Michael Moynihan

11.17.13

The Cult of Outrage

When someone in the public eye tries to offend you these days, you can bet they’re trying to sell something. Outrage isn’t about values, it’s about marketing.

We can’t make her go away because we don’t want her to go away. And there she is again, the tedious pop sensation Miley Cyrus—whose name I cannot escape, whose music I cannot identify—with her bovine tongue hanging out of her mouth, this time at the European Video Music Awards in Amsterdam. Like most other 20-year-old Americans embarrassing themselves in the Dutch capital, Cyrus was rather amused by the availability of semi-legal marijuana and puffed a joint on camera, a stage-managed bit of outrage that was only considered outrageous for the grave sin of flouting EU regulations banning smoking indoors. (The Dutch government is indeed investigating Cyrus because, according to a government spokesman, “employees have the right to a smoke-free environment and this includes camera and sound personnel.”)

The Associated Press, once a serious news outlet, duly filed a story on the stunt: “In an unabashed—and likely successful—bid for attention, singer Miley Cyrus smoked a joint on stage and twerked with a dwarf during the MTV Europe Music Awards.” It was, of course, “likely successful” thanks to the efforts of media organizations like the Associated Press. (In a moment of lucidity, they later scrubbed the sentence, though they weren’t lucid enough to pull the entire “story”).

Matt Drudge led with the latest Miley news, having previously offered hyperventilating headlines like “Miley Cyrus out-crudes Gaga at MTV Awards” and “Cyrus from hell!” US Magazine told readers that Cyrus didn’t care if those stodgy olds were “outraged” by her “bold move.” A website run by former US editor Bonnie Fuller tittered that “Miley shocked the world once again,” while conspicuously failing to identify anyone in the world who was actually shocked. Not a single bearded, cave-dwelling mullah could be reached for comment.

So who, exactly, are those tender, delicate, offended MTV viewers? After all, according to a recent Pew poll, “roughly half of adults say they have tried marijuana, the highest percentage ever.” Is it possible that to spin a story of outrage doesn’t require that anyone actually be outraged? And while there is a certain click-trolling harmlessness to such stories, the whirring outrage machine has the side effect of empowering those who are truly outrageous: those tiny pressure groups (often with the word “parents” or “moms” tucked into their titles) who provide the required hook or “balance” to a phony scandal story.

Trawl the Internet and one can quite easily find lonely souls like Dr. H. T. Spence, a pastor willing to write junk history sentences like this: “The 1980s brought sexuality and Satanism together in presentations by The Sex Pistols and Madonna.” Ignoring the niggling details that the Sex Pistols dissolved by 1978 and that Satanism isn’t a thing, Spence is right to identify both the Material Girl and Johnny Rotten as pivotal in the development of the modern outrage industry.

Madonna’s P.R. machine understood to never be too controversial--sex, nudity, being mean to Catholics, swearing on awards shows--but just enough to earn the “controversialist” badge. When she locked lips with Britney Spears at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, in a kiss that packed as much eroticism as Pope Francis kissing the Elephant Man, it was a sad attempt at staying relevant not through artistic innovation, but by annoying the puritans. And one must be young to be outrageous.

Outrage has declined from an emotion into a business.

It was an old trick. A decade earlier, she locked lips (among other things) with Vanilla Ice (among other “celebrities”) in Sex, a coffee-table book full of softcore photographs and cringe-inducing “erotica.” In the book’s acknowledgements, she thanks Warner Brothers, her publisher, for its Rushdie-like “bravery,” which resulted not in spasms of violence or wounding economic boycotts but the sale of 1.5 million copies--at $50 a pop ($83 today). Sex, along with its companion record, Erotica, earned Warner Brothers a half billion dollars in 1992 alone.

And Pastor Spence is also correct that the modern outrage artist owes an enormous debt to punk pioneers The Sex Pistols. In 1976, the Pistols and their entourage (including a young, self-consciously sneering Siouxsie Sioux) sat with Thames Television presenter Bill Grundy with the goal of showing Britain just how outrageous they were, what the bleakness of the no future Harold Wilson regime had produced. Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren later claimed that the Grundy interview “was a pivotal moment that changed everything,” a rather large claim for a group of spotty-faced teenagers calling Grundy a “rotter,” sporting Nazi regalia, and collectively sneered at the Stiff Upper Lip generation:

Bill Grundy: Go on, you've got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.

Steve Jones (Sex Pistols guitarist): You dirty bastard!

Grundy: Go on, again.

Jones: You dirty fucker.

The entire segment lasted under three minutes.

As British music journalist Jon Savage notes, “For all their shock tactics, the Sex Pistols were making conscious moves towards the music industry.” And tactics is the right word here, because the “shocking” Bill Grundy appearance—on mainstream television with a band becoming increasingly mainstream on a mainstream record label—was designed to sell records, to raise the band’s profile, and to precipitate headlines like the one from the Daily Mirror: “The Filth and the Fury: TV’s Grundy in Rock Outrage!” (I suppose it’s the commodification of dissent that one can buy a t-shirt of the Mirror front page for £14.99 on Amazon.co.uk). The shock tactics and the moves toward the music industry were part of the same very strategy.

The commercialization of outrage is, at least, an opt-in thing; one needn’t buy Madonna’s terrible book or the Sex Pistols’ brilliant Never Mind the Bollocks. Click away from the Cyrus grumblings, and one will quickly find another bit of fantastically stupid outrage that brought thousands out to protest across the country and precipitated the intervention of a foreign government.

During a recent episode of his late night talk show, comedian Jimmy Kimmel asked a group of six year olds for insight into how the United States should solve various political problems. When asked how Washington escapes from its debtors’ prison, one young boy suggested killing everyone in China.

Time magazine called the joke—made by a 6 year old, remember—“racially insensitive,” because the country holding American debt is China and not, say, Finland. A petition on the White House website calling for Kimmel’s head gathered 100,000 signatures, obligating the administration to respond. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, taking a break from being nasty to Tibetans, advocated that Kimmel “face [his] mistakes head on” and, after the comedian had issued two public apologies, demanded that a third be offered “with a sincere attitude.”

When Kimmel apologized outside ABC studios in Los Angeles, the outraged demanded that he craft contrite messages to parents, children, China, and humor-impaired humans across the country. Standing next to Kimmel, a man held a sign comparing the comedian to Adolf Hitler and claiming that he “promotes racial genocide.”

You see, Kimmel outraged people by mistake—he has no control over this media narrative—and mistakenly engaged in the type of controversy that loses one money. Outrage is desirable when selling records and waving one’s arms in search of media attention—provided one doesn’t trespass certain boundaries or offend organized and powerful pressure groups.

But outrage has declined from an emotion into a business. The New York Post recently advised Lady Gaga, the Madonna manqué of the Millennials,  to “[cut] back on the stunts ... and actually write some good songs. She’s working too hard on being a celebrity but not hard enough on being a musician.” Well, yes. But that’s the point.