Is America Culturally Bankrupt?


I read an interesting quip on Reddit the other day to which I chortled, upvoted, and promptly diverted my attention to trawling through pictures of cats doing human things. Instead of becoming lost to the deeper recesses of my mind however, those words reappeared, goading me into proper examination. ‘Are the VMA’s proof that America is culturally bankrupt?’ For those out there who have been living in caves for the past few months, what the remark referred to was what will surely come to be known in the future as ‘Miley Gate 2013.’

Here, at an awards show no less, to celebrate what supposedly was the best the entertainment industry had to offer with respect to music, we had a 20 year old woman present herself on stage in latex flesh coloured underwear, gyrate provocatively to what some are calling the most misogynistic song in history, try to seductively manipulate a foam finger, and simulate sex with an ageing mid 30 year old as he attempted to be relevant. Cue social media explosion, news media coverage, and parental outrage as mobs of distressed parents pleaded through sobs and hysterical cries for someone to think of their children. For those who genuinely haven't seen the performance – enjoy!



While this was an obvious attempt to 'shock' viewers into a reaction, the general consensus seems to be somewhat meh. We've seen it before, this really isn't anything new. In fact some would say it was kind of predictable - teen star trying to break free from the shackles of a past persona gets the chance to perform on a network syndicated awards show - golly gosh I wonder what is going to happen?

While most seem intent on battling out the gender and sexual issues this whole saga has inflamed, my mind can't help but think back to those words. ‘Are the VMA’s proof that America is culturally bankrupt?’ Historically when you think of the many cultural gifts the US has given to the world such as jazz, the blues, Rock’n’Roll, Hollywood, and the Internet, it’s almost implausible to think that it could ever possibly lose its status as a cultural exporter. Not for a second do I believe that the VMA's and Miley Cyrus are the pinnacle of American culture, but when looking back over the past couple of decades you do start to wonder.


En-ter-tain-ment [Noun]

1. the action of provided with amusement or enjoyment


I can think of any number of bands that should have been playing at the VMA's - think Queens of the Stone Age (whose latest album we actually reviewed here,) The Black Keys, Alabama Shakes, hell I'd even throw JayZ into the mix! Furthermore, think of the many other talented artists still plying their trade in forgotten genres such as jazz, the blues, soul etc etc that would have given a tonne more class/talent/showmanship to the proceedings. What the channels and shows such as the VMA's, MTV, Billboard etc show us however, is that they no longer serve as barometers or spotlights for artistry, talent, and certainly not culture. They don't mean anything. They are 2 hour adverts interspersed with more adverts. Driven by, paid for, and to the benefit of corporate sponsors, they are a very public demonstration that culture is losing out to commercialism.

And this isn't a trend which is purely limited to the music and entertainment industries. While reading up on the subject I came across an interesting piece by delivered by Dan Giola, Stanford University in 2007.


"The loss of recognition for artists, thinkers and scientists has impoverished our culture in innumerable ways, but let me mention one. When virtually all of a culture’s celebrated figures are in sports or entertainment, how few possible role models we offer the young. There are so many other ways to lead a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money or fame. Adult life begins in a child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace…

But we must remember that the marketplace does only one thing — it puts a price on everything. The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us."


I don't hate Miley Cyrus, she is after all just a sad front for commercialism in music. But I do think if there is one thing her performance at the VMA's told us, it's that she definitely does not belong in the marketplace. If not for the sheer fact that every second devoted to her ridiculous display of immature angst is a second that is stolen from genuine talent. Back to the initial question 'Are the VMA's proof the America is culturally bankrupt?' No, I don't think they are. But they are a sad demonstration that culture is at the moment fighting an uphill battle to educate, entertain, and engage the masses.