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Opinion: Why We Can't Stop Talking About Miley



 

I kind of dread even bringing this up, but the last 36 hours of MileyGate are bringing out the contrarian in me once again. I’ve seen her performance at the VMAs trashed by folks on the left, on the right, in the middle, old people, young people, straights, gays, you name it. I’ve seen it called a “minstrel show” by one demographic and the head minstrel labeled “a stripper/whore” by another. And I think, “Gee, I actually ENJOYED it!” Which is different than “what’s the big deal?” or “merely to speak of this trivial matter is beneath me,” by the way. I am announcing to the world that I actively LIKED it. I’ve liked other things more in my life, and even over the past weekend, but it was silly and outrageous and, best of all, FUN in a refreshingly crazy WTF kind of way. Like the music video that preceded it, which I can only assume most of America did not actually watch, just as they’re apparently unfamiliar with what the VMAs have always, always been about from their very inception, the performance seems to me a completely logical extension of what a very, very long list of women artists and musicians have been doing for at least a century in every arena from rarefied art spaces (read: tiny, agreeable audiences) to the most popular of popular culture venues (read: huge, not-necessarily-on-the-same-wavelength audiences). Since at least the early 70s, in-your-face art has often been called “transgressive,” but (particularly when men do it) it usually doesn’t transgress anything THAT offensive to its jaded core audience, which is one reason I’m generally not nuts about it as an artistic strategy. But judging from the response, Miley REALLY hit all KINDS of nerves, so on that count, bravo. The intensity of the outcry reminds me of the reactions to Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, Madonna’s “Sex” incarnation, Roseanne’s National Anthem moment, Sinead O’Connor’s Pope-defaming (and subsequent bipolar—i.e., in appropriate—behaviors), BritneyLindsayAmanda’s latest meltdowns, even Janis Joplin’s boozing and other unladylike activities. (No one seems to have had a big problem with Janis’s appropriation of African American blues singers, but I digress.) In each case, someone who (according to conventional wisdom, apparently) used to represent the archetype of Innocence or Talent or some other feminine virtue simply crossed the line, broke her pact to be America’s Sweetheart, or otherwise took things just a little too far for polite society.

 

What else do all these precedents have in common? Why, lordy me, there is nary a penis to be found in that bunch! For the record, I’m not hearing much about Robin Thicke’s participation in the spectacle (another singer who grew up in the lap of luxury whose fame has trumped his famous father’s, and who owes a raaaaaather big debt to African American music and culture), just as I didn’t pick up much post-Superbowl outcry over the sainted Justin Timberlake (another ultrapriviliged former Disney child star with a far longer history of ripping off black culture than Ms. Cyrus)—when, if you recall, it was his hand that actually committed the heinous act of exposing Janet’s pasty on live television. If you’ve forgotten, why don’t you go rewatch the footage another hundred times, as we so enjoy doing in such times of national crisis?

 

But even to accuse the Miley-dissers of sexism is to do exactly what, it seems to me, every one of them is doing: Viewing the presumed offense through his or her single favorite lens (race, gender, class, etc.) to the exclusion of all the others. Which strikes me as too facile, especially since this ain’t exactly the first time we’ve been through this kind of thing. No, the Miley transgression stirs up a big ol’ mess of intersecting subcultures and mainstream messages, not just about race but everybody’s favorite trio, sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. (Speaking of drugs, silly me, until I actually looked it up, I’d been assuming that “twerking” meant “tweaking while [working? jerking? fill in the blank],” which would be significantly more taboo and which I’m fairly sure she also does, given how fond of “molly” and salvia we know her to be.) Why stop with minstrelsy? There’s an entire doctoral dissertation full of floating signifiers up in there: The adorable-yet-sinister teddy bears are straight out of Aphex Twin’s back catalogue, in addition to being the trendiest fetish for vanilla types to make fun of. And what’s a foam finger to the crotch but a not-exactly-subtle update of Carolee Schneeman? And so on. I’m not claiming Miley’s act was the best art of its kind, but it’s a hell of a lot more provocative to me than your average Rihanna/Ke$ha/(dare I say it? I’m gonna say it!) Gaga performance, mainly because it had a sense of humor about itself. I mean, come on, people: You just saw the former Hannah Montana dry-humping human/teddybear hybrids on live television! What more do you want, for god’s sake?! Is Katy Perry singing Survivor quotations under the Brooklyn Bridge really that much more tasteful?

 

As for the frequent charge that Miley is acting “desperate” these days, I can only respond: Hell to the yes! You’d be desperate, too, if you spent your teen years as the highest-grossing star of the decade, then wanted/needed something to do for an encore—especially when the track record of your predecessors and colleagues in the Disney factory all but demands you’re going to fall on your face to the great amusement of a planet hungry for scandal and the delightful opportunity either to scold you for being naughty or to laugh at you for being irrelevant. Or both! Every possible direction she could take next has already been taken by someone before her, and our collective response to all of them is equally scripted. (The amusing part is, the very same people who were wowed by Madonna on the very same award show when they were 20 years younger are now reciting the very same lines their parents spoke back then.) Was this all a calculated move on the part of the artist, her management, and MTV? Honey, if you think that is in ANY way a brilliant insight on your part, allow me to walk you through the history of popular culture, from about 1890 on.
 

 

OK, America, you can go back to heaping scorn on Kids Today and the demise of music as an art form and/or asserting that you have far more important matters on your mind, exactly like you’re supposed to. It’s all in the script. Your role as much as hers. Me, I'm gonna watch that wacked-out video one more time; turns out that song is starting to grow on me.

 

Ron Ehmke is an artist and writer living in Buffalo, NY.

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