We all know what happened at the VMA’s. I’d prefer not to analyze it, as it’s a bit like beating a dead horse at this point. More interesting to me is the range of reactions to Miley Cyrus’ recent behavior. From the obvious shocked in the mainstream, to the feminist and racial issues raised by the spectacle, to some rather odd appraisals, the way people react to something deliberately provocative like this is, to me, far more indicative of the state of music media than the actual act.
Let’s begin by asking why this whole affair is getting so much attention in the first place? I think we all understand that this is a case of a once-family-friendly teen pop star trying to break up preconceived notions about her and branching out into new territory as she grows older and is unable to maintain her youthful innocence. It’s one of the most tired music business clichés in the book – remember when Britney Spears kissed Madonna at the VMA’s ten years ago? If it’s nothing new, though, why do we care about it now? Britney, Christina Aguilera, et al, didn’t seem to catch this much attention, and Rihanna regularly acts in an equally sexual manner without much explicit attention paid to it. Part of it may be that it’s such a stark contrast. Starring in the hugely successful, squeaky clean Disney production “Hanna Montana” and being the spawn of country one-hit wonder Billy Ray Cyrus doesn’t exactly lend to an edgy image, but then with her image change, she pushes it so much further than any of the “good girls gone bad” that preceded her. It’s so over the top, with the inexplicable bear backpacks, the ill-fitting shorts, and that tongue thing, it’s a flip to the exact opposite side of mainstream acceptability. Of course, it’s not any sort of real act of rebellion – we’re not going to see her pull off a Fiona Apple any time soon, but more on that later.
More substantive analyses of the performance have drawn attention to some trends symptomatic of mainstream attitudes towards race and sex. To, there have been outcries from many a concerned parent that the performance was lewd, inappropriate, an underhanded attempt to subvert and corrupt the minds of the nation’s youth, and so on with the same kind of criticism that always gets their panties in a bunch and leads to them shouting “CENSORSHIP!” In addition, across the internet there are those who cry “slut!” and mock her in some way or another for putting her sexuality on display. These are entirely common reactions to female personalities doing, well, anything. Women are constantly under scrutiny for how they present themselves, because the prevailing attitude isn’t that women can do whatever they feel is necessary for their art, but rather, everything women do is for the approval of others. So, either someone is going to criticize her for being too sexual, or, as in the past, they will criticize her for not being edgy enough. In this regard, I think Miley played off of those expectations pretty well, going so far with the sexual angle that it’s almost a parody of the way female artists usually are forced to sell sex to be taken seriously, and I appreciate that it forces us, at least in some limited capacity, to question why there is such an apparent need in pop culture to do this.
The race issue, though, leads some to less positive conclusions. Several black cultural critics have asserted that Miley is co-opting elements of black culture to turn a profit, which is convenient, because as a white person, Miley doesn’t have to deal with all the prejudice and stereotypes that black performers would have to deal with – in short, she’s got white privilege, so she can get away with treating black culture as a mere prop in her act. She uses black dancers in her videos and in her act, treating them as just another part of the show and stripping black culture of its legitimacy, and apparently feels entitled to proclaim the following about what it means to be black: “being black isn’t about the color of your skin, it’s about vibe, about hanging out, kicking back, smoking a number….” To say the least, it’s a bit odd that a white performer feels so qualified to talk about what it means to be black, when she’s never had to deal with the realities of being black. If she wanted to, she could easily hang up the urban act and go back to being a country performer. Black people, on the other hand, can’t just dispense with their identity in a culture that so often generalizes and diminishes them, and many argue that it’s extremely insensitive of her to act this way. Especially considering how fake it all seems, with the quote a while back that she’d “never heard a Jay-Z song,” and allegedly told the songwriters of “We Can’t Stop” that she wanted something that “just feels black.” I’m very much inclined to agree with these criticisms. Yes, Miley is free to do whatever she wants, but the fact that her treatment of black culture is so readily accepted by the mainstream just goes to show how little respect is had by the mainstream for it – to most, it’s a novelty, and not much more.
The last thing I want to talk about is a reaction to the Noisey article “Miley Cyrus Is Punk as Fuck.” The article makes the claim that Miley Cyrus, more than any band on Warped Tour or elsewhere in the traditional world of punk rock, is a modern punk icon, this because she pushes boundaries without much regard to her image. I see the point of the article; basically it’s just an attempt to rile people up, in typical punk fashion (and I see the irony of my responding to it at all, but whatever), and if it drives up site traffic for Noisey, all the better. But let me just make it clear that Miley Cyrus is as manufactured as they come, and is so far removed from punk rock, the article deserves to be featured by The Onion. The truth of the matter is, Miley Cyrus actually does give a fuck about her image. She gives a lot of fucks. She gives so many fucks, she had her team of publicists devise the perfect way to make it seem like she didn’t give any fucks, because that’s what would, and eventually did, get her noticed. As a result, “Wrecking Ball” has 180 million hits on YouTube, and her forthcoming album ‘Bangerz’ is likely to be among the top selling of the year. Everything about her is so completely artificial that it renders any criticism of her as a person completely pointless. She isn’t putting her sexuality on display, she isn’t co-opting black culture, she isn’t constructing her image – her record company does all that. She is not an independent entity, but like most products of popular culture in 2013, she’s a product of the corporate music machine. I for one have ceased to be surprised by anything it does, but it will never cease to amaze how many self-serious people buy into it rather than just giving up and supporting alternative music. But that’s a rant for another day.