Sex Is the Brand

Russell Brand is a bad, bad boy. Thank the punk rock saints for that! As the English comic and sole male inheritor of Amy Winehouse’s hairstyle laid waste to good taste as the host of this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, somewhere in heaven’s dark alley Joey Ramone and Sid Vicious shared a laugh.

Since the program aired Sunday, Brand has been pilloried by some pundits and applauded by others for his banter, which was far more politically minded – and friskily filthy – than that of any awards show host in recent memory. He’s been called out for advocating a candidate, Barack Obama, in a race to lead a country not his own, for describing President Bush as a “retarded cowboy” and for relentlessly teasing committed virgins the Jonas Brothers about their purity rings.

That last transgression might not seem overtly political, but it touched on a hot point that is continuing to reverberate throughout the culture. Without any visible help (yet) from the Jonas Brothers, vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin is returning teen sexuality to the center of public debate. Her policies do so: She’s an advocate of abstinence education and an opponent of abortion. More widely discussed is the drama of her daughter Bristol’s unplanned pregnancy.

At the VMAs, the collision of Brand and the Jo Bros conjured the specter of the inescapable Palin, connecting her hot-button issues of family, sex and self-determination to current trends in teen-oriented pop.

It didn’t take Brand’s cracks about Bristol Palin and her now-fiance Levi Johnston (“The best safe sex message of all time: Use a condom or become a Republican,” he said) to make youthful pregnancy a presence at the VMAs. There was expectant Ashlee Simpson, huge in a black evening gown, answering country music darling Taylor Swift’s questions about her “little dilemma.” And there, everywhere, was Britney Spears, whose struggles with motherhood have been a constant source of media debate – and whose sister, Jamie Lynn, was America’s favorite teen mom before Bristol was forced upon the scene.

These ingenue moms are part of a pop scene that’s strangely split between exhibitionism and old-fashioned morality. The VMAs weren’t that racy this year – there was no steamy scene like Madonna’s 2003 three-way with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera – but hot pants and cleavage still defined evening wear for most female performers. T-Pain, who’s built his career on sweet-talking strippers in song, was a triumphant presence. Yet so was the cast of “High School Musical,” who’ve fought back gossip to stay clean-cut.

Brand’s focused transgressiveness was a relief amid this happily hedonistic, conformist bunch. Nobody seems to remember when rockers were supposed to rattle the jewelry of the folks who attend glittery galas. But then, MTV has long trafficked in turning rebelliousness into a commodity. Brand, saying uncontainable things, upset the apple cart. That made him the most old-fashioned presence in a program full of young, aggressively commercial self-packagers, for whom any statement – political or otherwise – is best judged by the number of units sold.

And what of Brand’s tormenting those Disney-sponsored sweeties, the Jonas Brothers? He couldn’t keep his hands off their purity rings, even inspiring their sister in abstinence, Jordin Sparks, to offer one of the few impromptu lines of the night: “It’s not bad to wear a promise ring because not everybody, guy or girl, wants to be a slut!”

Sparks showed spunk in deviating from the script, though it’s truly unfortunate that she invoked an age-old stigmatizing term to do so. As Emily White wrote in her groundbreaking book “Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut,” the word “slut” is a weapon often used against girls who don’t fit in, whether they’re sexually active or not. If Sparks is really the Christian she claims to be, she should be more compassionate.

Nor should the Jonas Brothers worry that their oft-discussed purity is just a joke. It’s hard to believe that these adorable lads aren’t getting any action – especially since oldest brother Kevin is nearly 21 – but they’re far from the first teen idols to adopt a pristine persona. A warm, fuzzy image is key when your target audience is young girls tentatively exploring their own budding desires. Anything more aggressive would be icky, to use a term popular among Jo Bros fans.

Elvis Presley kept his underage girlfriend Priscilla under wraps for years to prevent damage to his mama’s-boy image. Elton John was a 16 Magazine cover boy until outing himself as a bisexual in the more adult-oriented Rolling Stone. Spears, the other news at the VMAs, claimed to be a teen virgin until her old beau Justin Timberlake hinted otherwise. She’s still dealing with questions about exactly when she lost her innocence, even after bearing two children.

This is what teen music, and to a certain extent, all pop, is about: the confusion, excitement, fear and joy that sexuality inspires. The Jonas Brothers make music for kids starting to become aware of the erotic realm – kids terrified of what that might mean, but inevitably intrigued. Their endorsement of abstinence is just a variation on the complex stance teen pop always has taken on this subject. Counter to Brand’s ribbing, they’re not simply prisses, but neither are they hypocrites.

Last week, Chicago Sun Times critic Jim DeRogatis caused his own blogosphere brush fire by comparing the Jo Bros song “BB Good” to “dialogue from a date rape.” That’s as offensive, and much more wrong-headed, than any quip Brand made at the VMAs. If DeRogatis had thought for a minute about teen pop’s history, he could have come up with a long list of songs that play in nearly the same mood of frustrated desire.

Songs like “Wake Up Little Susie,” by the Everly Brothers. Or “I Think We’re Alone Now,” by Tommy James and the Shondells. Or “I Can Feel Your Heartbeat,” by the Partridge Family, which had David Cassidy singing “I’ll treat you like a woman, love you like a woman,” while his stepmom Shirley Jones shook a tambourine behind him. DeRogatis even compares “BB Good” unfavorably to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” – as if John Lennon’s lyrics weren’t all about pushing his girl toward third base.

Pop music is the place where we, as a society, talk about sex in all its messiness, potential risk and wonder. The Jonas Brothers are part of that conversation, purity rings or not. Brand’s admittedly insensitive comments merely brought that truth into the light. And even if the Jo Bros squirmed as he did so, it was a gentler comeuppance than the seemingly inevitable scandal that might one day force one or all of them to join Spears and Bristol Palin and enter adulthood under stardom’s harsh lights.