In today's weird news: We learned via our pal Brian Wise of member station WQXR that the august judges of Miss America 2014 in Atlantic City on Sept. 15 will include not just former *NSYNCer Lance Bass and comedian Mario Cantone, but also one of the world's most popular classical artists: violinist Joshua Bell.
It seems as if Bell, or certainly his management, has made a goal of getting him anchored in pop culture consciousness: after all, he's been featured on Dancing with the Stars.
The Miss America Organization takes great pains to say that the competition is about much more than looking good in a swimsuit: They profess that it's about "empowering young women to achieve their personal and professional goals, while providing a forum in which to express their opinions, talent and intelligence." (For what it's worth, the current Miss America's blog is largely occupied by lists of what she eats and how much she exercises every day.) But still, Bell seems a bit of the odd man out. What's up?
Maybe it's not so strange. As a friend of mine who is both a pageant fan and a savvy classical music publicist pointed out, lots and lots of pageant competitors play piano or violin or sing opera for the talent portion of the proceedings — such as Miss America 2012, Laura Kaeppeler, or Miss America 1989, Gretchen Carlson of Fox News. For them, my friend argues, wouldn't it be much better to have Bell — or, in the preliminary rounds of this year's competition, former Boston Globe classical critic Richard Dyer — judge those Chopin and Liszt skills instead of, say, Lance Bass?
Putting aside all the issues of how pageants do or don't objectify women, our esteemed colleague Linda Holmes has written about the cultural expiration date on Miss America exceedingly well already (and if you don't read her regularly, you're missing out). As she put it: "Now, there are more straightforward ways to see hot women and more straightforward ways to appreciate smart and talented women, so a beauty contest that swears up and down that it also rewards brains — even if that's entirely true — seems to fall into a crack that doesn't need filling." Does classical music, which in popular perception is hokey and dated enough as it is, really need friends like this?
Regardless of how you feel about the nature of pageants, you'll probably be amused by how the axis of classical music and Miss America has resulted in a new Twitter hashtag dreamed up by one of our quick-witted followers, @jacquesdupuis: #swimsuitcomposition. (Francesca da Bikini and Gaspeedo de la nuit have already been claimed.)