Social media is buzzing with comments about the Miley Cyrus performance during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.
Cyrus did more pelvic thrusts and gyrations in one number than Elvis or Michael Jackson did in their entire careers. It really has to be viewed to really experience it on a gut level.
She perhaps wanted to get separation from the Disney portion of her fame by showing her maturing fan base that she could be as lewd as any of them are after a Jager bomb or two.
It’s difficult for anyone over 30 to criticize her performance without sounding as savagely unhip as our grandparents did while complaining about those “long-haired” Beatles during their Ed Sullivan bowl haircut early days.
That didn’t prevent the comments from flowing to the effect that Cyrus appeared trashy and led to predictions the performance would end her career by permanently damaging the singer’s reputation.
After all, millions of girls watched her grow up on the sweetly cheesy show “Hannah Montana”.
Seeing as how MTV rarely ever plays music videos anymore – that whole web piracy thing gutting the economic incentive to create slick TV commercials for albums — the VMAs exist now solely as a mechanism for creating a lightning rod to promote the network and the artists who appear during the show.
In signs of an entertainment allure arms race, Lady Gaga wouldn’t be upstaged. She worked her way from a nun’s habit down to a black leotard down to a seashell bra and thong underwear. Poor Katy Perry, the preacher’s daughter who got into show business as a Christian artist before singing the lesbian ode “I Kissed a Girl”, must now feel pressure to escalate her sexuality or be completely overshadowed while she promotes her new album.
The VMAs are little more than a tool for creating water-cooler moments, so naturally the communications strategy for breaking through to a jaded public is to purposely be provocative. Gaga is simply walking in the footsteps laid by Madonna before her.
- At the first MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, Madonna performed her hit “Like A Virgin” wearing a combination bustier/wedding gown, including her trademark “Boy Toy” belt. During the performance, she rolled around on the floor, revealing lacy stockings and garter.
- In 1989, Madonna won the Viewer’s Choice Award for her racially- and sexually-charged “Like a Prayer” video while comedian Andrew Dice Clay earned a lifetime ban from the VMAs after he performed profanity-laced nursery rhymes.
- In 1992, Nirvana supposedly defied network executives by playing the first few lines of their song “Rape Me” rather than the hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as ordered.
- The next year, celebrity transvestite RuPaul chided comedian Milton Berle for touching “her” breasts by harshly ad-libbing “So you used to wear gowns, but now you’re wearing diapers.”
- In 1994, new couple Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley awkwardly kissed on the show. In 1996, the four original members of Van Halen made their first appearance together since breaking up 11 years earlier. They nearly came to blows backstage after Roth announced they were getting back together (They eventually did for a short time).
- In 1997, Best New Artist Fiona Apple drew media backlash because of the contradiction between her appearance in a risqué music video in only her underwear and her going on stage during the event telling young women to ignore celebrity culture.
- In 1998, actress Rose McGowan arrived with then-boyfriend Marilyn Manson while she wore a see-through dress with no bra and thong underwear. The following year, rapper Lil’ Kim showed up with an entire breast exposed and only a tiny piece of fabric over the nipple.
- Singer Britney Spears took on the tradition of sleaze by performing her song “I’m a Slave 4 U” with a live Python on her shoulders.
- In 2002, rapper Eminem had a confrontation with electronic artist Moby, who called his music misogynistic and homophobic. Eminem challenged Moby to a fight while receiving the trophy for Best Male Video.
- In 2003, Madonna portrayed a groom kissing her brides, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, on stage. The lesbian theme instantly made front page headlines.
- In 2007, Spears again made news, this time showing up out-of-shape, intoxicated and wearing only a black, sparkly bra and panty set. The performance was dubbed “career crippling.”
- In 2008, host Russell Brand begged the audience to vote for Barack Obama, called President George W. Bush a “retarded cowboy” and mocked the Jonas Brothers for wearing purity rings.
- In 2009, rapper Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s award acceptance speech by saying Beyoncé should have won instead. Obama, now the president, called West a “jackass” for the stunt.
- In 2010, Lady Gaga wore a dress made entirely of raw meat, which drew criticism from PETA. The show grabbed an impressive 11.4 million viewers, the largest draw since the 2002 VMAs.
- The buzz in 2011 was Beyoncé’s baby bump.
The 2012 awards ceremony was the least-watched VMA show since 2007, so there’s no surprise that the 2013 version was ripe with water-cooler moments.
Among these was a reunion of the boy band N’Sync. Sometimes I think bands break up as their popularity fades just so they can properly calculate a reunion tour to capitalize on sentimentality.
One sign that the culture is not irrevokably on the express train to unrestrained depravity is the simple fact that boy bands continue to put out songs while hard rock bands are mostly obscure these days. I chalk that up less to the cultural zeitgeist than pre-teen girls having ridiculous taste in music. Little girls, having not yet discovered Pandora or pirated music, are simply the only ones purchasing CDs these days with their allowance money.
At some point, however, those little kids become teenagers and put away childish things, so performers like Cyrus and Justin Bieber are forced to demonstrate that they, too, are all grown up. That means resorting to things that get attention from even those people who would never buy your CD in a million years — but will gleefully tune in to watch your provocative video so they can be relevant to the conversation. It’s all about hanging on to relevance by keeping a conversation going.
Being provocative in popular entertainment culture has a rich history. When I was a child, four professors painted their faces and played rock music, causing a particularly devout aunt of mine to share in dismay at a family gathering one Christmas how the band’s name, KISS, was an acronym for “Kings in Satan’s Service.” It’s a schtick that Motley Crüe and Marilyn Manson took up years later.
These things matter from an academic context because being provocative as a communications strategy is a cultural slippery slope. What shocked my aunt is now dismissed as a cheesy gimmick, so entertainers and promoters must up the ante.
It’s easy to be provocative just to get a reaction, but does it build an audience in the long-term if there’s no great talent behind the shock tactic? Where is the line between creating controversy for the sake of controversy and pulling a stunt so irredeemably in bad taste that it is truly “career ending”?
The forum and the context do matter. You can get away with a lot more at the VMAs, where this sort of thing happens by design, than at, say, the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Pull fleshy shenanigans there and your bare breast may be hauled before the FCC or a Congressional committee to explain yourself.
As an artist myself, I shy from calls for censorship and resist the urge to feel particularly outraged by artists showing out like children rebelling against authority. I do know that when people constantly take a society “to the edge” that the edge either stretches or resists conforming to the new matrix.
We’ve come a long, long way since Mick Jagger rolled his eyes on the Ed Sullivan show because he was forced to sing “Let’s spend some time together” instead of “Let’s spend the night together.” Jim Morrison refused his orders, and CBS was powerless to stop viewers from hearing him sing, “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher…”
Such moments cause the popular culture to wonder in social media “where do we go next?” in pushing boundaries.
My prediction: As low as the culture allows until there’s some sort of backlash or groundswell moment back toward conservatism like we saw in the 1980s. At some point, these people will fail to escalate within the parameters allowed by government regulations controlling obscenity and resort to reeling things back a bit or else the culture will adapt to greater acceptance of that which is designed to shock.
It will be interesting to see how her fans react to the Miley Cyrus performance. The seeds were planted (possibly by her gyrating, or “Twerking”, in singer Robin Thicke’s groin), now let’s see what grows…
Either a whole bunch of girls will collectively judge (by not buying any more of her recordings or paying for tickets to her concerts) that she was trying way too hard and just looked tragic or else their parents’ outrage may be just the nudge needed to make her seem as cool and forbidden as Kiss seemed in scary makeup that first time around. It’s no accident that the start of the Miley Cyrus performance included a deep man’s voice rapping: “It’s our party, we can say what we want. It’s our party, we can do what we want…”
Either way, Miley no doubt picked up a few fans among teenage boys who hope her sexually-charged performance will cause teenage girls to feel even more motivated to be similarly provocative to get their attention.