This first appeared in the Spectator Australia and can be read here: https://spectator.com.au/2021/04/what-ever-happened-to-good-old-fashioned-innuendo/
Where did innuendo go?
That is the question that has been bugging me recently.
I listen to a lot of music from the 1940s, many of which are scattered with allusions to sex without ever saying it explicitly. In many ways, innuendo is what creates the allure. When the sexual reference is merely an inference you are invited to fill in the gaps with your imagination. Take this classic from George Formby:
The chambermaids’ sweet names I call It’s a wonder I don’t fall My mind’s not on my work at all When I’m cleanin’ windows.
Compare this with the top song of last year WAP which (as the name Wet-Ass Pussy suggests) is completely explicit in its depiction:
Gobble me, swallow me, drip down the side of me (yeah) Quick, jump out ‘fore you let it get inside of me (yeah).
It is not just music that has lost the art of the innuendo, art has too.
The difference between porn and erotica used to be both stark and intentional. Pornography was an explicit and visual medium more or less exclusively aimed at and consumed by men. Erotic art (such as the famous Shunga art from Japan) on the other hand was the dance between the explicit and implicit, the real and the fantasy, and had many female aficionados.
This distinction has been completely lost today. Take for instance The Great Wall of Vagina. You don’t need any imagination here, the clue is in the name, it is a wall of casts of women’s vulva. It is both completely explicit, or as was said of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party it is “3-D ceramic pornography,” and bereft of passion or fantasy.
Although the depiction of sex today is the most obvious instance where the implicit has been completely subsumed by the literal, it is a phenomenon that is creeping it to the culture wherever fantasy and imagination once had a draw.
Nations tend to have stories about their founding or character. These stories are depicted and multiply through the culture (both pop and folk). Think of how comic books picked up the American ideal and reflected it with heroes like Captain America.
What is largely considered the most sacred day on the Australian Calendar, Anzac day, has just passed. A German friend once said to me that he thought it cute that Australia’s most foundational tale is a battle which we lost — Gallipoli. (Suffice it to say that Germany isn’t in any hurry to celebrate a war it lost anytime soon.) But it is not the outcome but the character which is celebrated by Australia. It is our grit, humour, and mateship and why we don’t have comic book heroes but comic heroes like Paul Hogan’s various characters or The Castle’s Darryl Kerrigan.
The point however is not the difference in national heroes but that fact they are no longer depicted throughout our art. We only speak of our country literally — and in great detail of all its shortcomings — not mythically.
This is not to say we should live in a fantasy land, by endlessly depicting good things about our country that are completely untrue. But proliferating representations of the national mythos allows for imagination of what we might be or what we could achieve.
The explicitness of the current cultural moment has been something I keep noticing but never really understood why, until this week when the penny dropped.
Just as when people acquired the ability to write memory gave way. Almost nobody has the experience of talking to an illiterate person today, but in years gone by (so I am told), the people with the best memories were the ones that had to remember because they couldn’t simply write it down. Likewise, skills that technology replaces becomes a lost art very quickly.
Video recording is nothing new, but the ability for each of us to record everything all the time and play it back exactly as it took place has only existed since the smartphone. Just as the video killed the radio star, the smartphone has killed the Hollywood video stars by making fantasy obsolete.
With the ability to completely and accurately record everything in real-time, there is no longer a need to allude to something, and when something is no longer needed it is lost.
So, to answer my original question, where did innuendo go? It went extinct. We have, literally, lost the ability to leave anything to the imagination.