It has been an incredibly long time since I've written on this blog, or any of my blogs, and of all things I'm coming out of my hidey hole to write about Miley Cyrus. It's been written to death, but I've spent a lot of time thinking about this performance and really what I feel that people are missing as they criticize her 2013 VMA appearance.
If you haven't seen or heard about it yet, the 20 year old former Disney star is breaking out of her America's Sweetheart image and getting a little rebellious these days. Hey, she's earned the right to mature into whatever kind of adult she chooses to be. The cognitive dissonance of this has been freaking people out, and she's been roundly criticized for her new look and feel. She's released some videos to bolster this new image and the feedback has been mixed. But the resounding chorus of distaste broke loose after her performance at the 2013 Video Music Awards last week.
Miley did a medley with Robin Thicke and 2 Chainz, which included her song "We Can't Stop", and Thicke's "Blurred Lines" followed by his number with 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar "Give It 2 U." Everyone has been criticizing everything about this performance. Is Miley Cyrus accessorizing with black people? Is she appropriating twerk culture? Why is she grinding up on Robin Thicke in that flesh toned plastic bikini? What the fuck is up with the foam finger?
All of this What-The-Fuckery can be easily explained by two factors. 1) MTV is no longer the king of videos, and is trying to revive it's prominence in that venue with this constant conversation, and 2) Nobody is actually watching music videos any more if they have no idea what the hell is happening in this performance.
Let's start with the videos, because it's easiest to explain.
First off, This is Miley Cyrus's video for "We Can't Stop." The whole thing is about being young and rebellious, and doing what you want to do. It shows her doing goofy artsy shit with her friends. Twerking with some girls with this giant teddy bear backpacks. And basically being an in-your-face young person. This is youth culture, and if it's alien to you, you're not looking at what the hell is going on with kids these days. One of the lines is "We'll fuck who we want." Yup. She's just gonna do that, and she's an adult. Good for you! These are the connecting threads that lead us into Robin Thicke: sexual choice, and sexualized youth culture (via twerk). Unless you're really following Miley Cyrus's career, you probably never saw this video.
Robin Thicke's song "Blurred Lines" has been probably one of the two biggest hits of the summer. (The other being "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk and Pharell Williams.) Blurred Lines has a kind of soul-funk feel, with lyrics about trying to break a woman out of her "goody two shoes" type of life, knowing that she's really an animal in disguise. But more than the lyrics, which are a minefield, the video has also been roundly criticized because all the women in the video are nude and all the men are in suits. It has sparked feminist analysis galore and pushed a number of parody videos as well. But yeah, nude women dancing up on Robin Thicke, that's pretty much the video. Now, a lot of people have seen this video on YouTube, because it is so crazy controversial. So, there is at least a modicum of more understood cultural context for this portion of the show.
The third part of this trio medley is another Robin Thicke song "Give it 2 U," which I had neither heard nor seen until this very afternoon. Given that the video dropped on August 24th, this is not terribly surprising that when it was performed a mere 24 hours after it aired that people wouldn't know the song. In fact I thought 2 Chainz's performance at the VMAs in that medley was HIS song. But nevermind. This video has Robin Thicke, 2 Chainz, and Kendrick Lamar performing the song on a college football field surrounded by college football cheerleaders, in all their college paraphernalia (some in cheerleading uniforms, with foam fingers, and cheer signs) and some in some twerk dance clothes with choreography from the J-Settes. Again the gist of the lyrics are about how Robin Thicke is well endowed and you really need to get up on that. Well, lots of songs are about sexual prowess, and with a name like "Thicke" I'm sure he's got something to prove. But again we get to sex and twerking with a college feel.
So this medley performance at the VMAs should not be so shocking if you put all the pieces together. Miley Cyrus is a college age young woman, who is exploring her sexual freedom, participating in youth cultural trends and she was cast in this role to emulate pieces of each of these videos. She is actually the glue that holds the entire performance together. When she was presented with this possibility I have every reason to believe that she jumped up and down to say yes. It is everything she is trying to push in her new persona. The fact that people had no idea what was going on betrays the reality that we're not really watching music videos as much these days.
This is where we get to MTV.
For at least a decade now people have bitched about MTV never playing music. It's always reality shows and game shows and more reality shows and bullshit. Maybe every once in a while they'll do a video, or they'll do that top ten show where people call in and say why they like a song, but about 97% of programming on MTV is not music.
Now, this does not mean that there are no music video channels. They exist. But MTV was the king of music videos. And alas it is no longer. Now YouTube has that honor, more than anything else. When an artist drops a new video, they drop it through YouTube. Videos get hundreds of thousands of hits. Some of them crack a million, some go as far as a hundred million views and counting. There is no way MTV could ever compete with that. So, in my mind, the VMAs on MTV is a relic of their historic prominence. And as a television channel they can still host an awards show spectacular, like the VMAs. And this was MTVs chance to keep holding onto the reigns of that idea that they are still relevant in the arena of Music. By making a spectacle, and having everyone talk about it ad nauseum. But at least the macros are fun.
There will probably come a day, in the not too distant future, when YouTube will probably host or co-host the VMAs. It'll be live streaming, without a cable subscription, and maybe they'll be pulling the same ridiculous stunts as this.