The Video Music Awards were not on my radar. This is probably not surprising: I’m in my late 40s, I haven’t watched MTV in years, and I am not the target audience for this particular awards show. But yesterday I woke up to a world obsessed with what happened at the VMA’s, specifically in one medley of songs. Miley Cyrus performed, or haven’t you heard? Through the course of the day over a dozen different blog posts on the subject rolled through my Facebook feed, along with countless memes and parodies. Several of the blog posts were open letters to Miley herself, expressing concern or reproach. I don’t know if you’ve been on the interet in the last couple of days, Miley, but you’ve got mail.
After seeing the first response to Miley’s performance I watched it myself. You may watch it here, if you wonder what the fuss is about. Miley Cyrus, she of “Hannah Montana” fame, performed her hit single “We Can’t Stop” followed by a duet with Robin Thicke (his song of the summer, “Blurred Lines”). This led into another Thicke song, “Give it 2 U”, and while Miley didn’t sing on that one, she stuck around to dance.
So how to describe this production? I feel only Stefon from Saturday Night Live could really do the whole thing justice. There were teddy bears and marshmallows, and underwear and a foam finger, and a Beetlejuice suit, and a cardboard Picasso, and football players, and rappers, and balloons, and a boat, and above all, lots of tongue and lots of twerking.
It was a bizarre set piece in which Miley Cyrus emerged from inside a giant teddy bear and then proceeded to stick out her tongue and simulate sex in one way or another for several minutes.
Was I shocked by this? Not really. I saw Miley’s performance of “We Can’t Stop” on Good Morning America several weeks ago and it wasn’t too far off her VMA performance. And if you’ve been paying attention to Miley Cyrus’ career over the last couple of years you’ve seen and heard her announce over and over again that she’s not a kid anymore, that she’s not Hannah Montana, that she’s leaving her Disney image behind.
We’ve been here before, though, haven’t we? We’ve been shocked – shocked, I tell you! – by the sexual behavior of artists like Madonna and Lady Gaga. We’ve watched Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes self-destruct before a watching world. So why so much attention on Miley? Why the brokenhearted blog posts?
I suspect it’s because we think we know Miley Cyrus. Many of us watched her grow up, even if the life we were seeing was fiction and the illusion couldn’t be maintained. Note the ease with which I call this young woman “Miley”, rather than by her last name. She was on a first name basis with all of us. Our daughters wore Hannah Montana pajamas and sang “Nobody’s Perfect” and we thought she was a safe role model.
We can, and should, rethink the wisdom of choosing role models from television. The track record is not encouraging. But I won’t criticize Miley Cyrus for failing to live up to our standards, for the sake of her fans. She doesn’t owe us that. Having performed for us on a Disney show doesn’t mean that she belongs to her audience forever. It’s her party, “she can do what she wants”, as she sings.
I also won’t join in trying to figure out “what’s wrong with Miley”. Blog post have suggested drug use and anorexia, self loathing and terrible advisors. Others see Miley as a selfish, spoiled star who has no one in her life to tell her “no”. But that’s all speculation, isn’t it? I don’t know Miley Cyrus and won’t pretend otherwise. I can only say that from the outside looking in, the trajectory of her life doesn’t look good, or healthy. That’s all I can say about Miley, but I think she has a lot to say about us. I think her performance serves as a mirror on our culture – on what we think about sex and gender, power and freedom. And judging from what I see in this mirror, our trajectory isn’t so good or healthy either.
I’m not the only person bothered by the relative lack of outrage directed at Robin Thicke, who in the VMA performance primarily stands still while Miley grinds against him and nuzzles his neck. Some responses seemed positively sympathetic to the 36-year-old Thicke, as if he’d been violated against his will. One article even described him indignantly as “happily married”. That Miley: what a homewrecker, right?
Um, no. If you have a strong stomach you could try reading the lyrics to “Blurred Lines”. I liked the song until I actually paid attention to its “rapey” qualities. As for the unrated video of “Blurred Lines”, it makes the VMA performance look tame.
It seems to me that we’re fine with a nearly middle aged man singing about violent sex with a young girl. We just don’t want an actual young girl acting it out on stage at an awards show. It simply isn’t done. That makes her trashy, while he comes across like a decent chap in a bad suit, just trying to sing his song. Or perhaps the real problem is that the scene made us confront what we’ve been cheerfully singing all summer. Seeing our little Miley (we feel we know her dad, too!) as the object of the lyric, “I know you want it,” brought the point of that ditty too close to home.
Still, it’s “our little Miley” who takes the disdain of the internet, and Robin Thicke who gets our peculiar sympathy – and this for a man whose video features a balloon-lettered boast about the size of his genitalia. We have to start thinking straight about sexual responsibility. The sexually aggressive young woman may not be less culpable than the sexually aggressive older man, but she’s also not more culpable. And when our music communicates that men want a “good girl” whom they can smack, whose hair they can pull (among the less offensive ideas in “Blurred Lines”), should we be surprised when young women follow the pornified narratives they’ve been given?
Let’s talk for a moment about that narrative; in fact, about the many convoluted narratives visible in Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance. What we see from Miley is not an original style, not an innovation, but a pastiche of sexualized American culture. Fetishizing children’s toys, copying dance moves once confined to strip clubs, borrowing freely from black culture (something that’s drawing an increasing amount of negative attention) – and then the odd touches. The tongue, for instance. Does she think sticking out her tongue symbolizes rebellion? Or the foam finger used as a phallic symbol. Why does she need a phallic symbol, and why did she feel the need to use it so persistently? Remember the bad old days when women were accused of having penis envy? Miley’s use of that finger might have set us back a bit in that regard.
The message of this performance – if there is a message – is difficult to sort. Miley dances suggestively while surrounded by teddy bears. Is she asserting that she’s no longer a child, as if sex equals adulthood? Or is she giving a nod to that most transgressive of subcultures -pedophiles? Is her sexual aggressiveness a declaration of female sexual power? Or is her constant use of the phallic finger telling us that in order to have real power, you need male parts?
The net effect of all this may be hypersexualized, but it’s not actually sexy. Miley seemed less like a sensual adult woman than a child playing a severely inappropriate game of pretend. She’s thrown everything that might turn someone on into the mix and the whole thing comes out tasteless. And I do mean tasteless, as in bland. Boring. We’ve spent decades as a people trying to prove how sexually free we are; how shocking and transgressive we can be. And now we are running on fumes. We’ve spent so much energy showing how “out there” we can be that we can’t remember why we went out there in the first place. “It’s our party, we can do what we want”, and whether there’s any freshness or joy or even genuine interest left in sexuality is beside the point. Only moralists ask what all of these signs and symbols mean – all the props and costumes and gestures, are they actually pointing to anything that matters? Do we care whether anything matters anymore?
Miley held up the mirror and if she’s accurately reflected the truth back to us, we are in trouble. She looked out at all of us from the stage (tongue out, of course) and asked, “Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this who we are now?”
But at least we’re free, right? We do what we want.
And we can’t stop.
And we won’t stop.