By now you’re tired of hearing about Miley Cyrus’ recent and vulgar performance at the Video Music Awards. You’ve seen the pictures of her grinding away on an inexplicably clad Robin Thicke (Alan Thicke’s son), whose striped suit was a dead ringer for Michael Keaton’s character in “Beetlejuice.” You know that she pantomimed sexual acts with a giant foam finger. You’ve heard the comparisons of this young “lady” to Madonna, who pioneered the type of shock-pop tactics employed at the VMAs.
The VMAs are a technological touchstone of modern entertainment culture. If “video killed the radio star,” MTV heralded a new era in technology-driven cultural trends. The rise of the music video gave Hollywood and the popular music industry a much more immediate, much more direct line to the hearts and minds of the nation’s youth than previously these industries enjoyed. Participants in (and observers of) pop culture have been shocking our collective sensibilities ever since.
Lady Gaga, another current pop favorite, performed practically naked at the awards show. Cyrus, for her part, wound her hair into a pair of tiny pigtails atop her head. The “naughty little devil” imagery was not accidental. Neither starlet broke new ground, except with respect to the overt nature of the sexual displays they mounted. The terrifyingly reanimated corpse of Madonna was still the highest paid celebrity in 2013, and it was Madonna, a decade ago, who engaged in a three-way lesbian kiss with then-superstars Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
Spears and Aguilera both took their turn in the hyper-sexualized whirlwind that is popular entertainment. Spears, you may recall, began her performing career as a pop singer late of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club. She is the picture of innocence on her first album cover, 1999’s “… Baby One More Time.” But her videos became increasingly racier, with Spears appearing in the sort of “naughty school girl” outfit that is the stuff of Japanese anime fantasies, and soon she was caught in a downward spiral of drugs and mental issues that had her angrily beating a parked car with an umbrella after shaving her head.
Aguilera has fared better, if only because she has extraordinary vocal talent. These days she’s better known for her television work on “The Voice” and, imagine that, her music. But there was a time not so long ago – just less than a decade, give or take – when she was performing in little more than chaps and a bikini while promoting her “Stripped” album. The video for her song, “Dirrty,” was a collage of sexual fetishes, all of which Aguilera defended as somehow empowering.
We are less easily shocked these days. Lesbian make-outs barely get us interested. No, now we need simulated sex to get us talking at our water coolers, to prompt parenting groups to complain, to elicit aw-shucks interviews with people like Billy Ray Cyrus and Alan Thicke (men who, as fathers, ought to know better). Thanks to Miley Cyrus, “twerking” – vigorously shaking one’s backside while bent over as if recreating a scene from Daryl Hannah’s “Clan of the Cave Bear” – has entered the national lexicon.
The smart money is on the release of a Miley Cyrus sex tape within the next few years. Cyrus seems hell-bent on casting aside whatever tatters of the good-girl image might be left from her Hannah Montana days. Given the histrionics in which she’s been engaged since turning 18, it’s hard to imagine there were too many shreds of that old aura left – but if there were, she’s beaten them into submission with a combination of pelvic thrusts and serpentine displays of tongue. It isn’t really a question of whether her life will collapse in an orgy of drugs and debauchery, as Britney Spears’ did; it’s just a question of when.
Increasingly, this pattern is inevitable whenever a female pop starlet courts mega-fame on national and international stages. It isn’t enough to have talent. A young lady must also be a sexual (and sexually accessible) object. She must be equal parts porn star and stripper, dancing bear and trained monkey. She must be obedient to her handlers and uninhibited in her exhibitionism. She must be everything parents fear and everything young men desire. She must be all of these things at once, without regard for her own needs, her own health and her own long-term well-being. For this voluntary, entirely mutual debasement, she will become wealthy beyond measure … if she survives.
Harry Bruinius calls this “the sexual hazing of American pop stars.” He writes of “an economic matrix that bestows riches and fame on those pop stars who can cleverly play on these cultural ambivalences, creating another layer, often unseen, to the moral outrage on display now towards Cyrus.” Bruinius says this “pop ritual” is “reserved for young women.” He’s right.
Cynically, Howard Bragman of Reputation.com (as reported by Aly Weisman of Business Insider) says that Miley has simply used this “sexual hazing” as a means of reshaping and repositioning her career. “It’s a rite of passage, particularly with these Disney girls,” he says. “They seem to want to say ‘hey, I’m not that little kid anymore, I’m a grown up lady.'”
While “lady” is the wrong term, Bragman rightly points out that Cyrus is now well positioned to pursue a career in sexualized pop-rock. “I think she has a different kind of path ahead of her, different kind of music,” Weisman quotes him as saying. “Whether you liked it or not, she made her point. She had to be the caterpillar that shed her skin, and now we’re going to see what butterfly she’s going to become.”
That “butterfly,” like the victims of so many pop-culture metamorphoses before it, will likely build yet another cocoon, one constructed of booze and drugs and shame. But by then we’ll have forgotten Miley Cyrus and her poor decisions. We’ll already be cheering the sexualization of the next young girl on the market. And like that girl’s father, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves when her spin on the stripper pole of pop stardom ends badly.