When Miley Cyrus took to the stage for the VMA’s last month, she did so without a lot of expectation that she might do anything…well, noteworthy. As it turns out she did, and it created an absolute typhoon of public criticism on everything from race issues in America (the subjugation of African-American women and the co-opting and appropriation of black culture at large, for instance) to feminist empowerment (who really said that?) and cries of exploitation in equal measure. Then, in a bizarre twist of 24-hour media coverage “need more fuel for the machine” perfection, the story went meta: How we reported on the story became the story as the now publicly shamed Miley could not even be free to twerk herself into happiness without sitting in judgment.
Now, to be clear, I am not picking on Miley here, I would like to discuss what she is doing writ large. Still, since two data points on the same plot line are better than one, the next note in the progression (musical pun intended) is at the very least, notable. So, here we go, the machine starts up again: her new video seems to be a doubling down on the nudity=commercial success diatribe that continues to permeate the pop culture landscape. Without actually trying to morally judge the acts themselves (I will leave that to everyone individually), let us consider the implications from an artistic perspective.
First of all, she is an artist, trying to vie for your mind-space and dollar, so I do not believe those that say she is not responsible for how she presents herself. Of course she is. That said, you are a customer: it is up to you where to spend that dollar. And the only reason marketer’s care at all about the fact that she had 4.5 million Tweet mentions during the VMA broadcast alone, is because there is an algorithm that directly equates that to sales. So, boom, it’s our collective faults for even paying attention in the first place. Every one of these artists is essentially like a futures trader, betting on where you will spend your future time. X+Y=Z. that’s it. No mystery!
So, just as Justify My Love-era Madonna, begat school girl-era Britney Spears, who begat old Madonna kissing little “trying to stay relevant” Britney, who begat Lady Gaga in a meat suit, who in turn begat twerking Miley—whew, that was exhausting—the success of Miley’s VMA performance now begat the Wrecking Ball video response. In the video, Miley again seems to double down on the same mentality, while simultaneously (via the press) begging us to take a closer look at the deeper meaning of the wrecking ball video. However, Miley sitting on a wrecking ball, singing that she’s “a wrecking ball” that wrecks things, as the ball wrecks a wall, in a song called…wait for it…Wrecking Ball, feels very straight forward to me. It makes little difference that she was mostly nude and licked a sledgehammer in the process, both of which were more comical than anything. Consider this though: the video got 19.3 million views in the first 24 hours, setting a record in the process.
Say what you will about the context of early shocking Madonna, but at the end of the day (feel free to call me naive), she seemed to be a strong woman who was rebelling against the system that would have her stay quiet and proper. There is a bit of this that still seems to ring true even with Lady Gaga (whom incidentally, I am not actually a fan of), whereas Britney, and now Miley in turn, have just rung more empty. There seems to be no message behind it—just shock for shocks sake. Still, it’s hard to deny that it’s working for her.
So is this a behavior to be emulated by artists looking to make a name for themselves? While there certainly has been a case made for it, I would say, definitively, no! The problem with this sort of one-upsmanship, is that it so quickly becomes passé. One of my favorite headlines in the press the day after the VMA’s read: “Hey, Lady Gaga was naked last night, too, if anyone noticed.” And I suppose that the only thing sadder than somebody doing this for attention, is when somebody does this for attention but gets none at all because it is simply too expected.
In the end shock value only buys you shock, nothing more. Call it the difference between being an Artist and a Celebrity. In an age where we now have celeb-utants famous for nothing more than being famous, man-child’s famous for hitting themselves in the groin, consider Miley the latest in the long line of things that collectively make us shake our head wondering what world it is we hath created for ourselves. Perhaps no one said it better than the normally reclusive Lionel Richie when asked what he thought about this trend for up-and-comers who resort to shock tactics when hitting the stage, “I’ve always said this -but once you start taking off your clothes, that means you’ve got to have a hit record, You’ve got to back it up with something.” He continues, “My philosophy is — I’m the other way around. Give me the hit record first and you don’t have to take off your clothes. Taking off the clothes means, ‘I need that hit record.’” True words indeed, from a man who Dances on the Ceiling like it’s his job!
Inside/Out discusses all things music and musician related. Feel free to send your latest mix tape, live recording or Arabic cover of R.E.M songs (what you haven’t heard them yet?)—we are sick of singing to ourselves!