Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In Defense of Miley Cyrus

So, let's talk about Miley Cyrus.

I was NOT a fan of Hannah Montana. She was fine in it, but the underlying story, to me, went something like this:

"I'm a pretty but normal girl with dark hair and a kind of odd family who nobody pays too terrible much attention to. But when I put on this blonde wig and pretend to be somebody else the WHOLE WORLD LOVES ME."

I wasn't a religious watcher of it or anything, so I'll absolutely debate that story with anyone who was, but it just seemed like the story was that, yes, you could be anything, but you were really special if you pretended to be someone else, a more sexualized and stereotypically popular version of yourself.

That's healthy.

Flash forward a few years, and this happened:

So a lot has been said about this performance.

I think the number one thing is that that's exactly what it was. A performance.

Celebrity, the act of being a celebrity, is a performance.

Cyrus herself has brought up some good points about it, like how she didn't intend to be "sexy" - she wanted to be shocking. She also made the excellent point that everyone is judging her for her performance, but no one has said a word about Robin Thicke, who, while he didn't "twerk" (Thank God) did gyrate against Cyrus and was completely complicit in the whole thing, from the looks of it.

But, maybe most importantly, whether you liked it or not, you have to APPRECIATE it.

For several reasons.

First, from everything I've read, Cyrus seems to be really in control of her own celebrity, and incredibly conscious of how and why she does things.

Second, the whole thing was genius. It was the VMAs, which are supposed to be shocking and cutting edge. And, love it or hate it, Cyrus was the only person we're still talking about from that night. The only one. Lady Gaga (who I generally dislike and see as an example of someone being controlled by their fame rather than the other way around) didn't even shock as much as Cyrus. I couldn't even tell you, without looking it up, what she did/sang/wore.

Third, yes, it had some questionable cultural appropriation and racial issues. I don't know enough about those fields to make a really academic comment, but Cyrus has noted, time and again, that she's incredibly aware of her privilege (and, as she told Rolling Stone, a very "strategic hot mess" - girl knows what she's doing). And I can't really fault her for that.

Finally, it was just a GOOD performance. She very clearly has talent, and her handling of her fame, her image, and her music since then has been spot-on.

Basically, what this article says better than I ever could:

"What is it about Miley Cyrus that aggravates so many people, but also makes her the biggest pop star in America right now? The biggest reason is probably that she makes a lot of people feel very old.
Cyrus, who is about to turn 21 in November, is young enough that her frame of reference for pop music has always been dominated by hip-hop. She’s also from a generational cohort that has grown up on social media and is conditioned to share culture in a performative way. Think of it like Tumblr’s reblog function — where what you share with others represents how you want people to think of you, even if what you’re sharing isn’t necessarily who you are. This mentality disrupts a lot of the self-consciousness earlier generations have had about cultural borders. Miley — and many, many, many other artists and music fans around her age — aren’t “not seeing color” as Jay Z says, but they’re not seeing race as a boundary they can’t cross, or something they can’t freely integrate into their own identity. Miley isn’t actively trying to be a cultural imperialist, and she has no statement to make other than “I really like this!”
This approach to art and culture isn’t without its problems. Her enthusiastic appropriation of trap and ratchet isn’t automatically racist, but it does come from a position of privilege, and it’s not difficult to see it as exploitative or condescending. But you could say that about a wide range of white artists who have been influenced by black music over the past several decades. Miley’s hip-hop makeover gets under people’s skin mainly because she doesn’t seem to have the slightest bit of interest in what makes it potentially insensitive or opportunistic on her part, though she seems very aware of the transgressive quality Jay Z touched on. She knows that it will freak out a lot of people — older people — if the precious little white girl goes black. It’s good old-fashioned rebellion, and something many of her fans can relate to, or enjoy vicariously...
...Miley also makes people feel old simply by being a pop star who up until very recently was just not on their radar, though she’s been a major star among teens for years. Her notorious performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in August was shocking for a lot of reasons that have been discussed at length — Miley using black women as props, her grinding on Robin Thicke’s crotch — but in a less obvious way, it was jarring because from the perspective of pretty much anyone over 25, she wasn’t supposed to be the biggest star of the show. Miley stole the spotlight away from Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Kanye West, and made them all seem bland and overly self-referential. It was a sudden, unexpected changing of the guard: Now, whether you like it or not, Miley is the most provocative star in pop, and all the people you expected to be pushing the envelope seem old and boring. And even still, in the aftermath of the VMAs and the massive success of “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball,” there’s still a lot of denial of Miley being as popular as she is. It won’t last much longer."
"This approach to art and culture isn't without its problems." Of course not. No approach to art or culture is. The best art is offensive in some way. 
I think my biggest problem with this whole thing, with people hating on Cyrus (who I'm not a huge fan of all the time - this is not a "LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE" post), is that they are missing the point. 
She's pretending, people. 
That's what celebrities do. 
And she's laughing all the way to the bank doing it.

And you're paying her to do it by talking about her. 
Plus, even if you can't get behind that logic, her stuff right now is insanely good. 
Her recent SNL performance: 

Also her comedic work on SNL was hilarious:


Also, let's all be honest. "We Can't Stop" is a hell of a song.

I like this version the best:

And Cyrus has a hell of a voice:

*Even if you dislike the song, or the video, and the fact that Cyrus is not listed as a writer on it, damn she can sing.

Here's the thing: I dislike a lot of things I recognize as being good.

I don't like, for example, jazz music.

I recognize, however, that it's a form of music with a lot of merit.

So let's not hate on Miley Cyrus, who is clearly talented, just because we don't like her getting naked and licking a sledgehammer, or grinding on Robin Thicke, or sticking her tongue out.

Because, let's just get to the heart of it here.

Let's stop slut shaming Miley Cyrus.

(Actually, let's stop slut shaming everyone.)

She wants to be famous, in a way that previous generations can't understand - even I have a hard time with it sometimes. And yeah, there are other ways, but why should she be shamed for choosing this one? In which she isn't even, publicly, actually a "slut," but is expressing her sexuality, which, not shockingly, everyone is buying.

Let's stop saying that her sexuality is bad, just because we remember her as a fresh-faced tween on a Disney show.

In fact, let's stop saying that anyone's sexuality is bad, because, really, that's killing feminism and propping up the inequalities women face.

Sexuality is not a bad thing.

And saying that Cyrus' is, just because it's offensive or loud or not our cup of tea, is slut shaming. Even if she's not a slut (I don't know her, obvs), saying that what she's doing is immoral or wrong or slutty is wrong.

Stop it.

Because when you say "Miley Cyrus is so nasty!" what you're really saying is "Women who express their sexuality or show their bodies in public are wrong!"

And, y'all, fuck that.

Now, if you just don't like her, that's fine. Realize that you don't dislike her personally, just the performance of fame that she is selling, and move on.

But let's stop hating on her for doing what we all wish we had the guts, or personality, or character, or wherewithal to do.

And fall in love, all over again, with this cover of "We Can't Stop":

*I write about fame and celebrity for my actual research, but rarely about modern celebrities (I'm an early modernist), so excuse my limited knowledge of modern celebrity theory.


  1. Honestly, it's not the sexualized content or the shocking nature that bothered me, I was definitely one of the people bothered by the continued use of black women as props, particularly in her performance but her performance was one of many, many, where black women are used as props. (Not many Miley performances, just many white women performing this way in general.) Racilicious (http://www.racialicious.com/) has done some pretty interesting writeups about it. That part of her performance was too powerful and overwhelming for me to move past--which is why I can't see it as a good performance. I can, however, see it for what it was: a performance. And it was designed to be deliberately provocative. There are aspects I think we can hold her entire entourage accountable for, and not let the brunt of the criticism fall on the performer. (I've not gotten the feeling from Miley Cyrus that she really believes black women's bodies are props, but why did her choreographer even let that happen? Where were some of the people that help design these performances? Where were their brains?)

    But I agree with the slutshaming part. If the provocative nature of the video or Miley's sexuality is the thing you're angry about, then you need new things to be angry about! It was the VMAs, and Robin Thicke and his highly questionable (if catchy) song are just as worthy of critique as Miley's Cyrus's dance moves--many of which just mirrored Thicke's video anyway!

    1. I've kind of gotten that feeling from her as well, and I appreciate the comment on this - I admittedly don't know enough about how we talk about race and privilege to really comment on it in any coherent way.

      I think you're really getting at what I mean here when I say performance - an act. The act of doing/being/appearing as something. And all performance is, in a way, meant to be provocative or, at the very least, something that is meant to be seen. Just because we don't like something doesn't mean it's not a "good" performance.

      I think "Stop Slut Shaming" should be on a shirt or a mug or something. We need to get the word out. :)