Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Who's the "Wrecking Ball"? Miley Cyrus In the Now

            With all of the media hoopla following Miley Cyrus lately, she seems inescapable. For a week after her controversial VMA performance, CNN’s home page ran multiple headlines about her. One can’t sign onto facebook without seeing people both praise and complain about her. That was the context in which I first heard her music, after reading an article discussing the double standard that women are judged more harshly than men in pop music. I, too, had noticed she seemed to be getting all the blame, and although at that point, two days after her performance, I didn’t even know she had performed with Robin Thicke, I imagined that there was a deeper story there that wasn’t being told. Cyrus herself astutely pointed this out afterward, noting that “It was a lot of ‘Miley twerks on Robin Thicke,’ but never ‘Robin Thicke grinds up on Miley,’ …. So obviously there’s a double-standard” (“Miley Cyrus: Confessions”). Lots of people focused their VMA commentary on Cyrus’s dancing and costume without giving much consideration to the song itself. 
In “We Can’t Stop,” the first single off of Cyrus’s forth-coming album Bangerz, most people hear a party anthem, a grown-up version of Cyrus’s teeny-bopper hit “Party In the U.S.A.,” but I hear it as a call for help, a gasping sigh of desperation. I hear the fear that she can’t stop, that she is unable to stop.
            The song suggests drug addiction. One lyric is “dancing with molly,” a street name for the drug extasy (sic). Referring to the drug as “molly,” a girl’s name, personifies it, makes it so she has a relationship, a friendship even with the drug. Later she sings about being in line for the bathroom as she’s “tryin’ to get a line in the bathroom.” This could refer to a line of cocaine. The video shows her pretending to cut off her fingers with a kitchen knife, only to have her bleed out pepto-bismol, which might make one think of vomiting due to a drug overdose. The video also shows her in pools and bathtubs (“We Can’t Stop”).  Seeing her writhe around the bathtub or jump into a swimming pool, the dim, faraway look in her eyes masked by sunglasses, I find it impossible not to think of Whitney Houston, who drowned in just inches of bath water earlier this year. Her obituary showed cocaine in her system.
            In interviews, though, Cyrus often seems to have her head on her shoulders. She seems to be in control of her image and how people see her. She recognizes that “it’s an important time not to Google [herself]” (“Miley Cyrus: Confessions”). She wants to study photography in college, but worries that she would not be allowed to have the life of a normal college student (“Miley Cyrus on Weed”). Her biggest role model is Dolly Parton (“Miley Cyrus on Weed”). She is aware of her theatrics – when she cried in “Wrecking Ball” she notes that it wasn’t because the song was so emotional, though she wants listeners to tear up, but that she produced the tears by thinking of her dog who had just died (“Miley Cyrus: Confessions”). These things all make her seem stable and self-aware.
            Perhaps most surprising are the incisive comments she gives on America’s love-hate relationship with offensive media, comments that make sense and keep her performance within the bounds of what she finds appropriate. Cyrus notes that:
                        America is just so weird in what they think is right and wrong. Like I was
watching Breaking Bad the other day, and they were cooking meth. I could
literally cook meth because of that show. It’s a how to. And then they bleeped out 'fuck.' And I’m like, really? They killed a guy, and disintegrated his body in acid, but you’re not allowed to say 'fuck'? It’s like when they bleeped ‘molly’ at the VMAs. Look what I’m doing up here right now, and you’re going to bleep out ‘molly’? Whatever. (“Miley Cyrus: Confessions”)
The adolescent shrug-off of “whatever” seems a bit immature, but Cyrus is right about the hypocrisy. If the censors have problems with foul language, why don’t they have a problem with extreme violence? Why can they show drug use on TV, but can’t even mention it during a song? She really seems to hit the nail on the head when she questions why the censors didn’t cut off her performance if they were really interested in protecting the audience. In Cyrus’s eyes, it is the network’s censors’ job to make sure that what the airwaves transmit is appropriate for its audience, and she sees them as failing. Elsewhere in “Confessions of Pop’s Wildest Child,” Cyrus discusses how she actually toned down her original idea for the performance to avoid censors, knowing what they considered over the line. This suggests that she was fully aware of the risqué nature of her performance, but also knew that it could go a little over the line and stay on the air if the network thought people would tune in to see her.
            This isn’t Cyrus’s first experience with hypocritical censors. She has courted controversy with media portrayal of her sexuality since she was fifteen In April 2008, her email was hacked and pictures of her in her underwear, which she had emailed to then-boyfriend Nick Jonas, appeared on several internet sites. It would be appropriate for someone to sit down and talk with her about how creating such digital images can come back to haunt you and about being confident in yourself rather than just your looks (and probably for someone to sit down and have a chat with Nick Jonas too), but I felt bad for how the media raked her through the mud. Because she is a public figure, she became a target for people to dig through her personal life and make it public. The media criticized her for even taking the pictures, but no one was attempting to get them removed from the internet sites they showed up on. When the boy who hacked her account was arrested, he was not charged for taking the images and posting them, but only for stealing credit card information. In that case, the media’s double agenda of seeming morally chaste while pedaling sexualized images of women contributed not to any calls for heightened protection of the web, but to many people criticizing Cyrus for doing what many other girls have done and not faced the same public shaming for. (Zetter)
Zombie Apocalypse or auditioning for Les Mis?
            Later that month, it was reported that Cyrus had been photographed topless for Vanity Fair by photographer Annie Leibowitz, who is widely recognized for taking artistic photos of celebrities, particularly musical artists.  Cyrus issued a public apology for the photo, which showed her draped in only a sheet, but she didn’t attempt to keep the magazine from running it nor did she criticize them afterward. When it finally came out, what was perhaps most shocking about the photo was how pale and emaciated she looked. Her mother appeared in the photos with her and, looking more like a mal-nourished zombie than a lithe teenager, it was hard to argue that the magazine was unfairly sexualizing her. Still, Cyrus’s public apology fanned the flames ignited by rumors she has posed topless, and those rumors did sexualize her and only for the purpose of more publicity, not because she had some grand statement to make. Cyrus later noted that her appeal increased because of the scandal. When that happened, it was harder to feel bad about her being misrepresented by the media because she chose to participate in the controversy. The drive for publicity seemed to be her biggest motivating factor. (Singh)
            Two years later, when Cyrus released her Can’t Be Tamed album, her participation in the media’s attempt to sexualize her became even more obvious. The album cover looked more like a fashion ad than an album cover. The clothes, pose and even the font looked more like an Abercrombie and Fitch ad than like something promoting music. This was Cyrus’s more adult attempt to break away from her tween audience. While the songs may attempt to be more grown-up, the overall sound was still aimed at teenagers, the group who had grown up listening to her. She was still aware of whom her audience was, but she didn’t think about what effect she had on them.
Look at me. I'm so cool that maybe I can get promoted from Biker Monthly to the American Eagle catalog!
            Now, older, Cyrus does seem more self-aware. She knows when she steps over lines, but she naively assumes that, just because she is now trying to make music aimed at a more adult audience, the media is going to treat her like a grown-up primarily interested in reaching an adult audience. Maybe now she is aware that many in the media were not prepared for her transformation. More importantly, while 20-year-olds know she has changed, their parents were less likely to follow her career, and more likely to plop their younger kids in front of the VMAs expecting wholesome, Hannah-Montana style family entertainment. Miley still seems rather oblivious to the fact that the audience that is going to seek her out may well be younger than the audience she is aiming her work at. “I forget that it’s, like, people in Kansas watching the show. That people sit their kid in front of the TV and are like, ‘Oh, an awards show! Let’s watch’,” she told Rolling Stone (“Miley Cyrus on Weed”). While she seems mature enough to recognize her music may be problematic, and may send dangerous messages, she doesn’t make any attempt to control those messages, and that is the real problem. She can snort cocaine if she wants to, but she doesn’t need to be making it sound like a fun idea for everyone else.
Ultimately, the question that has to be answered is, would I want to sit down to dinner with Miley Cyrus, and the answer is not at this point. She’s said a few smart things, but she’s still not mature enough. Given a few years, maybe she’ll continue to grow up and become interesting as she finds ways to comment on the media’s hypocrisy without taking advantage of it simply for free publicity.
Works Cited
Eells, Josh. “Miley Cyrus: Confessions of Pop’s Wildest Child.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone. 24
Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.
---. “Miley Cyrus on Why She Loves Weed, Went Wild at the VMAs, and Much More.”
Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone. 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.
Singh, Anita. “Hanna Montana star Miley Cyrus: Vanity Fair photo scandal made fans relate to
            me.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. 27 June 2008. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.
“We Can’t Stop.” Dir. Diane Martel. YouTube. Sony Music Entertainment. 19 June 2013. Web. 1
            Oct. 2013.
Williams, Mike, et al. “We Can’t Stop.” Bangerz. Perf. Miley Cyrus. RCA, 2013. MP3.
Zetter, Kim. “Purported Miley Cyrus Hacker Pleads Guilty to Spamming From Hacked Celebrity
            Accounts.” Wired. Conde Nast. 1 Aug. 2011. Web. 1 Oct. 2013.