The trouble with Being Ernest

Ernest B. Furgurson

December 02, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

Washington--A WELL-KNOWN arbiter of popular culture has tut-tutted me for rashly saying hardly anybody who reads this page ever heard of Milli Vanilli before M.V. was exposed as a fraud.

''Speak for yourself, Ernest,'' he suggested, which is what all my closest friends call me and what I always do, to my wife's frequent chagrin.

(Actually, no one calls me that: Ernest is an honorific awarded me at birth and never heard again until the night some stodgy editor decided without asking that it would be my byline in The Baltimore Sun. The day I decide to cast off this burdensome disguise I will change my byline back to Pat, which is whom I really have spoken for all these years.)

Conceivably, some who read this page still have not heard of Milli Vanilli, two weeks after it/they was/were exposed as a RTC fraud. In an age when fans of the op-ed page and of pop music seldom mingle socially, some of the most celebrated artists are unheard of by the uninitiate unless they have introduced themselves via scandal.

Speaking for both Pat and Ernest, I had never heard of Milli Vanilli until it was disclosed that M.V. was a vocal duo which sold 7 million copies of an album titled ''Girl You Know It's True'' ` which won a Grammy award ` and then it turned out Milli had not sung at all but just lip-synced the record ` and the people who awarded the Grammy took it back ` but refused to give it instead to the not two but three guys who did the singing.

All that took place before M.V. swam into my line of sight, or hearing. Do I suffer from what Jimmy Carter would call cultural dee-pry-vation? Am I different in this respect from other adults of a certain age and environment?

I asked three of them if they had ever heard of Milli before the scandal. Two said no, one said Yes, he had heard the name but not the music.

I asked the same question about 2 Live Crew. None of the three had had the pleasure. Same question, same answer about Robert Mapplethorpe.

By now, you may know that 2 Live Crew also is a recording group, of the rap persuasion. It makes records and gives live performances that include nasty language, much of it insulting to women. A Florida judge and various law enforcers tried to stop sales of its records and arrested the group in the middle of a show. Eventually a higher court threw out the case, classifying 2 Live Crew's nasty language as art. Or at least free speech.

You may also know that the late Robert Mapplethorpe was a photographer whose name and work were seldom seen or heard of beyond lower Manhattan until the Corcoran Gallery here in Washington decided to cancel a posthumous show because some of his photos were, let's say, indelicate.

Eventually, a museum in Cincinnati went ahead with a Mapplethorpe show which included the indelicate photos. Sure enough, the police stepped in and took the museum director to court. And sure enough, the jury of average citizens like me, you and 2 Live Crew decided that indelicate or not, the photos were art. Or at least free speech.

Some people were confused by the court's finding photos and dirty lyrics to be free speech. That situation was cleared up by this week's New York court ruling which banned subway panhandlers because their begging is not free speech but action, which under the Constitution is not free. But that's another case.

When artists of a certain genre succeed in attracting fans beyond their specialty, they are said to have a crossover hit, e.g. when Elvis or Merle Haggard or Patsy Cline moves over from country to rock to pop or vice versa, or when a scholarly history book takes off as a best-selling adventure story. In the cases of Milli Vanilli, 2 Live Crew and Mapplethorpe, we have artists, so to speak, who have crossed into the national consciousness by involvement in scandal.

This is not a new technique for winning notice. Authors used to pray that Boston's Watch and Ward Society would ban their latest book, thus assuring best-sellerdom. 2 Live Crew has sold more records and the price of Mapplethorpe's prints has shot up since they hit the headlines.

Whether such success has come to Milli Vanilli since its fraud was disclosed is uncertain. Perhaps one of the duo was concerned about that: He was picked up in Los Angeles this week for investigation of ''sexual battery'' and freed on $10,000 bond.

As he left home the night after this latest sensation, he was heard to say, ''Too much publicity.''

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