CBS Television’s Standards & Practices memo barring risqué fashion at the 2013 Grammys – no baring of breasts, buttocks or even “puffy bare skin” around the genital area, and no obscenities written on clothing, either — barely made it out of the stodgy Tiffany Network before various celebrities pressed instantly forward to flout it.

With mountains to spare, Katy Perry exposed more breast than most models could cram into a Wonderbra. Deadmau5 band member Joel Zimmerman emblazoned his cap with an obscenity that his girlfriend persuaded him to obscure with tape. And Jennifer Lopez covered her private areas but not much else below deck, telling one red-carpet interviewer about the CBS memo, “They didn’t say anything about leg!”

What’s the deal with rule-breaking celebrities these days? Are they just drumming up publicity by upholding the entertainer’s privilege of behaving badly? Or is there a deeper motive at play – such as hoping to influence a significant shift in the way ordinary Americans’ think? If so, how will their actions affect their overall standing with the public, traditionally measured in Q scores?

Laws for the perpetually lawless

First, for an enterprise that never likes to stay in one place for more than a nanosecond, the world of professional entertainment remains, as every mogul tells the starry-eyed, a business first, with A-list entertainers essentially fronting their own franchises. Mislead the customer – no matter the motive to make a moral statement – and the customer looks elsewhere for what they thought they were admiring. One major exception being when a celebrity wants to adjust their image – by, say, adding a seamier undercurrent to an otherwise girl-next-door look. In that case, the occasional celebrity shift into bad or risqué behavior can actually be sculpted to one’s advantage. A business advantage, that is.

Second, as a Wall Street Journal article pointed out way back in 2010, the venerable Q score, in use for about 50 years, is but one of several factors that producers use to gauge the public’s sense of a celebrity’s star power. Furthermore, says Kevin McKiernan, CEO of Creative License, which works with advertisers, “[Ratings data] is a little bit of snake oil, I think. A lot of times a gut check on an artist will be as strong as any kind of measurement.”

Third, there’s the matter of making a statement to push the envelope of, say, fashionable or recreational behavior, and of crossing a sacred line that takes people over a cliff, not merely close to its edge – something which the buying power of Middle America, mostly reliant on a collective gut check, won’t abide:

  • Madonna’s book on sex drew fire and stayed in the news, but it was a book — not an act of behavior that essentially told ordinary Americans that they, too, had to behave likewise. So, she got publicity and also was let off the hook…eventually.
  • Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction with Janet Jackson (broadcast on CBS in 2004 and known as Nipplegate) also attracted criticism. But its brevity, and Timberlake’s lame attempt to make it look like a mistake, merely resulted in adding some edgy shadow to the boy band leader’s otherwise white-bread image. An enhancement, if you will, that he effectively used in furthering his film career.
  • Countless other celebrities are constantly unveiling something shocking or out of left field – almost always designed to appear a step ahead where society generally seems to be at the moment – while basking in the harsh glow of coverage for as long as the masses seem interested. After that, there’s rarely an impassioned follow-up plea to change beliefs. It’s simply on to the next project.

What happens in showbiz…

To be sure, celebrities have long used a trailing spotlight to throw some shine on their political causes and moral positions. And there’s an argument to be made that flouting a dress code memo – which, by the way, teens and young adults, who buy a lot of iTunes, wouldn’t want to obey, either — might be motivated by the desire to see society loosen up a bit more. Or to gather steam for a celebrity-driven campaign to launch next year’s No Clothes Grammys. And from there…The All-Naked World.

Right.

As nagging as it might sound, it still comes down to business. To actions and images that make dollar sense. Just as most celebrities still won’t take it all off for the camera – which would only result in a replacement sex object getting cast when the next blockbuster film rolls around, since audiences have seen it all already – most aren’t willing to cut their own throats by telling ordinary Americans to shift their cultural attitudes.

Bend, momentarily alter and temporarily forget them for the sake of furthering or closing a deal, yes. But that’s about as far as celebrity moré shifting will ever go. Because, in the end, show business really is like any other business.

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