Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Miley Cyrus and the irrelevance of culturally significant events

It's an amazing thing to witness, the huge reactions garnered by the actions of intentionally provocative celebrities, especially when those actions take place within a framework of an "awards show" that consists largely of navel-gazing self-promotion, based on such moments of provocation.

The latest episode: the antics of former child star Miley Cyrus (nee Hannah Montana). Given the publicity her performances at the Video Music Awards on Sunday night are getting, one would think there was some significance to all of this, or at least that Cyrus had done something more than just be outrageous (or try to be so, truth be told).

Some time ago, the Superbowl became the event for introducing new commercials to the American public (owing to the huge viewership, to be sure). In a weirdly similar way, the MTV Video Music Awards program has become the event for outrageous behavior by music industry performers (and other celebrities). The list of such moments is exceedingly long, but outside of hardcore fans, most people probably remember only a handful--if that--of them, like Madonna's kiss of Britney Spears and Kanye West's rude interruption of Taylor Swift.

I have to admit that the current "look at me" culture has left me behind to some degree. I realize it was always present to some extent, but it appears to have grown by leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades, largely due to the internet and the prevalence of cell phone cameras I would guess. But at the same time, those obsessed with recognition seem to be running out of things to do, to draw attention to themselves. In Cyrus' case, she simulated sex acts, stripped down to minimal clothing, and what else? Danced very badly?

In 1969, Jim Morrison--legendary front man for The Doors--found himself arrested and charged with indecent exposure five days after a concert performance at Miami's Dinner Key Auditorium by the band. Why? Long story short, Morrison was inciting the crowd, inviting it to come up on stage (trying to provoke a riot, really) past security and supposedly exposing himself while on stage.

This was Big News at the time, despite the fact that Morrison had routinely behaved the same way in various other venues for years. The microphone stand--for Morrison--was a stand-in for a sexual partner, figuratively and maybe sometimes even literally. But then, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards played the same sorts of games--with each other! gasp!--as well. And the so-called "twerking" of Cyrus and so many others, does no one remember Elvis Presley at all?


And these are just the big names from the past. I didn't even delve into performances by groups like the Plasmatics and their lead singer Wendy O. Williams, who sometimes appeared on stage wearing nothing but whipped cream (or was it shaving cream?). Bands and performers in the club scenes from the eighties, seventies, and before, where liquor and drugs flowed freely, could be and were much, much worse in this regard. They were performing for the crowd, after all, and were trying to make names for themselves. Being outrageous, especially in sexual ways, was a good method of attracting attention, especially from younger people, both girls and boys. Thirty plus years later and some people are still taken aback by such actions, still view it as over the top, or even as somehow catastrophic for the nation:
MTV should consider changing the name of their annual music awards program from the VMAs to the STDs.

Sunday night’s internationally televised broadcast set a new low for filth and debauchery even by MTV’s standards.

It was a great big freak show celebrating all that is wrong with American culture and it was targeted at American school children...

The show itself was a cavalcade of behavior that would have made even the mayors of Sodom and Gomorrah blush.
Please. There's little question in my mind that performances like that of Cyrus are tasteless and pathetic. But that's because there is nothing else there; it's about the creation of outrage, nothing more. The specifics of her performance are nothing new. They just aren't. They're rehashed again and again. The only thing that's different is the nature and extent of the dissemination.

On the other side of the coin, there's also a silly attempt to find deeper meanings in these more recent antics, whether to favor the performances or criticize them. Look at the very different takes on Madonna's kiss. Some saw it as way out of line, for the same silly reasons given above, but others thought it--and still think it--an important cultural moment for its "mainstreaming" of lesbianism.

As to Cyrus, there are already a series of articles analyzing her performances from an apparently academic perspective, as if there is much, much more going here than just a publicity-starved singer looking for attention. Like this piece:
A doctoral dissertation could (and will) be written on the racial, class, and gender dynamics of Cyrus’s shtick. I’ll make just one historical note. For white performers, minstrelsy has always been a means to an end: a shortcut to self-actualization. The archetypal example is in The Jazz Singer (1927), in which Al Jolson’s immigrant striver puts on the blackface mask to cast off his immigrant Jewish patrimony and remake himself as an all-American pop star. 
Cyrus’s twerk act gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin. Cyrus is annexing working-class black “ratchet” culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention: her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. (Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club.) Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil’ Kim and the music of “the hood.” But the reason that these affinities are coming out now, at the VMAs and elsewhere, is because it’s good for business.
Wait, what? When Cyrus came up with this number--assuming that she was responsible for all of the content--she was "annexing working-class black 'ratchet' culture"? Really? I wonder of she is even aware of what she was doing. But then I guess one might argue Elvis Presley was doing the same, along with the boys from the Stones and Jim Morrison as well. After all, the impact of the blues traditions on all of their work is well known. Of course, there's not a lot of room to complain now about a lack acceptance of black performers, as compared to the days of Elvis. But I guess some still assume cultural (or really, racial) ownership of certain behaviors and are offended when such ownership is somehow broached by others. Bleh.

The point is, there's just nothing here one way or the other. It's blatant exhibitionism for its own sake, for publicity's sake, nothing more. It wasn't new or original. And it certainly wasn't good, everyone seems to agree with that. But even if it had been better, performance-wise, it still would have been meaningless, culturally, intellectually, and historically.

What to do about it? Ignore it, turn it off, if it turns your stomach. Watch it if you care to. But don't pretend it's something we--as a society--need to pay attention to, because it's not.

Cheers, all.

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