Arts & Entertainment

Howard Stern and Boomer Decline

Howard Stern is traipsing back to his Manhattan studio after two years of staying at, and broadcasting from, his enormous Hamptons home. Stern has been too afraid of COVID-19 to budge from his palatial residence since the beginning of the pandemic.

What happened to Howard Stern? His fans have asked it time and again in recent decades — but I think the answer has a relevance that transcends the man and his show. It tells us something about the culture that we live in.

Stern — dominating radio and haunting TV and publishing — was the most untameable man in media. He said what he liked, when he liked, about who he liked, and all attempts to have him silenced failed. He had fought his way to success and he seethed with rage and defiance.

It helped, of course, that making people angry drew in listeners. The term “shock jock” might have been reductive but Stern attracted an audience of people who wondered what the hell the radio host might blurt out next. “Political correctness” had become a modish term in the 90s as controversies erupted around race and sex. People of a more libertarian bent had also tired of the anti-drug and anti-sex moralism of the Christian right. Stern was a foul-mouthed antidote.

He was far from alone. As both legal and formal restrictions on what could be said and done were deconstructed, there was a kind of orgiastic nastiness in popular culture. Not all of it, of course. On one side, there was the gleaming gloop of Friends, the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys. On the other, though, was the violence, sex and swearing of the World Wrestling Federation, nu-metal, South Park and Howard Stern.

When it came to nineties nastiness, Stern was in a class of his own. It is extraordinary to look back on the shit he’d say. When the Latin American singer Selena was murdered, Stern embraced the opportunity to ridicule her music, saying “Alvin and the Chipmunks have more soul” and putting on a comedy Mexican accent to sneer, “Let’s dance and forget that every human being in our country is corrupt.” Stern’s mind always leapt downwards to the most unpleasant thing to say about an event. He joked, in the aftermath of the Columbine Massacre, that the shooters should have raped the “good looking girls”.

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