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Boobs Versus Prudes

Only Prince can walk the tightrope between sensuality and artistry

The Great Super Bowl Rogue Breast Disaster of 2004 has reached truly epic levels of overexposure, with every pundit, columnist, blogger and dude-standing-behind-you-at-Subway scrambling to weigh in on the moral outrage of it all. But in our haste to denounce either our shot-to-hell sense of human decency or the Puritan prudes who can't handle a little prime-time T&A, we've missed the real story, the real point, the real outrage here.

Janet Jackson wasn't offensive because she got carried away being sexy and titillating. She was offensive because she was neither sexy nor titillating in the slightest.

We don't know how to be sexy anymore. Rock culture has irreparably split into two completely polarized halves: You're either a deadly serious "artist" with Important Things to Say and all the sex appeal of a large-mouth bass, or you're teen-pop jailbait whose "songs" unfold like acid-hit lap-dance routines that slap you across the face with all the subtlety of, well, a large-mouth bass. The hallowed middle ground no longer exists; you can have actual musical talent or you can have sex appeal. Not both.

Furthermore, those with any sex appeal are strictly of the dunderheaded jerk-off mag variety. The video for the Box's vixen of the moment Kelis's "Milkshake" is so ridiculous it's hilarious, with metric tons of howling cleavage and blatant blow-job imagery. (Though that scene where the restaurant cook opens the oven and pulls out a loaf of bread shaped like an ass is pure genius.)

Never mind that. This sucks.

And I'm sorry, Ms. Jackson, but you're Exhibit A. After an actually quite splendid mainstream run (Rhythm Nation represents!), her career since the mid-'90s has sunk ever deeper into a swirling sea of retarded sexuality. Janet tried to straddle the artist/sex symbol line, but merely crossed over and ended up straddling everything else. Sadly, the Super Bowl only serves as the climax to her shocking softcore-porn death spiral of absurd "wardrobe malfunctions," awkward bondage references and increasingly ludicrous lyrics: "Got a nice package alright / Guess I'm gonna have to ride it tonight."

Janet Jackson abandoned pop music altogether in her quest to give the whole world a boner, and the baby Jesus has suffered accordingly. The sexiest thing she ever said was "Who's that eatin' that nasty food?" and that was in 1987.

Where have our talented sex symbols gone? Why must Blender be so head-thwackingly lewd and vapid, and Magnet so sexless and staid? Who's playing the Madonna role nowadays? Certainly not Madonna, who's been reduced to MTV-style faux lesbianism. R&B pop-rap studs like Ja Rule and 50 Cent are saddled with washboard abs and wet-cardboard personalities. (Funniest song of the moment: the Ja-assaulting "So Many Rappers in Love" by Westside Connection. No one embodies the funnier-when-he's-angrier paradigm like Ice Cube.) A flock of synchronized-swimming nuns packs more sex appeal than any Creed-biting "modern rock" front man, and the entire once promising '90s "alternative" stable has lapsed into self-importance (Eddie), self-loathing (Trent) or self-crappifying (Billy). My mom could beat up John Mayer. My grandmother could beat up Clay Aiken. You get the idea.

The indie rock realm, where a single ounce of sexuality gets dismissed as pandering inauthenticity, is infinitely worse. Ask Liz Phair, who first surfaced as the nerdy virginal rock critic's ultimate wet dream -- lithe, blond, uncouth, unbelievably horny and responsible for a concept album about Exile on Main Street-- only to withstand 2003's most public flogging when she attempted her own Janet Jackson leap in reverse, from sexpot artiste to pop princess, and wound up bleating on about "hot white cum." And don't you even bring up Karen O, the inexplicably lusted-after Yeah Yeah Yeahs front woman, who in reality looks like she dresses in the dark while falling down an elevator shaft and only continues New York City's hallowed tradition of selling the world shit by pretending it's shinola: She's electroclash in convenient female form.

There are a few exceptions, but ain't nobody bringing the pain and the pleasure like, oh, say, Prince. We need Prince so very badly right now. The Grammys would indicate we have him again, but is it really him? Is this the Lovesexy or Graffiti Bridge vintage? Let us pray it's the former.

Imagine Prince's Super Bowl halftime show. Beautiful, isn't it? The buttless pants alone would be majestic. Has anyone ever aligned the planets of raw sexuality and artistic greatness with such towering bravado? Can anyone else in the universe possibly sing songs like "Gett Off," "Cream," "Dirty Mind" or "Little Red Corvette" without sounding like a juiced-up asshole? Has anyone in any artistic medium every made pure animalistic lust feel so natural, so unforced, so nonthreatening, so necessary? How did he do it? How did we not appreciate him sufficiently while he did it? Even his ongoing public collapse -- label squabbles, smooth jazz excursions, this whole Jehovah's Witness business -- bears a certain psychotic sensuality. But his comeback chances -- even with Beyoncé by his side -- are hopelessly slim as a result.

What Janet Jackson actually exposed to the world on Super Bowl Sunday was a void, a nonentity, a vacuum. Our nation's very own Prince Deficit. Who will rise to the challenge of replacing him and reconnecting the sexual with the artistically worthwhile? Andre 3000? Sure, The Love Below is a trip -- the bright-pink smoking revolver he's brandishing on the cover says it all. But in interviews he comes across as just another sad sack lookin' for Ms. Right, a gigolo surrounded by sexpots but desperate for looove. Spare me, spare yourself, spare the children. As a nation and as a musical culture, we've never been more sex-obsessed, never been less sexy.

This is what it sounds like when doves cry.

 
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