I want to defend Miley Cyrus. Honest.
I’ve done it before in passing, but this time I want to do it in full.
It’s important that I tell you I’ve even been encouraged to do so by my esteemed colleague Jeff Miers, whose savaging of the newest disc by our present-day twerker-in-chief in last Friday’s Gusto was both impassioned and uproariously entertaining.
I’ve heard only two songs on her new disc. And one of them – “We Can’t Stop” – is as worthless and ridiculous a piece of spoiled brat pop as you’re ever likely to find. I wouldn’t dream of arguing with Miers on her new disc.
Lord knows Miley herself makes it difficult to rise to her defense.
In her last salvo widely quoted in “tut-tut, tsk-tsk” tabloid circles, she insisted more pointedly than necessary that she knows more about what kids “in clubs” want than some “70-year old Jewish man” and therefore ought to be allowed to give it to them without interference.
Grace under pressure is clearly not yet in her emotional arsenal but, hey, she’s 20 and some things take time. They do for most of us.
What’s important to defend in full is her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, which is now being scored in instant pop culture history as “salacious” and worse.
I thought it was hilarious. And completely defensible. Not in any way that she’d ever be likely to herself, but one that – if I were she – I’d appreciate in respectful silence.
To me, what she did in her tongue-waggling twerk-fest at the VMAs was a brilliant parody of what is ubiquitous in our absurdly oversexualized age.
Her performance’s unbelievably clumsy raunchiness was, I think, the satiric revenge of a kid who has grown up inside the BS of American show business. Since age 14, she’s been a public figure faking her life for public consumption.
Before that, though, she was in a family that was in the business of publicly proclaiming its achy-breaky heart.
When show business kids are exposed to their world’s prevalent cynicism at such an early age, they can’t help but turn out to be sophisticated about certain subjects.
I would submit that sex for Miley Cyrus – especially its professional exploitation – is not the same subject that it is for a kid growing up in Des Moines whose father is a high school baseball coach.
Even more familiar to them is exploitation itself. Exploitation – and an absurd unreality – is what Miley Cyrus’ “Hannah Montana” was based on.
It just so happens we have a rich and glorious American tradition of truly great figures whose satiric parodies of mainstream idiocy are so spot-on that a lot of people have trouble distinguishing their wicked mockery from the real thing.
The greatest of all to me was Fats Waller, who took white America’s view of the role of black entertainers and parodied it with merciless hilarity for audiences who weren’t always in on the joke. He was a riotous bon vivant in life and, as an entertainer, the most sophisticated satirist of racial stereotyping we’ve ever had.
In direct anticipation of Cyrus was Mae West, who was never “sexy” in any recognizable way but rather was an actress/singer/writer whose chief joke was sex. Rather than treat sex with the usual American mixture of piety, guilt, embarrassment and exploitation, she turned it into a vaudeville pig bladder to be thumped on top of society’s thick skull for laughs. The proper way to watch her leering double entendres was to be laughing your way into good mental health.
She knew she was no sex symbol in any way. No one could ever confuse her with a young Joan Crawford or Jean Harlow.
In the same way, I fully believe Miley Cyrus knows exactly how awkward a dancer she is. And in a world that likes to exploit the particular beauty of, say, Rihanna or Beyonce (or a bit earlier, Mariah Carey), she is, for all her loveliness, not the sort of physical type automatically destined to be a dorm room poster.
Hence her riotous VMA performance which dynamited the very idea of smutty pop video performance to smithereens.
It seemed to me, as I watched it, that instinctively, her attitude toward the sexual exploitation of the entertainment business is more akin to Stephen Colbert’s attitude toward politics and TV talk than it is akin to Britney Spears.
She’s a very minor figure, then, in a great American tradition.
On top of that, I like her voice. Listen to her speaking voice sometime. She’s got a big, tough, resonant voice box – a gift from the gods which almost demands that she do something public with it: act, sing, campaign for governor, something. (Madonna is another woman gifted by nature with vocal chords that have a large presence no matter what she does with them.)
I frankly think that privately in her heart of hearts, Cyrus thinks the way American pop music packages and exploits sex for the benefit of the inexperienced is hilarious. She has the natural sophistication of a show business kid, whatever she can or can’t actually articulate. Her joke on the world is that she’s going to be so outrageous on the subject of sex that she’s going to cause looks of horror, as she performs, on the faces of the entire Smith family – Will, Jada and the kids, all at the VMA audience.
What she did at the VMAs was just the other side of the coin from the exploitive BS of “Hannah Montana.” It wasn’t Disney, it was anti-Disney, but for shamelessly vulgar laughs.
It’s that weird American thing we’ve become used to – sophistication presented in the crudest and most primitive way a la “Saturday Night Live.”
If I were she, I’d take every opportunity from now on to shut up and let those inclined to do so make her case for her, however far away it may be from her own vocabulary or frame of reference.