By: Brian Mangan
Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last month, you know that a lot of people are talking about Miley Cyrus and her recent strange and highly-sexualized behavior (oh, how lucky to be under a rock and avoid all of this).
Coming off her twerking-and-foam-finger-licking performance at the VMA’s, Miley released a new music video for a song called “Wrecking Ball” in which she, among other things, 1) is mostly naked, 2) licks a sledgehammer, and 3) writhes around for much of the video. I happen to really enjoy the song, so take a look:
Although Miley has explained it as you might expect, saying “I’m at a point in my career where I can be exactly what I want to be, who I want to be,” that hasn’t prevented criticism from pouring in from all angles. Most of these opinions, of course, have been plain stupid – “hurr durr Miley don’t let them take advantage of you” and “derrrp derrrp you don’t have to do this to shed the Hannah Montana image” and of course, it goes without saying that most things posted in YouTube comments should be considered violations of the Geneva Convention[FN1].
Amidst the nonsense, there was one response – an open letter from Sinead O’Connor to Miley Cyrus which was posted on Entertainment Weekly – which stood out. Sinead O’Connor is an accomplished artist and is no stranger to controversy herself (although a different kind, usually). Her letter, as someone who is an insider to the industry and who has first-hand knowledge of what pressures Miley might be dealing with, is mostly well-written, thought-provoking, and kind. The letter is tough-love (though not in comparison to most of the criticism Miley has gotten) but weaves in moments of true admiration for her work in a kind of sisterly, motherly way:
“I am happy to hear I am somewhat of a role model for you and I hope that because of that you will pay close attention to what I am telling you… Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent…
I repeat, you have enough talent that you don’t need to let the music business make a prostitute of you. You shouldn’t let them make a fool of you either. Don’t think for a moment that any of them give a flying f— about you. They’re there for the money.. we’re there for the music. It has always been that way and it will always be that way. The sooner a young lady gets to know that, the sooner she can be REALLY in control…
As for the shedding of the Hannah Montana image.. whoever is telling you getting naked is the way to do that does absolutely NOT respect your talent, or you as a young lady. Your records are good enough for you not to need any shedding of Hannah Montana. She’s waaaaaaay gone by now.. Not because you got naked but because you make great records…”
To me, the Miley Cyrus controversy is less about Miley (whether she’s smart or dumb, nice or mean, or slutty, and whether that’s even okay) and more about how we are perceiving it as a society. It’s that this girl used to be Hannah Montana. Because of that, despite the many years she has been in the public eye, she feels as if she is (or should be) perpetually young.
However, Miley Cyrus is a human being, not an ageless robot, and she is growing up. More importantly, it appears now that her behavior up to this point — the lead up to the VMA’s, the big performance, and the scandalous video — have all been well-calculated publicity moves. Not only does this accomplish her goal of trying to separate her identity from Hannah Montana (if that is indeed what she is doing), but will help her as she tries to launch her pop music career. If you haven’t noticed, her strategy, for the most part, has worked perfectly. The Google Trends chart is pretty incredible. If you’ve had your parents ask you what “twerking” is, you know first-hand that it worked (and you are extremely uncomfortable).
Whether she’s doing it right or wrong is up for debate (her tweets in response to Sinead O’Connor were reprehensible, in fact), but the important part is that these changes are happening and people are *freaking out about them*.
I for one don’t see what’s so unusual about what she’s doing. Miley Cyrus is now 20. Tasteful or not, her behavior is similar to that of other female pop stars her age.
Kesha burst onto the scene in 2010, at the age of 22, in her own filthy manner (with songs like “Tik Tok” on albums called “Animal” and “Cannibal”). Katy Perry emerged when she was 24 and has not been the poster child for chastity. A review of similar starlets shows that most of them made their big breaks in their mid-20’s, not as a child star like Miley Cyrus (Madonna also, was 25, and has spent over a quarter century doing some pretty incredible things on stage). Two artists, in particular, provide a more interesting and useful look at Miley: Lady Gaga and Britney Spears.
When Lady Gaga burst onto the scene in 2009, with Just Dance followed by Poker Face, Stefani Germanotta (her actual name) was also older than Miley, having made her break at 23 years old. If you watch her early videos, Gaga is highly sexualized in a traditional way – blonde hair, tight clothes, sexy dance moves. She was already a woman, and she burst onto the scene as such.
In fact, check out the top two YouTube comments on her undeniably sexy Poker Face video. These aren’t cherry picked either — they are the top comments, longing for bleached-blonde, scantily clad, beautiful Lady Gaga to return:
i wished lady gaga would still look like this
old good gaga
now she is a monster
As Gaga’s incredible career has progressed (I’m a huge fan, if you can’t tell), she started exploring other sides of herself both musically and visually. In Bad Romance, her magnum opus, she takes huge leaps artistically. However, although several of her personas are unattractive in the video, they don’t resemble Gaga and are merely characters:
It is not until her most recent song, Applause, that you see Gaga taking chances with her appearance in other ways (although clearly this is within the context of the industry – she’s made up for the video, etc):
A beautiful woman but just that – a woman. Neither artificially beautiful or monstrous.
Gaga is a great example for this because she has always been such an advocate for LGBT rights, for body image issues, etc. A year and a half ago, Gaga famously encouraged fans to join her in a “Body Revolution,” posting pictures of herself without makeup and in her underwear in response to the pop culture media’s mockery of her minor weight gain.
Also, Applause is a totally badass song.
Gaga is her own animal, but the real point-for-point comparison is the one and only Britney Spears. Like Miley, Britney grew up in the public eye. After the Mickey Mouse Club and related endeavors, Britney was only eighteen years old when “…Baby One More Time” debuted. She was 19 when she performed at the VMAs and made her very public coming of age – which at the time was subject to much criticism itself. Ironically, the Miley is doing the same, many people have pointed to Britney as an example of how to do it “right.” (See Buzzfeed).
Ultimately, I think my pop culture hero, Pharrell Williams, said it best:
“You have to remember this a 20-year-old evolving,” Williams said. “Her dad is Billy Ray Cyrus, her godmother is Dolly Parton, and she’s raised in the era of ‘hip-hop is king.’ So when people go and look and ask, ‘Why is she twerking, why is she doing this?’ It’s because she’s a byproduct of America.”
I love what Sinead said to Miley, and she may very well be right, but the Miley controversy should be over for a few reasons. Firstly, what Miley is doing is completely unspectacular compared to that of similar stars her age, and secondly, forwarding a discourse about whether she is doing too much, or why, or who her body belongs to, etc. appears to be a step backwards for society.
“I have the freedom to do whatever I want, because I’m starting as a new artist now.”
With all the talk and hand-wringing about whether she is showing too much skin, or doing too much, the protesters are merely feeding into the perception that what she does with her body and her appearance is all that matters, or that as a female, her appearance is an integral part of her identity as an artist.
If you’re an optimist like me, you think that our society, and pop culture, appears to have made strides in the last decade toward shedding this hyper-critical attitude toward bodies and individual sexuality. Although there are certain unavoidable realities, I think that Lady Gaga, and Adele, and others, have helped to foster a more accepting arena. At the end of the day, Miley’s conduct is probably nothing more than an effective temporary marketing technique – but even if it wasn’t, we’re not doing anybody any favors by dissecting her actions and criticizing them in that way.
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Brian Mangan is a New York City based attorney and would love to see Pharrell Williams, Bruno Mars, and Lady Gaga work on something, somehow.
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[FN1] In case you think that the criticism isn’t out there, here is an example comment from a random Entertainment Weekly blog page. This is not a collection of tweets by Buzzfeed where they try to find the worst comments imaginable and write an article about them – this was an enormously upvoted comment:
“she hangs her tongue out like an overweight bulldog after a walk. It’s just an ugly look. Even uglier… the constant twerking. Whoever invented that dance should be slapped… 90% of child stars think in order to be seen as grown up, they have to be classless skanks who rely on sex rather than talent. To be “grown up” you must have class… otherwise you’re just an “of legal age” ho.”
This comment got 57 upvotes and 2 downvotes – and represents exactly what I believe most people are thinking about it.