A transgender woman and a non-binary person dressed as Satan walk into a bar. That’s not the beginning of a bad joke, but the defining performance of the 65th Grammy awards, held in Los Angeles on Sunday.
You may have seen the clips. The singer Sam Smith wore what appeared to be a terrible Halloween costume: red high heels and a red hat with devil horns. He clomped around the stage performing ‘Unholy’ with Kim Petras, who was in a cage surrounded by flames and whip-wielding dominatrices.
CBS’s broadcast of the ceremony on American television was sponsored by Covid vaccine-maker Pfizer – catnip for conspiracy theorists who think that Covid was some dastardly plan by the Corporate Paedophilic Elite to turn us all into sex slaves. Yet uproar and outrage was of course exactly what Sam Smith and CBS and the Grammys wanted. It’s the only way to make people care about award shows these days, in a world where outrage fuels conversations, conversations fuel content and content fuels clicks.
Of course, musical artists have always pushed boundaries and sought to gain notoriety by upsetting bourgeois norms. The problem now is that gratuitous sexualisation – once a banker when it came offending people – is the bourgeois norm. And so everything takes on a faintly pantomime quality: people pretending to be disturbing so that we the audience can pretend to be disturbed.
That’s the thing about controversy fishing in the internet age – it is so backward looking. Artists don’t engage in youthful, punk rejections of older generations. They pay creepy homage to what came before instead.
That’s why the Grammys chose ‘LGBTQ icon’ Madonna, 34 years on from ‘Like a Prayer’, to introduce Smith’s act. ‘If they call you shocking, scandalous, troublesome, problematic, provocative or dangerous,’ she said on stage at the awards, ‘you are definitely on to something.’