Did you catch the Super Bowl game on television? Perhaps you were one of the millions of fans who shared your opinions in the largest simultaneous outpouring of tweets in history. Mmm, illusion. Bathe in it.
The moment last night when M.I.A.—a millionaire celebrity musician performing in a lavish spectacle of distraction underwritten entirely by Fortune 500 corporate sponsors—extended her middle finger and said a cuss word during her little song and dance in front of a billion people marked the pinnacle of 2012 Non-News. This wholly inconsequential event will receive an amount of public and media attention exactly inversely proportional to its real importance. Its short-term ability to distract will be exactly inversely proportional to its long-term impact on anything whatsoever. We, as a nation, stand transfixed. It is the biggest, hottest, non-news moment of the year.
M.I.A. has, when not dancing in Super Bowl halftime shows, spoken out about the plight of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Maybe her revolutionary cussing prompted some people to go to Google News and discover the fact that 200 Tamil refugees are stranded in Togo in "miserable conditions," or that US diplomats are now on their way to Sri Lanka to discuss with the government charges that it has committed war crimes in the course of its war against the Tamils. But that seems doubtful. It's more likely that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will send M.I.A. (and the American news media at large) a nice bouquet of roses for doing her part to divert the world's attention from the ongoing massacre in the city of Homs. Who would have thought that we could all, simply by opining at length on a pop star's rude gesture, do our own little part to contribute to the multinational global effort to concertedly ignore government-sponsored murder?
Non-news. We are all participants!
There will always be a portion of the daily news cycle that is trivial, stupid, comic relief. What distinguishes everyday media crapola from a real fake event is the ability to marshal a breathtaking amount of mental resources that could be presumably be put to good use behind something that will do nothing to advance any worthwhile cause in any direction. It's like building a skyscraper from sand. A good non-news event is able to occupy the collective brainpower of a tremendous number of people—including, crucially, the nation's chattering pundit class—while being entirely unimportant, due to its nature as a man-made extravaganza hermetically sealed off from the everyday lives of everyday people. The entire sports-entertainment-industrial complex is built for this purpose, of course, but nowhere is it expressed more perfectly than when something seems to go wrong in one of our annual super-produced mega-events. M.I.A., we assume, was off-script, creating something that everyone felt compelled to form an opinion on. It's critical, for the sake of non-news, that these off-script events themselves have no real impact, just like the grand events in which they are encompassed. M.I.A. passed this test admirably. Standing on an Olympic medal podium with a black power fist raised comes with enough contentious political undertones to make it an actual news story; flicking off the camera and saying a cuss word after helping Madonna sing a halftime medley is soothingly free of any possible pathways that might lead to deeper thought.
Giving the finger! In front of all those people. Can you imagine?
The Oscars and the attendant discussion of celebrity fashion choices is often a leading contender for Non-News Event of the Year. The Super Bowl is usually a close second. (Although the NFL season taken in aggregate would surpass just about everything). The political conventions will be strong contenders this year, though their potential to reveal the biggest maniac in public life lends them at least a smidgen of redeeming value. But add a pop star gone rogue to the pointless pageantry of the Super Bowl halftime show, and you have yourself a tableau of unmissable irrelevance that will not be superseded for the remainder of the calendar year. On this, we will take a stand.
[Photos: Getty, ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images. Image by Jim Cooke]