboardist in the 2010 Houston Press Music Awards. She assisted in a campaign that raised more than $100,000 for CrimeStoppers and was commended by musician Tori Amos for her charitable efforts on behalf of domestic-abuse victims.  Jennifer has released three CDs, the most recent of which, "Serpent Tales & Nightingales," received accolades from Christianity Today, the Houston Chronicle and Brian Ray and the guitarist of Paul McCartney's band. You can check out Jennifer’s music at, like her on Facebook and tweet her at

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