The Decline and Fall of “Edgy” Culture

… or, as John Waters might put it, “Shock Value.”

I see that Waters has published a new book that’s entertaining but at least partly a con job. And he’s getting set to do another one of his tours where he cashes in on being “John Waters,” formerly outrageous incarnate. Now, I hasten to add that I don’t begrudge Waters a whit of this weird-old-uncle later career. It’s brilliant, in fact. Wish more of the old outrageous gang had found equally satisfactory outlets.

I suppose this is what a blog is suited for, since I’m going to chew on an idea that I’ve been worrying for a very long time and still do not have shaped to my satisfaction. The notion that “edgy” art and culture, a joy for decades starting in the early part of the 20th century, flourished, peaked, declined and has now become a bore and even a barrier to unfettered thought.

Some of my favorite artists have gone through this cycle and come out the other side. R. Crumb pushed the limits of his pornographic fantasies in Weirdo and towards the end, if you revisit now, it’s striking how unmodified (merely more gross and sexist) they were from the peak of his powers. Crumb himself noted that rock and roll protest had become ridiculous when it wailed against an Establishment that no longer existed. Crumb’s particular opponent dragon of prudery had been slain long ago and all that remained was compulsion.

John Water’s first book, Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste is a classic I encourage everybody to read, if only because it offers the most complete and convincing explanation why the cultural upheaval that began in the ’60s forced oddballs stuck in uncool places like Baltimore (or, uh, Montana) to be especially rough-edged zany, never fussy about coming off suave — in short, punky before punk.

To me, the first sign there was a downside to Edgy came with the isolated lionization of Uncle Charlie Manson by counterculture types. This sprang from both a foolish sense that violence was the next step of protest (see: Weathermen) and that psychopaths were somehow brave, bold and free of the constraints of square society (see: Norman Mailer). Everybody knows better now, but it was an early reminder that not all repellant acts and outlooks destroy needless restrictions.

(This primary dislike of Manson worship inoculated me against interest in horror movies based on slashing and sadism. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre scored because it was menacing and unhinged, not because it was drenched in blood and guts. And it bothered me that the Saw-type flicks were ubiquitous even as gruesome combat footage from Iraq was withheld.)

Happened with funny guys, too. Really bothered me how I found the true edginess of a Richard Pryor and Steve Martin declined into the reactionary-as-rebel schtick of Andrew Dice Clay and his innumerable descendents. Tied in with the vile notion that everybody (well, straight white males, anyway) is racist, sexist and homophobic if they’re honest with themselves. And yeah, it’s true some straight white males don’t grow out of childhood bigotries. But that’s the only extent to which it’s true.

Speaking of growing up, the final category, still going (and smelling) strong is anal-obsessive humor as “edgy”. John Krickfalusi all but ruined his masterful creation Ren & Stimpy by proclaiming their grossest and most infantile gags were their true essence. The flaw with this whole approach was nicely encapsulated recently by Anthony Lane in his review of Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways To Die in the West:

“Here are some of the subjects with which it grapples: death by flatulence, the pains of anal sex (“I’m going to rest my asshole”) and a hatful of diarrhea. Do you notice a common theme? Picture an entire movie spawned by the campfire scene from ‘Blazing Saddles’ and you’re almost there …. [MacFarlane] has joys in store for those of more cultivated tastes. There are gags about retarded sheep, Chinese immigrants, the halitosis that follows a blow job, and the precise appearance of the pudenda after a spell in the sex trade. As is his wont, MacFarlane is daring us to be disgusted; and, should we flinch, his movie will mock us for being prim — the worst of all crimes, in his scabrous world. But what if we’re just bored?”

And that’s exactly it — by giving off the atmosphere of brashness, by wearing the mask of irreverence, the new false edginess keeps the audience from confronting the actual false pieties of today. Stabbing the rotting corpse of an ages-dead dragon lets the live ones burn the village in order to save it.

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