The uproar over Miley Cyrus‘s twerk-tastic MTV Video Music Awards performance caused me to seek psychological help. Not for me, bitches! I was looking for assistance for the many traumatized viewers, including the ones who play it cool(er) by saying it wasn’t the sex-ay-ness of the performance that was a problem for them: Their argument is that Miley is just not as talented as previous scandal-causing VMAs performers like Madonna and Britney Spears.
LOL WUT? I remember the reaction to Madonna’s appearance on the music scene in the early 1980s. And, trust me, the members of the National Parent Teacher Association were certainly not saying, “She’s too sex-ay but it’s okay because she’s soooooo talented!” To confirm my recollections, I did some research on the aftermath of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” VMA performance in 1984. While I was at it, I looked into contemporaneous coverage of Britney Spears’s VMA striptease in 2000 and Elvis Presley’s 1956 appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.
I found some great stuff! With Madonna, conventional wisdom held that she was all style, no substance. For instance, in Time‘s March 4, 1985, article on Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, critic Jay Cocks gave the talent trophy to Cyndi, praising her “razzle-dazzle, multi-octave range.” “She has the whole package,” Cocks wrote of Lauper. “But Madonna has the look.” In the same story, Irving Azoff, then president of MCA Records, agreed: “To me, Cyndi is more of an artist than Madonna.” Paul Grein, then an editor at Billboard, said, “Cyndi Lauper will be around for a long time. Madonna will be out of the business in six months. Her image has completely overshadowed her music.” There are similar examples for Britney and Elvis.
I’ve often wondered why, when we remember “the good old days,” we tend to forget the fears and negative feelings we had at the time. (The book A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman has some of my favorite illustrations of this mindset.) And we’re so damn insistent that our revised history is the truth. In a Dec. 30, 1985, Newsweek article about whether MTV’s music videos harmed children, Dr. Victor Strasburger, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Task Force on TV and Children, claimed videos were more problematic than songs alone:
“Listening to ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ [by the Rolling Stones] didn’t get any girl to hop into bed with me or anyone else. But seeing a sexy video can teach you that if you’re not sexually active, there’s something wrong with you.”
Well, maybe poor Victor didn’t get lucky thanks to the Rolling Stones, but song-inspired casual sex was exactly what society feared. Music critic Richie Unterberger wrote, “Although it didn’t sound very controversial several decades later, ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ was the most controversial single the Rolling Stones had ever released when it first came out in early 1967.” He continued:
“…Mick Jagger was coerced into mumbling the title when it was performed on television, and limited radio airplay caused the flip side of the record, ‘Ruby Tuesday,’ to become the hit in the United States.”
Here’s one Canadian broadcaster asking the Stones what they think about being blamed for teenagers’ problems. “Where are their parents?” the Stones wondered.
That response makes me think of the “Where were the parents at?” line in the 2000 song, “The Way I Am” by Eminem, the rapper cited as a “problem” by Lynne Cheney in a Senate hearing and described by one newspaper as having a “soiled reputation as a law-breaking hatemonger.” These days, attitudes are a little different. The ’60s youths supposedly corrupted by the Rolling Stones bring their grandchildren to the group’s 50th anniversary concerts. Eminem’s appearance in a big-budget Chrysler ad during the 2011 Super Bowl — you can’t get more all-American than that event — is credited with more than doubling sales of the Chrysler 200 that year. Speaking of rappers, a park in Brooklyn was named for the late Adam Yauch (aka MCA) of the Beastie Boys this year. That’s the group whose music was described in the Feb. 2, 1987, issue of Newsweek as “loud, disgusting, without redeeming social merit.” (The article noted that the Beasties originally wanted to call their debut album Don’t Be a Faggot, but the record company wouldn’t let them and it wound up being called Licensed to Ill. The band later apologized for its “shitty and ignorant” homophobic lyrics.)
Somehow it’s easy for me to take the long view when it comes to music, but I’m (possibly) guilty of revisionism when it comes to fashion. I’ve often argued that 1980s fashion was better than today’s. Even when I’ve been skeptical of my own opinion, I’ve insisted, “Yeah, I’m right.” To quote myself:
“Sometimes I wonder if that’s just run-of-the-mill nostalgia and that everyone believes the fashion of his or her teen years is the best. Then I think, ‘Maybe everyone believes that, but we’re actually right. Ha!’ The fashion industry of the ’80s and early ’90s really was so fun and much less corporate than it is now.”
The people having fun in the fashion industry today might disagree though.
After reviewing all of this, I decided psychological help was required, so I called Clay Routledge, an assistant professor of psychology who studies nostalgia, among other topics, at North Dakota State University. He explained “fading affect bias” to me. You can learn what that is — and read more fun, vintage criticisms of Madonna, Britney and Elvis — in my story about this phenomenon on the Huffington Post.