Three days ago, as I was leaving my local YMCA here in Lebanon, OH, I stopped to glance at the bulletin board labeled “Founding Fathers.” I’d forgotten that among the handful of nondescript white men is one famous name: Neil Armstrong. I’ve lived in this town for 2.25 years, and though Armstrong has spent several decades here, and was a big fundraiser for the Y which treadmills I use regularly, I have never seen him.
In honor of Neil Armstrong, who died two days ago, I present to you “Pictures Came and Broke Your Heart,” my essay on pop stars, astronauts, the first moon landing, and the rapid pace of change. It first appeared in Barrelhouse Magazine in 2009. It really does become about astronauts, I swear.
After Britney Spears performs her soon-to-be notorious lip-syncing “come back”—which showcases hardly any dancing but the smallest enough dose of gyrating to showcase her proficiency at either sex or the appearance of sex—Sarah Silverman tilts her head a full ninety degrees, pinches the flesh just beside her lips’ edges, and pulls her mouth wide so that it now resembles a vagina, and I, at 29 years old, actually hear myself think what millions of mothers and grandmothers have said, what I swore I’d always be too hip, too cognizant of today’s trendy youth, to say:
This show is too racy!
I actually use the word: racy. The tweed couch becomes a cocoon for me to cower at my own lameness. I have officially, and for the first noticeable time in my life, ventured into the territory young people call old.
If only it were as easy as acknowledging one’s oldness, which used to be (and if I were still young, I might possess the ethos to argue, is still) synonymous with lameness, and calling it a day. If only such acknowledgement could shoo a person right back into hip territory, and I could sit back and enjoy the gyrating and face-as-vagina jokes with ease. But—and this is doubly embarrassing—this old, ergo lame part of me persists in making a case. For what? I’m not sure. She doesn’t utter phrases like, In my day, but she mashes tracks of equal parts nostalgia and cultural criticism, as she feels certain that her era of MTV was far superior to the one exhibited tonight:
I grew up on MTV! I charted every one of Madonna’s style reinventions! I knew and can still describe the personality quirks of the very first “Vee-Jays”! (This voice is unscrupulous with exclamation points.) And regardless of the fact that the VMA’s always aired the first Thursday night of the first week of school, I committed to the pop-cultural-altar for the full three hours! But never, in all those years, was the show this overtly sexual!
A brief history in VMA time:
1984: Madonna wears wedding dress with bustier top and rolls around stage in suggestive, masturbatory style. Viewers are either oddly touched by Mads (some “for the very first time”) or outraged.
1989: Comedian, Andrew Dice Clay, performs his infamous “nursery rhymes” and earns lifetime ban from network.
1990: Madonna, dressed as Marie Antoinette, shoves two dancers’ faces into her breasts, lifts up her skirt during performance of new hit, “Vogue.”
1991: Prince wears yellow leather pants with oval holes in rear, exposing tiny butt cheeks, and sings, Get off. Twenty three positions and a one night stand…. Everybody grab a body. Pump it like you want somebody.
1992: Howard Stern dresses as Fartman. (Threw that one in for good measure.)
1998: Actress Rose McGowan arrives in see-through dress with no undergarments.
1999: Lil’ Kim presents award with left breast exposed except for nipple, which is covered by small piece of fabric. On stage, Diana Ross cups said breast, jiggles it.
There’s nothing new about sex and vulgarity on MTV. What’s new is my old-timer perspective.
The 2007 VMA’s are the first I’ve seen in ten years. At a certain point, I no longer cared to watch. I lost track of who was who, did not know Justin Timberlake’s latest hit, what Lil’ Kim was famous for, or even why her name was Lil’ Kim, since she had awfully un-lil’ assets. I cannot identify by face or sound the following acclaimed artists: Soulja Boy or Timbaland, Lil Mama or Mims, Plain White T’s or T-Pain, Fall Out Boys or Gym Class Heroes. All of these artists are honored, either with a nomination or an award, at the 2007 shows.
I have come to watch Britney. Straight up. I watch to see Britney rise or fall. I watch what becomes a train wreck that is both fascinating and beside this essay’s point.
The point is that I am horrified by the awards. And as I continue to watch, I become less horrified by the sexuality and more horrified by my alienation. Who are these people? These so-called stars? What happened to my MTV?
In my day, we had real stars, people like Michael Jackson who walked on the friggin moon, who practically coined that very dance that you, Justin-Timber-person, are doing.
In my day, we had Prince, Prince! And then he was not Prince; he was a symbol. And then he was Prince again, and we nodded, because he was Prince, and it was good. And yes, he wore yellow ass-less pants.
Gather ‘round children. Let me tell you more. In my day, there were things called big hair bands, and they rocked hard, and they were called names like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, and it was good, the way they thrashed the split ends of their long ratty hair to tunes like “Paradise City.”
It, I think, was paradise. I am describing a weird late eighties Eden of Pop.
This is not Eden, I think, as a man in a leather hoodie named T.I. raps a song called “Big Things Poppin’” to a packed and throbbing crowd. A few women in lingerie and garter belts round strippers’ poles. These, I think, are invaders of Eden.
Or, another way of looking at it: MTV’s Video Music Awards are no longer for me. The last actual number one hit record I bought was Lauryn Hill’s 1998 “Doo-Wop (That Thing.)” At nine years old, the song is ancient history, a figurative dinosaur in the pop world. I’m simply not up to speed.
But if it weren’t for people like Madonna, Michael Jackson, there would be no MTV. Where’s the respect to your elders?
My lame-o grandma voice rears its head too fast. Next up: Mary J. Blige, and she’s about to introduce a “Surprise Presenter.” He’s “the man who has changed all the rules.” Prince? The man who has “influenced nearly every artist here creatively tonight.” M.J.? Who “gave birth to a new swagger and a new style.” Ahm, Axl Rose?
“Everyday is Dre day in the world of music,” says Blige, and the entire house stands for the lone, unswaggering Andre Young. A.k.a. Dr. Dre. He’s forty-two years old.
Dr. Dre: The founder of “gangsta” rap. Raising hair with titles like “Fuck Da Police” and bringing listeners such artists as Snoop Dog and Eminem. Even I, a person who veered left into R.E.M and Tori Amos country as MTV headed straight for hip-hop, had to admit: these were solid contributions to popular music. “Slim Shady” is catchy. Snoop Dog has an irresistible prettiness to his suave voice, particularly on tracks like “Beautiful.”
Did I mention Dre is forty-two? He no longer possesses the hardcore stare and nostril-flare of his nineties album covers, the ones that packaged such songs as “Fuck Wit Dre Day” and “Fuck You” and “I’d Rather Fuck You.” Instead, he comes out smiling and sort of eager and beaming and not at all strutting, and he hugs Mary J. Blige. He stands center stage in a dusty blue crewneck shirt and jeans. It’s a Saturday afternoon ensemble. His muscles are massive beneath the arms of the shirt, but under his eyes are the bags of middle age. On his forehead, a few old-man’s lines. His words come like the scraggly ropes of a man past his prime. These details make him bear an uncanny resemblance to my old, worn out, post-Olympic high school track coach. Mr. Smith could really run in his day.
“Now whatever you do, I know you strive to be the best at it, you know what I mean.” That isn’t my old track coach. That’s Dre speaking to the VMA crowd. And then he smiles.
The audience cheers. Lifts their pointer fingers. Hoots and hollers. Despite Dre’s rhythmic repetition of “Yeh-yeh,” as the audience won’t quit, his grin reveals his shy reply to the ovation, and you can sort of identify the “Andre Young” in him, the little boy his grandma probably called to dinner.
Or, maybe he’s the Andre Young that will become a grandparent himself. Or already has. That is, in just twenty years, Dre has become the founder of everything that cheers before him. As Blige says, he “influenced every artist here creatively tonight.” In some way, despite his quick promo of Detox—his supposedly last and soon-to-be-released album—he’s also been replaced by everything that cheers before him.
MTV’s homage suddenly seems like a funeral. MTV’s stars are replaced at the speed with which their pop-light travels. Dre grins and shrugs and says “Yeh-yeh” and the audience settles down so he can present an award to the best new artist in the crowd.
But somewhere on this stage tonight is the origin, the star itself. On a screen behind Dre spins MTV’s moon man statue. In the beginning, there was moon man. And he was good.
I know the origins. I was there.
Okay, I wasn’t exactly there; I was three, and cable-free, but soon enough, in another three years time, after the cable man would come to interrupt my daily dose of Sesame Street and leave our house with a miraculous thirty-some channels instead of five, I’d care, and I’d be there. I’d know the crunching guitar riff of the original MTV theme song, and I’d watch variations of the first ever MTV image: a coked-up montage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a jittery, fast, electric representation of moon-walking that might have happened had Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taken some methamphetamines and brought neon lights.
The first ever video to air on the new music channel was, aptly, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by the Buggles. As if its makers and the MTV marketing folks were in cahoots (and most likely they were), the video opens on a full moon. There’s an explosion of smoke. The camera pulls away to reveal a little girl in coveralls, kneeling by an old-fashioned radio and tinkering with the dials. A man enters the screen, sings into an old-school microphone with a tinny, robotic voice.
I heard you on the wireless back in ’52
lying awake intent on tuning in on you.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Or, rather, the rest is the history of making something “history” at record speed,
rewritten by machine and new technology,
and now I understand the problems you can see.
But I was six when I first watched MTV’s moon montage. I didn’t think about the irony of the Buggles; I didn’t even think about the Buggles, as they’d already been replaced by new stars. Moon man, though, had not been replaced; and when he stuck the flashing MTV flag into lunar rock, and bounced on the surface to the rhythm of that guitar riff, I felt I was declaring something along with him. Something revolutionary. Something that would alter civilization forever. I felt—and I know all of this is narcissistic—that I belonged to MTV, that I knew Martha Quinn and Downtown Julie Brown and that I comprised, and thus possessed, a piece of this generation. So I too owned the moon. Carried a piece of it with my Madonna-esque lace hair-bow and neon plastic bangles.
Pictures came and broke your heart, I think, as Justin Timberlake arrives on stage looking like a bearded baby, accepts his moon-man statue, and then laments that he’s “getting older” in this business. He’s twenty-six.
Michael Jackson, he walked on the friggin Moon! Did I mention that? M.J. slid right across it whenever he damn-well pleased, and he taught countless aspiring break-dancers to do the same. We owned the Moon so bad we brought it to Earth.
The more I hear myself, the less I sound like a grandparent. I sound—and this is an unexpected comparison—like an Apollo astronaut, with his few hours on the lunar surface and the rest of his life to play it back, obsessively.
“We were rock stars,” said Apollo 8 crewman, Bill Anders. “It was like being a rock star who suddenly had his vocal chords pulled out.”
Before the shaved-head bit, my niece wanted to be Britney Spears when she grew up. In 1969, everyone wanted to be an astronaut. The very first astronauts, the Mercury 7 of 1961, even resembled a rock group in their silver suits. As Beatlemania ensued, the image followed all the chosen Apollo men, and the men responded. Apollo 12’s Pete Conrad and Alan Bean drove matching gold Corvettes. When Charlie Duke landed in the Apollo 16 mission, his first words were, “Wild, man, look at that!” After missions, promotional tours brought gaggles of admiring ladies to the married stars, and while the cause isn’t necessarily the affairs alone, the divorce rate among the men, well, skyrocketed.
And although nothing, not one thing, can compare, as of yet, to venturing off this planet and visiting another orbiting sphere in the blackest of vacuums, space stars and rock stars both have something else in common: they have a “comedown.” A phase when they’re hit with a crushing reality that’s metaphorically akin to reentering the Earth’s atmosphere and the several G forces along with it: the realization that everything will be one long anticlimax from here.
“Most came back and found that they were curiosities and celebrities,” said Bill Anders. “But… there wasn’t much fun in being an aging celebrity.”
Andrew Smith explores this phenomenon in his book, Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth. Alan Bean spent the rest of his life painting his moonwalk. He even sprinkled his works with his suit’s remaining moondust in an effort to recall and contain those few precious days. Dick Gordon signs autographs at Star Trek conventions. For five bucks a pop, Gordon passes over his Hancock as he reassures people that, no, he didn’t walk on the moon with Neil Armstrong, as was a part of the Apollo 12 mission. Most of the attention, though, goes to the main stage where short-lived Star Trek actors speak about their experiences with Captain Kirk. Of Armstrong, the “first-man” himself, Smith says “his eyes were like windows on a lost age.”
Where do you go after you go to the moon? You don’t go anywhere. You stay in its spell.
Or as the Buggles would say, We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.
I watch the entire VMA’s and a subsequent episode of MTV’s “Celebrity Rap Superstar,” where wannabe rap stars contest in a hip-hop version of American Idol, and as Tone Loc and M.C. Lyte serve as, I kid you not, “rap mentors,” (as in, “Please, contestant, stand with your mentor while the judges deliberate”) I can’t help but think of those astronauts. Aging celebrities. There’s nothing sexy about the word “mentor.” Come to think of it, there’s nothing sexy about Loc or Lyte. All the sex exists in the young, hopeful contestants, like the spry, energetic white girl in a mini-skirt who fidgets beside slightly overweight Loc. Loc, who in Internet searches is considered a “forgotten man in the rise of west coast rap,” is far more wrinkled than Dr. Dre, gruffer sounding that even Loc’s 1989 fame showcased, which, if you recall his short monologues in “Funky Cold Medina,” was pretty gruff.
Ahh, the stolen Van Halen guitar riff, the steady, chipper cowbell, and Loc’s repetition of the fictional potion! That was some prime pop-rap.
But as M.C. Lyte tells Shar Jackson (of the pre-Britney Kevin Federline nuptials) why she did such an amazing job performing Eminem’s “Slim Shady,” I also can’t help but contrast the description to eighties rap. When Lyte explains that, in “Slim Shady,” the rapper can only breathe at very particular places—that if the rapper breathes at the wrong place or in any way slips a syllable, then the entire song gets off track and the whole thing comes crumbling down—this sounds very unlike the slow, steady, word-on-beat style of eighties rap (INtroDUCE mySELF as LOC. She SAID “You’re a LIar.” Or, FUCKin with ME cause I’M a teenAGEr. With a LITtle BIT of GOLD and a PAGer) where syllables fall easily on the sound of a tapping shoe. To think Dre and Loc were once pioneers.
Shar Jackson, who most likely will not be an innovator but who successfully mimics one, wins the contest hands-down.
Some of Apollo’s astronauts still campaign for a return. In another odd collision of space meets pop music, NASA was at one time working on a ploy to get Lance Bass of ‘NSYNC onto a Russian flight to the International Space Station. Buzz Aldrin has lamented that it would have elicited support for a lunar return. It seems sort of sad to me now, not only because Lance is an aging celebrity himself, but because NASA—whose Apollo program used systems so complicated that the millions of working parts combined, with an impossibly optimistic rate of 99.9 percent reliability, should have still produced thousands upon thousands of failures, such as in Apollo 8, and yet in that mission only five noncritical parts failed—NASA asks a cheeky, blond lip-syncer who plays no instrument to help with its cause.
As a child of the eighties, I don’t always realize the extent to which the Apollo astronauts were pioneers. In ‘69, a better part of the whole world watched and wondered as Armstrong took his iconic step. Would he step onto a world made entirely of dust, and fall right through the orb? Would the dust ignite his suit, set him aflame? Do all the earth’s dead really haunt the moon, as the Nepalese believed, and would Aldrin and Armstrong have to cope with a crowd of ghosts? Alien-bacterium? Evil creatures? The concerns were many.
Some feared the act itself would damage us. Maybe the pictures sent by satellite transmission really would break, if not our hearts, then something. “If and when men landed on the Moon,” said Tom Stoppard, “something interesting would occur in the human psyche, that landing on the moon would be an act of destruction.” We’d destroy one of our most elastic metaphors.
There was no alien-bacterium, no evil creature lurking in the craters. Just rock, and moondust—which is jagged and dangerous and not like your average earthly dust. The early footage doesn’t exactly reveal how tough it had been for the astronauts to stake a flag into the surface. MTV’s flag-staking is fast and flashy because they hired promotional experts. But in ‘69, Neil had trouble getting the post into the soil, and keeping the “soil”—i.e. nasty, jagged, potentially-fatal-if-inhaled rock bits—on the ground. The flag leaned, the soil kicked up, and he worried that 600 million people would watch as the stars and stripes fell to the ground of a new world. Talk about destroying metaphors. And creating new ones.
Neil asks, “Are you getting a TEE-vee picture now, Houston.” The flag starts to tip. The picture could have broken America’s heart.
“Neil, we are getting a TEE-vee picture.”
Neil catches it. The pole stays upright long enough for the camera. Armstrong bounces around it, and Aldrin collects his moonrock, and America’s hearts sore like the Eagle that, after so many hours, takes off, and the men bid farewell to the lunar surface, which they will never in their lives see again, and there’s no camera to notify the world that, as the Eagle propels into the moon’s orbit, the flag falls over.
I almost don’t make it through the whole VMA’s. Before I venture into MTV’s reality-TV territory and mourn the age of Lyte and Loc because they reflect the inevitable aging of myself (because they bear the ever-deepening lines beneath my own eyes), I consider turning off the awards show. Yet another artist I do not recognize—Chris Brown—(who, in 2009, is relatively new) is in the middle of an R & B medley. I am bored and wondering if, since I have already gotten my fix of Britney flailing, nearly stumbling, even walking during a supposed dance performance, should I turn off the TV? Though Brown’s dancing is stellar—he stands on his hands and leaps from central stage to little stage-pods and he slides his body into and out of moves I’ve never seen and can’t even begin to describe, and all to the very catchy melody that seems way more rhythmically complicated than something like, say, New Edition’s “Cool It Now” of 1983 (Oh the 1-2-3-4 synthesizer beat!)—I’m tired. It’s past ten.
But this Chris Brown guy suddenly pauses mid-dance-Medley. The letters M and TV light up in dots behind him like that Lite-Brite toy of my youth. The opening beats of “Billie Jean” play. Brown pulls up a pant-leg. Throws on a black hat. Smoothes the rim. And I sit up. He casts his right arm behind him, grabs his crotch with the left, and thrusts to the bass.
Yes! It’s a homage. A tribute. A classy nod to “the King of Pop,” which is a nod to Thriller, to the entire eighties, to the origin of MTV, to the original Eden herself. To the first astronauts on the moon. To me.
I’m elated. At home. Feeling both thankful and oddly thanked. For my loyalty. For my witness. To the greatness of our pop history together. MTV and me. The couch is no longer a cocoon for lameness; it’s a throne on which I sit proud.
Isn’t he grabbing his crotch, says that new voice, much more prominently than Michael ever did?? And before I have the insight into the irony, the voice adds: I mean, this guy’s thrust-grab combination seems way more intense, seems to veer not just horizontally out, but also vertically up!
I am no longer akin to Madonna or Downtown Julie Brown or any other eighties star with whom I collapsed my young identity. I am Armstrong, my ever-wrinkling, nearly thirty-something eyes like windows on a lost age.