As this Sunday’s Grammy Awards approach, I find myself repeating a single phrase like a mantra: “Please. Let there be no controversy.”
Actually, maybe the right word is “faux-troversy,” a new term that might better describe the tiny mishaps and freak moments that occur during seemingly every live, televised event, sending tweeters into a frenzy and prompting all the media outlets on planet Earth to respond with at least one blog post. (And yes, this media outlet is among the guilty.)
The latest example, of course, was M.I.A.’s middle-finger-raise during the Super Bowl, a bird-flipping episode that I missed on initial viewing because I had the audacity to blink. But it’s only the latest incident in what has become a tradition of sorts. (See, among others: Lady Gaga briefly slipping onstage during the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, Melissa Leo dropping an f-bomb during last year’s Academy Awards, Christina Aguilera botching the national anthem during the 2011 Super Bowl, Aguilera slipping even more briefly than Gaga did during the 2011 Grammy Awards and, the pioneer in this particular field, the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl.)
This need to immediately react, kneejerk-style, to whatever barely perceptible/accidental incident has just been broadcast prompted Gawker to issue a special critique of the swirl surrounding M.I.A.’s digit display.
“This wholly inconsequential event will receive an amount of public and media attention exactly inversely proportional to its real importance,” wrote Hamilton Nolan. “Its short-term ability to distract will be exactly inversely proportional to its long-term impact on anything whatsoever.”
Basically, this whole phenomenon is unhealthy. So who’s to blame?
Of course, the causer of the faux-troversy bears responsibility. While we can’t fault those who make unfortunate but honest mistakes on national television, people who flip us the bird or accidentally-on-purpose wear outfits that just might reveal too much skin are the ones who set the faux-troversy wheels in motion.
Given how much media attention such moves attract (more on that in a moment), it seems reasonable to assume that in the future, more aspiring stars may use the Emmy red carpet or the Super Bowl stage to do something “spontaneously” naughty, in a calculated attempt to change their name from barely-ever-heard to bold-faced. Given recent history, it’s an effective strategy — anyone who didn’t know who M.I.A. was before Sunday probably does now. (Of course, it’s not exactly a new strategy either; that other lady who performed during the Super Bowl, Madonna, pretty much perfected it almost 30 years ago.)
And the media is unquestionably guilty here, too. In a digital media landscape that now requires its writers to stay on top of every zeitgeist tremor, blips often blow up into banner headlines. It’s not a secret: everyone is trying to capture eyeballs and stay one step ahead of what readers are seeking on Google. And what readers are seeking on Google often falls in the patently absurd category. This is how non-news becomes news, or at least news-esque.
That’s one of the reasons why I now watch awards shows “Clockwork Orange”-style, in a state of orange-alert-style readiness, out of fear that I might miss a crucial moment and make Celebritology look out of synch with the rest of the entertainment blogosphere. (E-mail from an editor that I fear receiving during the Grammys: “Did you see Adele possibly pick her nose for half a second on the red carpet just now? Are you on top of that?” My hypothetical response: “Uh, I missed it. I was blinking. For the love of God, I was blinking!”)
But wait a second, you say. As a member of the media, you could just opt not to write about these things. Wasn’t it Gandhi who said “Be the change you wish to see in the world?”
It was. But Gandhi wasn’t trying to outblog People magazine and Vulture.
No, seriously, this is clearly an option. But for the reasons mentioned above — the pressure to attract eyeballs, the interest in being part of the cultural conversation, the desire to provide our readers with the content they want to read — it has become frustratingly harder to totally ignore faux-troversies.
So that leaves us with blaming the scapegoat for all negative trends in our culture: the Internet. Yes, it’s the Internet’s fault that we all pay so much attention to what’s said on Twitter and Facebook and that we dissect every insipid detail of celebrity culture to death.
That’s the easiest way to end this conversation. But that’s not right either. The truth is, we were gabbing about the silly things famous people did and said on television long before our DSL lines and mobile phones gave us the ability to do it publicly in mere milliseconds. The Internet isn’t responsible for our behavior, it merely reflects and magnifies who we have always been, in secret.
So in essence, all of us — the celebrities who sometimes serve as provocateurs, the media outlets who breathlessly cover that behavior, the Internet that allows our thoughts on trivial matters to be instantly shared and every single one of us particpating in the snarkery that ensues — are to blame.
Frankly, that makes the Faux-troversy Problem a can of worms that’s too messy for me to fully de-tangle right now. So I’ll simply close by saying one more Grammy prayer: During Sunday’s telecast, may no curse words be uttered, may no nips slip and may the only fingers any famous person raises be either a pointer or a pinky.