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Controversy sells

Donna P Hope

Thursday, November 21, 2019

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On February 1, 2004, during her half-time performance to the live and global Superbowl XXVIII audience, Janet Jackson's breast, which was adorned with a nipple shield, was exposed by Justin Timberlake for about half a second.

That incident, later referred to as a “wardrobe malfunction”, and subsequently coined as Nipplegate, stands as a watershed moment in American media, popular culture, and society.

Women had long been wearing next to nothing on popular beauty contest platforms aired live on television. But nipples and crotches were taboo for display in the public space of traditional television.

Those areas, reserved for the private space of consenting adults, must remain covered in the public domain of traditional media. This remains so until today.

An underlying story that, perhaps, this wardrobe malfunction was a carefully staged moment in time, a publicity stunt designed to revive interest in Jackson's career, also coloured this incident.

Contrived or accidental, that incident sparked intense debates. Some believed that the incident was harmless and was receiving too much attention and backlash.

Others believed that it indicated decreasing morality in American culture. Jamaicans, with their heavy investment in America and American culture, weighed in on both sides of the fence.

The challenge was about that tabooed female body part being exposed in the public domain to a wide and non-discriminating audience. Regardless of the backlash, including fines against CBS by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), several resulting court cases, plus increased fines for indecency violation by the FCC (from US$27,500 to US$325,000), one thing stood out — Janet Jackson's name was on millions of lips across the world.

No publicity is bad publicity. You read that the mantra of marketers is that any kind of publicity is always excellent. And the kind that you do not have to pay for to promote your product to your customers is the best kind. Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction reminded us that controversy sells. The media landscape has been significantly transformed since 2004.

Average Jamaicans can now access information from many sources, often in the palm of their hands, at the flick of a single button. They can transmit information almost at the speed of light. Same palm, same flick.

Access to social media and increasing access to free Wi-Fi means that more people can upload, transmit, share, and send their version of truth, knowledge, and information with and to a global audience.

This is not the era of wicked and slow dial-up — that screeching, slow, and painful method which those with access to precious landlines and their parents', friends', workplaces' or schools' Internet portals would use.

What obtains now is highspeed, gigabytes-per-second access that more than 60 per cent of Jamaicans, regardless of their class, economic status, or work situation, now access. What has not changed is the use of media (social and traditional) to spark controversial moments in time.

On the backs of the bold, new technologies that continue to transform our lives, superstars are created out of nothingness, and some dethroned in a millisecond.

Those already famous enjoy the boom and slump of accidental or contrived viral moments through which they can showcase their products, often to their economic benefit.

Some of us can still recall Clifton “Cliff Twang” Brown, the Mavis Bank, St Andrew resident, who shot to fame in 2011 after the release of the Nobody Canna Cross It video.

That year, Cliff Twang graced the stages of Sumfest 2011's Dancehall Night and was featured in multiple interviews and media stories. The man behind the Nobody Canna Cross It YouTube video, DJ Powa, did not gain the same level of publicity.

He was the skilled individual who put music to Cliff Twang's moment in the news and set in motion a series of events that shot Cliff Twang to his 15 or so minutes of fame.

Cliff Twang was an accidental star. Today, many others, by accident or design, continue to arrive from various locations in Jamaica, travelling through social media portals, to become household names, for a minute, or 15, or more.

The boundaries between the public and private spaces have become increasingly blurred, sometimes overlapping. In recent times, Mackerel's social media posturings and promises to “tek people man” found favour with a wide cross section, and disfavour with an equally broad group.

After making the rounds on popular social media sites, being featured in traditional print and electronic media interviews, and becoming the locus for family and personal controversies, Mackerel was absorbed into the body of popular culture and continues to ply her trade.

Candy followed on this trend. Her dance prowess, petite shape, hard-luck story, and signature phrase “Wow” propelled her across multiple stages. Bully Beef followed, and so on. Social media was recently set ablaze with Courtney's moment in the social media sun.

This was aided by his curated montage of his graduation pic, beer bottle in hand, and an in-house video layered over with his mother's expressing her disapproval for said photograph.

The graduation pic, and his mother's well-toned use of a Jamaican expletive, sparked intense social media chatter for days. But I doubt he expected the intense, viral response to his posting. Controversy sells.

Following on this incident we are at the tail end of another graduation controversy. It has arrived in the midst of debates about Jamaican language — that patois that we love to hate — and calls to have it made official and taught in schools alongside English.

Debates about the use of Jamaican expletives in the public domain had just settled since the last round of skirmishes in dancehall this summer. That 2019 debate received little to no support from many.

Dancehall artistes, and the dancehall itself, have been under intense fire for decades for the use of Jamaican expletives as salutations, accolades, and in celebration, as a part of their performances and in songs.

The late Peter Tosh's ongoing use of Jamaican expletives and his signature and well-known Oh B***c***t song stand as forerunners in the musical landscape.

Many artistes have been arrested and charged for their use of expletives on stage and shows have been abruptly ended as the police enforced the said legislation.

The recent incident with a valedictorian's parting shot, “Big up unuh b****c***t self”, delivered in the very public domain of a live and streamed graduation ceremony raised a firestorm.

Those few seconds of his speech have been digitally shared ad infinitum. Opinions are divided. Some see it as much ado about nothing, after all it is our language, they state.

Others see it as a well-timed slap at the establishment. Yet, others are angry. They perceive it as another slide down the morality barometer, another indecent insertion within a public and very official context.

The dust is settling, but the jury is still out. I doubt things will change much for the status of Jamaican “bad words” very soon. Every form of language needs its expletives.

If these fall, others will, of necessity, rise. What continues to change is the now blurry line between the public and private domains. Going live on social media from your private bedroom or bathroom puts you squarely in the public space.

Digital images, videos or otherwise are very mobile and travel across thousands of miles in milliseconds. These digitised seconds of a life live on long after one's 15 minutes of fame (or notoriety) have expired.

Maybe it is time to begin a discussion about how to manage digital selves as we navigate this brave new paradigm?

Yet, as we continue to wade through this new maze of images, where new 'stars' are born every few minutes, some flaming across the cyberspace sky and crashing unceremoniously, let us remember that controversy sells.

Accidental or contrived, it sells well.

Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or dqueen13@hotmail.com.


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