America the Vulgar - Whatever happened to the subtle thrill of real transgression?

"What's celebrity sex, Dad?" It was my 7-year-old son, who had been looking over my shoulder at my computer screen. He mispronounced "celebrity" but spoke the word "sex" as if he had been using it all his life. "Celebrity six," I said, abruptly closing my AOL screen. "It's a game famous people play in teams of three," I said, as I ushered him out of my office and downstairs into what I assumed was the safety of the living room. No such luck. His 3-year-old sister had gotten her precocious little hands on my wife's iPhone as it was charging on a table next to the sofa. By randomly tapping icons on the screen, she had conjured up an image of Beyoncé barely clad in black leather, caught in a suggestive pose that I hoped would suggest nothing at all to her or her brother. And so it went on this typical weekend. The eff-word popped out of TV programs we thought were friendly enough to have on while the children played in the next room. Ads depicting all but naked couples beckoned to them from the mainstream magazines scattered around the house. The kids peered over my shoulder as I perused my email inbox, their curiosity piqued by the endless stream of solicitations having to do with one aspect or another of sex, sex, sex!

The Rolling Stones' more allusive songs have proved to be more memorable than their explicit ones. Mick Jagger performs. Redferns/Getty Images

When did the culture become so coarse? It's a question that quickly gets you branded as either an unsophisticated rube or some angry culture warrior. But I swear on my hard drive that I'm neither. My favorite movie is "Last Tango in Paris." I agree (on a theoretical level) with the notorious rake James Goldsmith, who said that when a man marries his mistress, he creates a job vacancy. I once thought of writing a book-length homage to the eff-word in American culture, the apotheosis of which was probably Sir Ben Kingsley pronouncing it with several syllables in an episode of "The Sopranos."

I'm cool, and I'm down with everything, you bet, but I miss a time when there were powerful imprecations instead of mere obscenity—or at least when sexual innuendo, because it was innuendo, served as a delicious release of tension between our private and public lives. Long before there was twerking, there were Elvis's gyrations, which shocked people because gyrating hips are more associated with women (thrusting his hips forward would have had a masculine connotation). But Elvis's physical motions on stage were all allusion, just as his lyrics were:

Touch it, pound it, what good does it do

There's just no stoppin' the way I feel for you

Cos' every minute, every hour you'll be shaken

By the strength and mighty power of my love

The relative subtlety stimulates the imagination, while casual obscenity drowns it out. And such allusiveness maintains social norms even as they are being violated—that's sexy. The lyrics of Elvis's "Power of My Love" gave him authority as a respected social figure, which made his asocial insinuations all the more gratifying.

The same went, in a later era, for the young Madonna : "Two by two their bodies become one." It's an electric image because you are actively engaged in completing it. Contrast that with the aging Madonna trash-talking like a kid:

Some girls got an attitude

Fake t— and a nasty mood

Hot s— when she's in the nude

(In the naughty naked nude)

It's the difference between locker-room talk and the language of seduction and desire. As Robbie Williams and the Pet Shop Boys observed a few years ago in their song "She's Madonna": "She's got to be obscene to be believed."

Everyone remembers the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar," whose sexual and racial provocations were perfectly calibrated for 1971. Few, if any, people can recall their foray into explicit obscenity two years later with "Star Star." The earlier song was sly and licentious; behind the sexual allusions were the vitality and energy to carry them out. The explicitness of "Star Star" was for bored, weary, repressed squares in the suburbs, with their swingers parties and "key clubs."

Just as religious vows of abstinence mean nothing without the temptations of desire—which is why St. Augustine spends so much time in his "Confessions" detailing the way he abandoned himself to the "fleshpots of Carthage"—violating a social norm when the social norm is absent yields no real pleasure. The great provocations are also great releases because they exist side by side with the prohibitions that they are provoking. Once you spell it all out, the tension between temptation and taboo disappears.

The open secret of violating a taboo with language that—through its richness, wit or rage—acknowledges the taboo is that it represents a kind of moralizing. In fact, all the magnificent potty mouths—from D.H. Lawrence to Norman Mailer, the Beats, the rockers, the proto-punks, punks and post-punks, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Patti Smith, and up through, say, Sarah Silverman and the creators of "South Park"—have been moralizers. The late Lou Reed's "I Wanna Be Black" is so full of racial slurs, obscenity and repugnant sexual imagery that I could not find one meaningful phrase to quote in this newspaper. It is also a wryly indignant song that rips into the racism of liberals whose reverence for black culture is a crippling caricature of black culture.

Though many of these vulgar outlaws were eventually warily embraced by the mainstream, to one degree or another, it wasn't until long after their deaths that society assimilated them, still warily, and sometimes not at all. In their own lifetimes, they mostly existed on the margins or in the depths; you had to seek them out in society's obscure corners. That was especially the case during the advent of new types of music. Swing, bebop, Sinatra, cool jazz, rock 'n' roll—all were specialized, youth-oriented upheavals in sound and style, and they drove the older generation crazy.

These days, with every new ripple in the culture transmitted, commented-on, analyzed, mocked, mashed-up and forgotten on countless universal devices every few minutes, everything is available to everyone instantly, every second, no matter how coarse or abrasive. You used to have to find your way to Lou Reed. Now as soon as some pointlessly vulgar song gets recorded, you hear it in a clothing store.

Brooke Shields's ads for Calvin Klein Jeans in the 1980s were a cultural turning point. Associated Press

The shock value of earlier vulgarity partly lay in the fact that a hitherto suppressed impulse erupted into the public realm. Today Twitter, TWTR -1.47% Snapchat, Instagram and the rest have made impulsiveness a new social norm. No one is driving anyone crazy with some new form of expression. You're a parent and you don't like it when Kanye West sings: "I sent this girl a picture of my d—. I don't know what it is with females. But I'm not too good with that s—"? Shame on you.

The fact is that you're hearing the same language, witnessing the same violence, experiencing the same graphic sexual imagery on cable, or satellite radio, or the Internet, or even on good old boring network TV, where almost explicit sexual innuendo and nakedly explicit violence come fast and furious. Old and young, high and low, the idiom is the same. Everything goes.

READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304451904579238140379017148

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