At the Grammys last night Queen Latifah officiated a mass wedding ceremonywith some couples heterosexual, some gayfollowed by a surprise song from Madonna.
Was it satire? I am a big fan of satirical mockery, even satirical mockery of important things such as marriage. Such satire helps expose self-importance and can even help check things such as corrupt or sloppy thinking. But satire is only satire when it comes from a position of weakness or involves self-mockery. Satire from strength is not funny and more akin to propaganda.
Hollywood, of course, is neither weak in terms of cultural influence nor particularly noted for self-mockery. In fact, all of the evidence (the genuine earnestness of the couples, the tears, the presence of Madonna, the fact it took place on stage at the Grammys) indicated that this was not satire. Instead, it represented a brilliant fusion of two of the great cultural tendencies of our day: the pressing of Hollywood celebrities into positions of cultural authority which gives them powerful influence far beyond their ability to hold a note or to learn a script; and the transformation of the serious and the sacred into the idioms of showbusiness. Queen Latifah appearing in the place of a priest or minister is neither an unexpected nor an isolated phenomenon but of a piece with what has been happening since the invention of the moving picture. And entertainers now do it all: politics, ethics, confession, marriages, cure of souls.
Where this will lead is not easy to say. Traditional political institutions seem comparatively impotent in the face of an entertainment industry which grips the imagination in a way that the gray suited denizens of Washington or Westminster do not. It also capitalizes on the endless public appetite for distraction and the desire for self-fulfillment rather than social good (as if the last term even has any agreed meaning). The construction of logical and even legal argument is now increasingly irrelevant to the way the world is moving. It is the priests of emotional aesthetics, the celebrities, who drive the values of our culture.
Pop music used to be about superficial fun, a bit of escapism in the midst of life. Then it gained messianic aspirations. At the time, it looked ridiculously self-important. It is still superficial fun; but perhaps it does not look quite so ridiculous any more.