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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

The MTV VMA Awards, Chrissie Hynde and The Pageant of The Masters – THIS IS NOT A TEST #37 (transcript)

Published September 5, 2015

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Oh lord. It’s me again. mjp – Michael Phillips, and This is not a test. Not at all. Not in the least. It’s the real thing. Are you sick of me yet? No? Well I’m not through with you, so don’t answer yet. Nah, I’m just playing. I know we’re friends. I would never say or do anything to offend your delicate sensibilities – would I? Of course not. Not on purpose. Usually. Well, Chrissie Hynde is in some hot water this week. She has a book coming out, and in it she talks about being sexually assaulted by a motorcycle gang when she was 21 years old. In an interview about the book the assault came up and she said, among other things, “Technically speaking, however you want to look at it, this was all my doing and I take full responsibility. You can’t fuck about with people, especially people who wear ‘I Heart Rape’ and ‘On Your Knees’ badges. Those motorcycle gangs, that’s what they do. You can’t paint yourself into a corner and then say whose brush is this? You have to take responsibility. If you play with fire, you get burnt. It’s not any secret, is it?” She also said, “If I’m walking around in my underwear and I’m drunk? Who else’s fault can it be?” And her comments made the Internet lose its mind. While the outcry from a lot of women on line may have been predictable, I think they just may be throwing the baby out with the bath water. As the kids say.

Hynde is saying two things there, making two points and kind of mixing them together, but they should really be looked at separately. The idea that what a woman wears can cause men to take leave of their senses and become uncontrollable rape machines is an old and stupid one, and she does seem to be saying that. But her other point is that she went along with the motorcycle club willingly, and she knew what she was getting in to, so she was responsible. It seems like that taking of responsibility rankles a lot of the women who are criticizing her. Because they take the stand that a woman is never responsible for being sexually assaulted. And yeah, if you look at the big picture, obviously that’s true. But – to not admit or concede that Chrissie Hynde might have a point about putting yourself into a dangerous situation making you partially responsible is dishonest. I’m sure that if you’re arguing that sexual assault is bad – and really, is anyone arguing that it isn’t? But if you’re painting every situation with the same brush you can’t admit that a victim might possibly, sometimes, in some cases have some responsibility. Admitting that would undermine your point. And it would drag you into the gray area where the rest of us live.

But I think what Hynde said was good. Taking responsibility for the results of doing something stupid is never easy, so I have to give her props for what she said. For that half of it, anyway. The thing about dressing a certain way inviting assault sounds like something your grandmother would say, but I suppose Chrissie Hynde is old enough to be a grandmother to some of the young women who are heaping insults and mock disappointment on to her online. And can we just talk about that for a second? A lot of the same people criticizing her also rage against the horrors of bullying, yet they seem quite okay with engaging in it themselves when they feel any sort of righteous indignation. As if bullying is justified if you disagree with someone’s point of view. You know, because they’re, like, wrong. Talk about dishonesty and hypocrisy, there it is, look at it. And to claim to be disappointed by someone who you probably never looked up to – or even thought about – is just a weak and convenient excuse to be another loudmouth, piling onto an overblown, overgrown outrage bandwagon to get a few likes.

What really bothers me about the response is that it seems as if everyone has taken for granted that there is a correct way to talk about certain subjects, and if you deviate from that – even if your deviation is reasonable and understandable – you’re going to suffer the righteous fury of the crowd. Yeah, I know, that’s called “political correctness,” but I reject that term and don’t use it because it was created by idiots. But the question I’d ask of anyone who is publicly criticizing her is, if Chrissie Hynde feels responsible for what happened to her, why can’t she say that without a gaggle of dipshits waving their fingers at her? Why is that not an acceptable option, an acceptable variation on the theme, an acceptable take on something that happened – to her, by the way, not you. Speaking your truth while knowing full well that a mob will probably want to lynch you for not cow-towing to their party line is very rock and roll thing to do, and very much what I’d expect from Chrissie Hynde. So this is me saying, fuck off with the criticism of her already. Stop telling people how they should feel about – or talk about – their own tragedies.

Speaking of weak and convenient excuses – and tragedies – I haven’t watched the MTV Video Music Awards in years, so I thought I’d check in this year to see what the kids are up to. I know what you’re thinking, MTV doesn’t even show videos, why are the VMAs even relevant? Well, I don’t know if they are. For a while there in the 80s and early 90s people discovered music through the videos on MTV – or more accurately, they discovered the music the record companies wanted them to discover. Now they discover music on the Internet, but there’s no Internet Video Music Awards, so until there are, we may as well let MTV have it, as a kind of legacy thing, I suppose. And while it’s true that the main MTV channel doesn’t show music videos, it’s not because the Internet took over. It’s because they came up with a really good idea that anyone else could easily replicate. So they were the only game in town at first, but then eventually there were a dozen – or a hundred – other places to see videos, so they made the move to the kind of weird TV shows that they have now. The hyper-non-reality shows that I guess someone watches. That only makes sense, so MTV really isn’t any better or worse than what it was at the beginning.

But the VMAs, yes. No awards show is worth watching, let’s start there, so any criticism I have of the MTV version of an awards show already takes that for granted. The cheap uselessness of the whole charade is a given. Think about the Oscars – that spectacle started in 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and it was just a bunch of movie people sitting around in a ballroom giving each other awards. But that was the genesis of every awards show you see now, a bunch of insiders patting each other on the back, and they haven’t changed one bit, these shows. The “insiders patting each other on the back” applies to every award show, whatever the field is. They’re all just people telling each other how awesome they are. The movie people didn’t start the Oscars because they just weren’t getting enough accolades and attention. But imagine that, you are already getting far more accolades and attention than you could possibly deserve, but it’s just not enough. You need more. You need a gold plated statue of a hairless bald man, doing something with is hands. Of course creative endeavors aren’t a competition. But since 1929 we’ve been turning them into competitions. There is no best album, kids, there’s only the best selling album, and that’s the crux of the thing, that’s what it all boils down to: who made the most money. And usually, who made the most money for someone else. Who made the most money for someone who is not creative, who is just another parasite with a checkbook.

Ah, yes. Well. Am I repeating myself? Back to what the kids are up to then. As it turns out, not much. Pop music hasn’t changed one iota in the past 15 years. The songs aren’t different, the instrumentation isn’t different, the production isn’t different, the stage shows aren’t different, nothing has changed. I suspected as much, but I watched anyway, just to confirm. What I remember most was the sound of the show. There was a constant, underlying screaming that couldn’t have been natural. No audience anywhere can scream continuously for 2 1/2 hours, no matter how much Red Bull or amphetamines you feed them. So MTV was adding that scream soundtrack to the mix. And that sound was like – have you ever flown on Southwest or any other budget airline out of an airport where there’s no jetway, and you just walk out onto the tarmac and climb steps up to the plane? Sometimes when you’re getting on there the engines are already started, right? And that’s what the VMAs sounded like: walking up to a Southwest jet at Burbank airport. For 2 1/2 hours.

The music – what can I say about it? Nothing new there. A lot of squished, overproduced stuff that’s already been done a thousand times. Even hip hop stopped changing some time ago. A long time ago. Remember who the last really new and different hip hop group was? It was Wu-Tang Clan. So we’re talking about the last real shake up in hip hop being more than 20 years ago. And really, all of the violent, I’m-a-get-paid hip hop that is still very popular now is trading on what N.W.A. did almost 30 years ago. The only thing that’s been introduced in the subsequent decades is the hip hop ballad, and that’s nothing to be proud of. People make fun of the 80s rock bands and their “power ballads,” but hip hop ballads are equally idiotic and unlistenable. Probably more so, since the boys in the 80s bands never pretended to be murderous street thugs. As for performances, people used to watch the VMAs because something unexpected could possibly happen in a performance. It usually didn’t – or the “unexpected” bits were scripted – but now and then something real or shocking could happen, and you would almost feel validated for watching. Like you hadn’t just pissed away a few hours of your life. Now it’s just one shrill and glossy interpretation of a Broadway show after another. If I tell you that you may as well watch the Tony awards, I’m not kidding. There’s just as much dancing and the songs are just as shitty.

Which brings me to what? What’s the only thing that happened on those VMAs? Did you see it? Well it was Kanye West, of course. Let me just say that I’ve liked Kanye West ever since he went on TV after hurricane Katrina and said that George Bush didn’t care about black people. He was right, and a lot of people were saying that, but no one was saying it on TV, and not in a plain way like that. So I like that. I like anyone who will do that. But at this awards ceremony they were giving him a “Video Vanguard” award, which is like MTV’s lifetime achievement award that they throw at really famous people. Because let’s get real, shall we, there hasn’t been any innovation in music videos – ever. They’ve just gotten more expensive to make and more difficult to find. But if you look at an old Flock of Seagulls video and a new Taylor Swift video, there is really no substantial difference. You can’t point to anything in the new video that isn’t in the old video. But they are MTV, not the Grammys, so they have to call it the video-something award. Why not Video Vanguard, since vanguard is a powerful word. Sounds important and like you’re actually going somewhere, rather than just treading water, desperately trying not to drown.

Now Kanye West’s music, and I suppose his videos – though I don’t know if I’ve ever actually seen one – are nothing special. It’s the typical stuff, he’s not breaking any ground of doing anything new. He sang on his first record with his jaw wired shut, which got him some attention, but that was just a successful stunt, an attention-getting ploy. But here’s a guy who clearly loves himself and definitely believes the hype. His own, and everyone else’s. They introduced him and he walked up onto the stage and just stood there, milking applause for two solid minutes. You’ve seen people be all humble in the face of continuous applause – you know, they look all embarrassed and say, “Stop, stop, no, enough…please.” But this wasn’t that. This was a guy just standing there figuring, yeah, this is what I fucking deserve! Then after the extended applause session ended, he went on to give a speech that was interesting for it’s cluelessness and egomania, but otherwise just a lot of disjointed rambling. He was criticized for interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the Grammys a few years ago, and he seems to be under the impression that surviving that criticism has made him some sort of modern day Christ figure. He had the nerve and naivete to say that he died so that artist’s would have the right to speak their minds, or some such dribble. because, of course, you know, before Kanye, no artist ever spoke their mind about anything, right? What an ignorant tool this guy is. If he’s referring back to the Katrina statement I mentioned, he’s really reaching, because at the time all I read or saw was people agreeing with him. He hardly suffered for saying that.

Listen, thinking that you’re great is kind of a prerequisite for being a rock star, so I don’t fault anyone for that. But being ignorant of history and of what a lot of other people did to make you free either as a person or an artist is just garden variety stupidity. And drunkenly bum rushing some young girl’s award acceptance speech isn’t brave or noble, it’s just a no class move during a low class event. But Kanye West is certainly famous and he sells a lot of records, so why not give him an award. Give him a stage so he can build a cross and climb up onto it. A big cross – just an inch or two taller than the one they nailed that other guy to. Supposedly. At the end of his incoherent, insincere diatribe he said that he was running for president in 2020, which I took to be joke but which everyone wrote about after the show as if it were a serious issue. It fit in perfectly with his oversized view of himself and his importance though. I hope he does try to run for president. He’d get eaten alive. But then a year ago I would have probably said the same thing if you’d told me that Donald Trump was going to run, so what do I know.

Speaking of art and creativity, have you ever heard of The Pageant of the Masters? It’s part of the Festival of Arts of Laguna Beach every year. What is it? Ninety minutes of “living pictures” – as they say on their website, “incredibly faithful art re-creations of classical and contemporary works with real people posing to look exactly like their counterparts in the original pieces.” Yeah, you heard that right, it’s people all made up to look as if they are people in famous paintings, and they stand there, absolutely still, against a backdrop of the famous painting. Now you might ask yourself, “How could they possibly do that, make a human scale recreation of a famous painting?” but I’m here to tell you that they can. I’ve seen it with my own eyes brothers and sisters. I’m also here to tell you it may be the singularly most stupid 90 minutes of my life so far. And I’ve seen and done a lot of stupid things, believe me. Maybe I could expand that out into the most stupid three hours or so, because the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts was also pretty bad all on it’s own.

Now you might also be asking yourself, “mjp, why did you go to that? It doesn’t seems like you to do so. I’m worried about you.” Well, I kind of went to it by accident. Or not by accident, exactly, but not on purpose. I was there at the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts with a friend – why, I don’t remember – but there we were and there the Pageant was, and we walked past the entrance and someone said, “It’s going to start soon, there are still a few tickets…” So it was more or less one of those, “Oh, we have to see this,” kind of things. So we bought tickets and went in. I should say here that the tickets were cheap, or else we wouldn’t have gone in, but this was back in the early 90s. Things have definitely changed, because a few years ago when I tried to get tickets to take Carol to see it, they were sold out a year in advance, and a good seat was $100. So we wouldn’t have gone, not for $200, but I couldn’t really believe that the thing sold out a year in advance. And the only reason I wanted to take Carol to see it anyway is because it’s so unbelievably weird.

So, back to the Pageant. We walked in and sat down and waited and waited, and half of the audience was really old people and half was a mixture of all ages. Lots of kids and young parents and Laguna Beach-type people. If you’re from Southern California, you know what I’m talking about when I say Laguna Beach-types. And we waited and waited and the stage was set with some large painting backdrop, lit very fancily and the audience was very quiet and murmurry as if we were at the symphony, and it seemed as if they had all been there before. Eventually the lights went down and everyone was simply giddy, you could practically smell the excitement and anticipation while they wheeled in the first scene. The first tableau. Then the lights came up, illuminating the wondrous scene, and everyone gasped and oohed and then politely clapped. I don’t remember what the painting was – I don’t remember what any of them were – but it was a reasonable facsimile of the thing, only with human beings covered in paint stuck to it.

The effect of witnessing all of that is pretty much like you might imagine it to be. First you think, “Okay, that looks acceptably enough like a really huge version of the famous painting. I’m impressed.” Then you think, “Damn, are those really people stuck to it? How can they stay so still?” Then, after about five minutes you think, “When is this going to end?” because each painting is out there on stage for a really long time. Too long. Right about the time you’re thinking, “I get it, I appreciate it, let’s move on,” you’re only about halfway through that painting. Which leaves you enough time to write out a shopping list or go through a couple of stages of the grieving process, until the lights finally go down again and they switch out the scene. When the lights come back up, you do it all over again. Over and over and over and over until you want to scream. And meanwhile everyone around you seems to be utterly enchanted and happy to be alive. Probably because they are Laguna Beach-types, and those types don’t have many of the problems that you and I have.

Now the work that goes into this thing must be incredible. It’s quite an elaborate – thing. But if you’re wondering “why?” you’re not alone. The Pageant of the Masters is a throwback to a bygone age. I can imagine Mark Twain sitting at one of them – and probably also being bored after 10 or 15 minutes. But since there was no TV or radio, it may have seemed like some the greatest entertainment that mankind could muster. Outside of the lions in the Roman amphitheaters. The same way that the Tournament of Roses parade must have seemed really impressive 100 years ago. Which is another thing I see the preparations for every year and wonder “why?” When people had a lot more time to kill I imagine they did things like the Pageant of the Masters all over the country. Your friends and neighbors doing something supposedly highbrow on a local stage somewhere. And it was probably a fine evening’s diversion. 100 years ago. Now, though? I suppose it’s become a tradition for the people who, like any other anachronistic, outdated form of entertainment that people drag their kids to. The Pageant of the Masters, the Rose Parade, State fairs, movie theaters, ostrich races. Actually, I’d pay to see ostrich races.

But it’s all nostalgia. It’s all about the feeling the person gets when they see or do something that reminds them of ye olden dayes. And I can see why that happens – for certain things. I understand the feeling. But really, in a place like this, Southern California, where there are about 800 million things to do on any given summer evening that don’t involve staring at a bunch of people standing really still, it’s amazing to me that something like the Pageant of the Masters can exist, and that they can sell tickets to it. It just goes to show – something. I may have to build a dirt track somewhere and start my own ostrich races. Get me part of that nostalgia money that seems to be flowing so freely out there. If anyone knows what the regulations are regarding the racing of large birds in Los Angeles county, let me know. I think that’s right up my alley. If I have to build the track outside of the county I’m open to that, but it does complicate things. Also if you know any really short and skinny people who you think might be suitable ostrich jockeys, send them my way. Those birds won’t steer themselves you know. Aloha!