From Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction to the 2017 Academy Awards, the gaffe reveals that the system is not just broken; breaking is the system.
By now, you know the story: At the climax of the 89th Academy Awards, Bonnie and Clyde took to the stage to announce the Best Picture of the year. Beatty, opening the envelope, found himself with a card listing “Emma Stone” and La La Land. Beatty, realizing that, no matter how charming its ingénue, a Best Picture winner is always awarded to its producers, sputtered and stalled. Dunaway, realizing that men always play the charming rogue even when it isn’t charming, assumed that Beatty was vamping to create suspense: “You’re impossible,” she chided. The audience, realizing that the Oscars always run too long and always confuse delay with dramatic tension, laughed obediently at Beatty’s predictable vaudeville.
Seizing the card, Dunaway, realizing that the Academy always rewards the predictable big-budget big-Hollywood big-blandness movie, announced what everyone had predicted would be the winner anyway: La La Land. No surprises, just business as usual.
But something had gone wrong -- or two things. For starters, the Academy hadn’t done what it was supposed to do: against all odds, it had crowned Moonlight, the upstart indie favorite whose sensitive portrayal of queer black identity in Miami wasn’t supposed to appeal to the stodgy Oscar electorate. And then, causing an upset to become a debacle, the accountant from PricewaterhouseCoopers who passes the envelope to the presenters chose… poorly. As a result of this double error, event managers slowly invaded the stage, interrupting the speeches to say “There was a mistake.”
Eventually Barry Jenkins, Moonlight’s writer-director, got his statuette, and improvised a speech that could, ironically, have been prepared earlier: “Very clearly, even in my dreams, this could not be true. But to hell with dreams. I’m done with it because this is true.”
Truth or fiction, Hollywood dream or messy reality: Jenkins was done with it. The rest of us weren’t, and Beatty’s error became the talk of the nation.
Commentators began to spew explanations around the inexplicable event, as if in a desperate attempt to stem the flow of meaninglessness. First, the narratives of blame and innocence: host Jimmy Kimmel jokingly apologized, Stone insisted she had her envelope and not the other one, Beatty ended the telecast by attempting to explain, Dunaway muttered “I really fucked that up” to herself at an afterparty, and PricewaterhouseCoopers fell officially on the sword. Perhaps tragically, perhaps farcically, the firm’s official statement -- “The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected ” -- contains a rather glaring grammatical error, omitting “the mistake” precisely where it should most be articulated.
Conspiracy theories emerged as well, directing responsibility from the outside in: It was a prank (by Kimmel, or by Matt Damon against Kimmel)! Leonardo DiCaprio bungled the envelope trade-off! By Monday, investigative reporting at the Wall Street Journal had unearthed smoking-gun evidence pointing to envelope-wrangler Brian Cullinan: he had Tweeted a time-stamped photograph of Emma Stone, precisely when he should’ve been focusing on his job.
This last explanation feels so satisfying, perhaps because it frames the envelope slip as the symptom of some underlying grand narrative -- here, the general sense that smartphones and social networking have blindered us to reality, producing a miasma of distraction and disaster. We return to the old psychoanalytic chestnut of “parapraxis” (a.k.a. the “Freudian slip”), which reads inadvertent actions as the expression of unconscious desires, hidden logics that transform the accident into the all-too-predictable, but played out now at the level of an entire society, its individual actors (literally this time) reduced to stagehands in a grander drama. This Freudian maneuver returns in a host of other narratives of the Oscar gaffe that diagnose the mix-up as a telling sign of some disheartening or gladdening pattern.
At Cosmopolitan magazine, Brittney Cooper suggests that the “carelessness and haphazardness with which Moonlight’s moment was treated is indicative of how institutional racism continues to work.” At The New Yorker, Adam Gopnick puts the event forward as evidence that “we are living in a computer simulation and something has recently gone haywire within it.” At -- well, wherever Breitbart News is -- President Trump reveals that liberal Hollywood insiders “were focused so hard on politics [viz., attacking his administration with unusually light awards-season humor -- The Author] that they didn’t get the act together at the end.”
Racism, liberalism, even the nature of reality itself: serious issues, perhaps even too serious to satisfyingly explain the triviality of the event. Couldn’t an envelope mix-up sometimes just be an envelope mix-up?
But there sure seem to be a lot of mix-ups lately, and especially around major televised events. At the Grammys just weeks earlier, Adele stopped her tribute to George Michael after becoming unsynced from her backing track: “I know it’s live TV, I’m sorry, I need to start again, I fucked up.” (There were rays of hope: the expletive was successfully bleeped thanks to a functioning tape delay, and this time Kanye West did not interrupt anyone when Beyoncé again, unlike Moonlight, lost a major award to a safely white contender.)
The year began with Mariah Carey, her earpiece abandoned, lost in the middle of Times Square attempting to belt out “Emotion”, instead confessing that “we didn’t have a check for this song”; shaken, she couldn’t even keep up the act during her subsequent lip-synch to the album version of “We Belong Together”. (The Carey thing turned into a war of competing blame narratives, spiraling off into the kind of lengthy explanations that just raise more questions.)
The only recent performance that went right, paradoxically, was Lady Gaga’s Superbowl halftime act, where trapezes and stage-dives and costume changes and pass interceptions all went off without a hitch. In that case, the performance puzzled with its seamlessness -- didn’t we expect the outspoken Gaga to use her platform to fuck something up, to throw an Orwellian 1984-style hammer into the screen of the oppressive football regime? Instead, she offered the lowest denominator of patriotic sentiment -- unity despite red/blue differences -- while all around her, things went much more dramatically awry, with The New England Patriots clawing their way out of the biggest point deficit in Superbowl history to defeat the Atlanta Falcons.
One longs for the days of Springsteen sliding crotch-first into a camera (2009) or the Red Hot Chili Peppers shredding away on instruments that were, sadly, not plugged in (2014) or even Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson engaging in some light “wardrobe malfunction” (2004). Back in those halcyon days of Timberlake tearing Jackson’s top off to reveal a breast crowned with a sunburst pasty, we could at least enjoy the pleasure of seeing things go wrong without having to decode any hidden intention behind the spectacle.
Commenting on an art form nearly as risky as live TV -- opera -- the musicologist Carolyn Abbate observes how a moment of breakdown, “when something fails, which in performance exposes the machine in the human being, can conversely mark the humanity of the machine.” (In Search of Opera, Princeton University Press, 2001), 199.It can expose the performer as something like a musical robot (witness the way Carey’s tape-delay kerfuffle reveals her as a lip-synching automaton) or redeem the human from within the scripted performance (witness the way Adele’s meltdown emphasizes her deep connection to Michael, a passion so strong that she must embarrass herself to get the song right for him). In the same way, Beatty becomes both more human, a figure of pathos and sympathy, and more mechanical, a cog in Cooper’s racist machine or Adam Gopnick’s virtual reality. Simultaneously, the gaffe exposes Hollywood both as a dream factory and a dream of scrappy actors banding together for the love of showbiz. But which is truth, and which the carefully-constructed fiction?
With Jackson’s nip slip, the pleasurable shock of seeing things go wrong, live, described by Abbate takes on an extra twist: The bared breast, in its very manicured, bejeweled nudity, uncovered the truth that the uncovering was a fiction. Obviously, Janet wouldn’t have been prepared to get her bustier busted by accident if it were really an accident. The accidental event itself gives proof of its premeditation, the machinations needed to produce its accident-y-ness. The “wardrobe malfunction”, in the end, is the dream of disorder dressing up the truth that everything is functioning properly.
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Something similar happened to Beatty, as sharp-eyed DVR’ers quickly realized that, like Poe’s purloined letter, the proof had been hiding in plain sight the whole time. Pausing the telecast and zooming in, like a CSI detective saying “enhance” to a voice-controlled machine projecting a digital image, revealed the writing on the back of the envelope: “ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE.” Even more uncannily, the Huffington Post published an interview with Cullinan (remember the envelope guy from Price Waterhouse Coopers?) about precisely this scenario on 24 February 2017, two days before the fateful night. After noting that the briefcase-wranglers commit the winners to memory to avoid leaks, and that no incorrect winner had been announced in 88 years of Academy Awards, Cullinan commented that in case of accident “We would make sure that the correct person was known very quickly.” Precisely how would be “a game-time decision, if something like that were to happen. Again, it’s very unlikely.”
(The article was later corrected to show that, in fact, an incorrect winner had been announced previously, in 1964, when Sammy Davis Jr. was given the envelope for Best Original Score instead of the envelope for Best Adapted or Treatment Score. Ah well, nothing ever works out perfectly.)
Cullinan’s negative prophecy, like Jackson’s pasty and Beatty’s envelope, demonstrates how transparent the system is, how it’s never hidden from view. As Recording Academy President Neil Portnow commented about Adele’s previous technical difficulty at the Grammys -- the one from 2016, not this year’s one -- “We have the most complicated technical show on television when it comes to music […] When performing in intimate performance, it can be unnerving. We certainly don’t like it when these things happen, but they happen.” In other words, it’s not that rare moments of technical breakdown reveal the machine in the performer; instead, they reveal that the machine is everywhere visible in the performance, not as some sort of hidden secret but instead as its general rule, and that it’s breaking down, all over the place, all the time. Instead of representing a rare, human moment of escape from the machine, the gaffe, the flub, simply represent its bald logic. The system is not just broken; breaking is the system.
Maybe so many things are going wrong on television because now, when the systems that run the world are at their most terrifying and most all-encompassing, they want to make us believe, if only for a moment, in the possibility of some flicker of human error, some ghost in the machine that could give us hope. The culture industry behind, say, a New Years Rockin’ Eve may do well to produce a Mimi meltdown, since such an event opens up a seeming space for human interest and the novel emergence of personality within the perfectly engineered, perfectly programmed spectacle. By becoming big enough to fail, if only momentarily, the entertainment industry justifies its standardization by producing a simulacrum of real risk.
We leap at this chance to hope and dream, as when witty meme-makers photoshopped Hillary Clinton’s name onto Moonlight’s fatal card. But exactly what hope does that represent? In this analogy, shouldn’t Clinton correspond best to La La Land, the safe, professional candidate of “business as usual” whose campaign foundered against a host of cartoonish spoilers? (Funny thing about those “photos Trump doesn’t want you to see” that my mom keeps sharing on Facebook: with his hair and scotch-taped tie flapping in the Mar-a-Lago breeze, the President eerily echoes the visual presentation of the perennially frizzled Bernie Sanders.) Or is Clinton more akin to Dunaway, an unflappable woman waiting patiently for a man to stop being ridiculous and let her get back to work?
But maybe the analogy is all too apt: Clinton would have been the real spoiler, the real glitch in the machine. As the last few weeks have proved, the machinery of old-guard dehumanizing power snaps all too quickly back into place; whatever liberal gains might have been made in the last few years give way almost immediately to a series of rollbacks and micro-crises, each one delivered via electronic jolt to your social media feeds and news reader apps. What if Clintonism -- safe, traditional, uninspiring Enlightenment politics-as-usual -- was the real upstart, and Trumpism -- scary, new, wrong-all-wrong aberrance -- the true system?
Think of Trumpism as a malfunctioning awards show: it causes errors and glitches to proliferate, lapsing everywhere into a stream of misspelled tweets and posters, mysteriously alive Frederick Douglasses, leaks, and general not-going-right-ness. These gaffes have the same effect as any Adele slip-up or envelope swap: they amuse and arouse us, allowing us to project our humanity onto a dehumanizing system. (How many obsessed political strategists, for instance, have chosen to view the pattern of chaos as the sign of a canny political strategist, operating to produce “distraction”?) But we must see them as they are: the thrashing-about of a world order that requires disarray, both as the exercise of its power and as that exercise’s alibi. An erratic, inhuman power, as the Academy teaches us, can so easily use its very inconsistency to humanize itself -- to teach us to hope that things aren’t really that bad, that there must be some way out of the predicament we’ve found ourselves in, up on that stage, that someone will arrive with the right envelope and free us from our embarrassment.
Maybe that’s why I feel so much sympathy for Beatty, caught as he was between dream and truth. Alone but surrounded by millions, he did the only thing any of us can do: he waited, filibustered, hoping against hope that the only truly unexpected thing would happen. Hoping for the only thing that could implode the carnival orgy whose creaky machinery was propping itself up by falling down around him. Hoping that something, finally, would go right.
Simon Porzak teaches at Columbia University. He writes about artificial intelligence, musical performance, Darwinism, and video games.