“Cue the music,” Tamron Hall commanded. An alt-rock staple from 1998 blasted across yesterday morning’s Today show. Hall closed her eyes and gathered her bearings. “He’s a friend of the show,” Hall began. “He’s Al Roker’s cousin. That’s a true fact.” She pointed into the air. “That is also Lenny Kravitz’s ‘Fly Away.’ One of the best.” As Hall neared the crux of the segment, her peppy anchor voice edged toward a staccato scream-laugh: “Kravitz was jamming on his guitar to his song ‘American Woman’ when he … did a squat. And then his leather pants just! Ripped right open! The jaws of life couldn’t put these things back together. And Lenny was, uh, commando. Exposing his. Manhood.”
After a tortuous discussion with co-hosts Roker and Willie Geist, Hall concluded by giving the camera two thumbs up, grinning madly, and announcing: “Lennnnnyyyy. For president!”
When Lenny Kravitz’s penis burst loose from his leather trousers at a Stockholm concert on Monday, the global community stared at the vision with blissful delirium. Kravitz “shredded so hard his dick fell out,” Gawker reported. “Oh, how you love Lenny Kravitz’s NSFW wardrobe malfunction,” USA Today told us. “And that’s how you crack into the history books, folks,” a Swedish blog advised. BuzzFeed’s Dorsey Shaw distilled the moment into a hypnotic GIF. Perez Hilton praised his “mighty man-meat.” TMZ demanded an encore. “I killed myself laughing,” one concertgoer told the Swedish tabloid Expressen after catching the crotch pop live. Her mom “almost killed herself laughing too.” Us Weekly covered Steven Tyler’s reaction, and then Tyler and Kravitz’s daughters’ reaction to the reaction.
Few celebrity genitals have been feted so lavishly. Most coverage of celebrity exposures seems jaunty enough, until it inevitably veers into themes of blame, disgust, ridicule, and concern. When photographs of dongs attributed to guys such as Brett Favre, Anthony Weiner, Tyga, or even some Naval War College professor are publicly circulated, the pics are generally perceived as both proof and punishment for sexual misconduct. These guys were caught sexting someone they shouldn’t have, it seems—a cheating partner, or an unsuspecting colleague who didn’t ask for an intimate view—and so the dick pic’s very existence justifies our staring.
Female celebrities are often exposed through more sympathetic circumstances: All it takes is a gust of wind on the red carpet or a paparazzi crouched super-low outside the limo door for the world to catch sight of crotch or boob. (Given the constraints of modern fashion, male wardrobe malfunctions are rare; the Guardian even interviewed a leather expert to help peg just how odd it is for a high-end pair of trousers like Kravitz’s to spontaneously rip at the most crucial seam.) But even these accidental flashes bring shame upon those they uncover.
Take Tara Reid, whose left breast popped out from her dress outside Puff Daddy’s 35th birthday bash in 2004. Reid “suffered an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction,” People reported. The New York Post breathlessly covered the “mammary meltdown.” In one dispatch, titled “TARA NEEDS HELP—WITH PLASTIC SURGERY,” a Post gossip asked “the inevitable questions”: “How come she didn’t realize her dress was falling off on the red carpet? How drunk was she? And finally: What about those gross purple scars?” On MSNBC, Deborah Norville accused Reid of tearing other women down in order to boost her own tabloid career. “Half of herself was right there for the world to see,” Norville said. “And yet nobody talked about Tara Reid until this happened. It’s a great way to get your name in the papers … It’s as if we’ve stepped back 50 years for women.”
“You would think my boob had popped out and shot Gandhi,” Tara Reid later said of the uproar, proving that she was always cleverer than the tabloids made her out to be. And as aggressive paparazzi, unruly gossip bloggers, and the Huffington Post conspired to air more and more celebrity skin, it became clear that this was not just a party girl problem. Eight years after Reid’s shaming, teen queen turned Oscar contender Anne Hathaway experienced a slightly subdued but still vicious press cycle when she was photographed sans underwear while exiting her car at the Les Miserables premiere. “Love her or hate her, Anne Hathaway endured a very embarrassing experience when she flashed her vajayjay for the paps,” Perez Hilton reported. On the Today show, Matt Lauer made a creepy joke—“Anne Hathaway, good morning, nice to see you, seen a lot of you lately”—then turned somber, asking Hathaway to tell the public what she’d learned from her mistake.
What makes Lenny Kravitz so special? Al Roker believes it’s a matter of size: Whether or not a man is embarrassed by a genital drop of this kind “depends on what falls out,” he says. Kravitz “is doing OK,” he added.
But I think it has more to do with Kravitz’s unique brand of radio-friendly male sexuality. Whether he’s playing Katniss’ ambiguously gay stylist in The Hunger Games, wearing a gold mesh tank top at the Super Bowl half-time show, stepping out in New York City swathed in the world’s largest scarf, pledging celibacy in middle-age, or accidentally unleashing his penis in the middle of a Guess Who cover at a Swedish theme park, Lenny Kravitz screams “I don’t bite … unless you’re into that sort of thing.” This week’s tittering commentators aren’t exactly laughing at Kravitz: Theirs is the kind of flushed, giddy reaction rarely witnessed outside a Las Vegas Chippendales’ show or a Midwestern screening of Magic Mike XXL. Whenever women need to self-consciously perform their lust, Lenny Kravitz appears in a poof of glitter to satisfy the urge.
Tamron Hall indulged. “I looked at it multiple times,” she admitted yesterday. “You did. You showed everybody,” Roker cut in. “And I looked at the GIF,” Hall added. “I couldn’t stop.” It’s clear that Lenny Kravitz’s penis has succeeded in redefining the parameters of “NSFW” for the staff of the Today show. That’s how powerful it is. But let’s not forget that there is a man behind the manhood. A father. A distant cousin of Al Roker’s. A tireless performer of accessible rock and roll music who has recently released his tenth studio album, Strut. Something that feels so right can still be wrong. “I feel horrible,” Hall later said of peeking at Kravitz’s package. “And I’m sorry, Lenny Kravitz. I’m sorry.”