Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Ode to Miley Cyrus

My first awareness of the great pop icon that is Miley Cyrus came back when her claim to fame was Hannah Montana. At the time, I didn't think much of her at all - she was just another too-pure Disney girl. But even then she was hard to ignore, seeing her fake stage name and face plastered everywhere. For a time, it seemed that you couldn't walk down an aisle in Wal-Mart without seeing some product branded with the Hannah Montana logo. If I felt anything beyond indifference to her then, it was mild annoyance at her commercial popularity.

But slowly, that began to change. Why is that? Simply put, Miley came of age. Early on there was that Vanity Fair controversy, over a "seductive" and minimally dressed photograph of a 15 year old Miley taken by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. The public and the media cried out, that a teenage girl should be "sexualized" before the eyes of the masses. But I appreciated both the artistry of the photo, as well as its underlying statement about the irrepressible (for no lack of trying) sexuality of young women transitioning through adolescence.

Other controversies followed, including one about the use of a stripper pole during one of Miley's performances (remember when this was shocking, before it became her M.O.?), but what really turned me into a Miley fan was the release of her album Can't Be Tamed, which arrived within a year of her upcoming 18th birthday. The cover features Miley decked out in black leather, and the unapologetically sexy music video for the title track has her sporting the dark wings of a raven or a crow (or a fallen angel), breaking free from her cage. On the underrated album, Miley sings about liberty (Liberty Walk) and independence (Robot), in addition to the usual songs about love and partying (Who Owns My Heart). It seems calculated to present Miley Cyrus as an independent, sexual agent, breaking free from the oppressive purity of her previous Disney-fried image.

A lot of people were upset about Miley's new image, disappointed that the sweet Hannah Montana their daughters all looked up to had become this sultry vixen. But was Miley not allowed to grow up? Just because she had been a child star, was she beholden to some unwritten contract to maintain a squeaky clean image? Weren't the girls who followed her as Hannah Montana growing up, too? Was this reaction due to the paternalistic (dare I say, patriarchal) instinct to keep women the innocent, asexual angels we unrealistically expect them to be as little girls? It was never for a moment unclear to me that all the furor over Miley's R-rated antics was (and still is) a symptom of the conservative impulse to suppress women's sexual agency. Who better to look to, then, for a true feminist icon?

If Can't Be Tamed was, for me, Miley's "coming out" album, then Bangerz is the album where she truly comes into her own as a pop star. Her style as a musician is more mature, and her image - still sexy, and more fashionable than ever - continues to evolve. The release of the album last year (2013, which I dub the Year of Miley) was just one in a string of noteworthy press involving the antics that were fast becoming typical of Miley, such as her twerktastic performance with the foam finger at the MTV Video Music Awards, and the release of her music video for Wrecking Ball (the seminal breakup anthem of the new millenium, although the righteous anger that infuses FU is infectiously fierce), featuring an all nude Miley licking a sledgehammer and riding a - yep, you guessed it - wrecking ball.

It was her participation in the skin cancer charity Protect The Skin You're In, for which she modeled nude, that solidified my resolve to pick up Miley's new album, Bangerz, and cemented my dedication to her as a pop icon. By this point, Miley Cyrus has become such an outrageous figure, that she's ripe for both parody and ridicule, but I see much of her antics as part of the nature of being a perfomance artist, and behind it, it seems to me, is this extremely confident young woman who is not afraid of her own body; and that threatens a lot of people. The fact that she gets so much slack for the sexual nature of her videos and performances is proof positive that here in the twenty-first century, as a culture, we are still disgustingly intimidated by a sexually confident woman.

A lot of the material on Bangerz could be superficially written off as a paean to partying. And this is part of Miley's aesthetic. Why should we begrudge young people their parties? Life is to be enjoyed. But it's not her singing "love, money, party" that makes me so fiercely loyal to her. Partying is just the foil for a self-confident and celebratory worldview. When Miley sings "we can't stop, and we won't stop", she's not just talking about the party. She's referring to her passionate resolve to "do her thang", or in other words, be just the person she is and was meant to be. It's about turning away from the haters and the judgers and the people who would dictate how you should live your life, that cause you to doubt yourself and feel ashamed of who you are. These are the people that spread so much hate and intolerance in the world - and Miley is offering the solution: believe in yourself, whoever you may be.

And the amazing thing is, that through all the hate and intolerance, some people are getting it - mostly young women like Miley herself. I went to see Miley Cyrus in concert last night, and the sheer volume of sexually confident (if just for a night) young women in attendance was truly inspiring. An uninitiated bystander might describe it as Teen SlutWalk: The Concert, but the truth was that this was an accepting space where women seemed to feel safe to express themselves sexually through fashion without fear of harassment (or worse), and where persons of alternative sexualities could feel welcome. How awesome - and what's more, how feminist - is that? It was a pleasantly transcendent experience for me, and it has amplified my respect and dedication to this woman, whom some may understandably revere as the Goddess incarnate. I'd go see her in concert again tonight if I had the opportunity, and I eagerly look forward to hearing about what she does next.


  1. Sorry for the delete -- the formatting was all shot to hell from notepad.

    Great write-up. Wasn't expecting to see your concert review show up on this blog!

    I hope to write a treatise of my own, but as the success rate is low, I'll briefly wax poetic here if you don't mind. I'm at a bit of a crossroads regarding Ms. Cyrus. On the one hand, as a pop culture fanatic it's impossible for me to not look at Miley and see the thousand things she's doing that are ostensibly identical to those of contemporaries like Kesha, Katy Perry and of course Britney Spears. On the other hand, I can't help but to feel like there's something different about her, something more real.

    I may just be caught up in the warm afterglow of a great concert, or even the spell of a very talented actress portraying herself as genuine. But I'm tempted to concur that Miley Cyrus is a feminist icon. While Lady Gaga may empower her fans to be unique, and Demi Lovato may empower her fans to be strong, what I see coming from Miley is more than just a vague ideal, she seems to have an actual, concrete message. And... that message is (mostly) do drugs, have sex, say 'fuck the world.' But it's not a party nihilist message like Kesha, Miley's consciously breaking free.

    And let's be frank, there's not much in her lyrics that articulate any kind of broader message. But little things, flourishes you'd never get from Kesha or Britney, like the weed leaves, the marry me shirt, and when she was rubbing a bra on her face that some audience member threw to her... these things make me think Miley is for real. While Marilyn Manson would probably be too afraid to attend a GG Allin show, I feel like Miley Cyrus would probably go.

    When you say there's all this hate and ignorance in the world, what surprised me most today was how much of it is directed at Miley herself. I never bothered to notice it at the time, but iCarly fans were constantly attacking her back in my twitter days, and several people have come out just in the last 24 hours to chastise me for my newfound appreciation. This really took me aback, because the Miley I saw on stage on Monday was such a compassionate and warm person. Her shit was all sexified up to hell, but it wasn't in a Britney Spears mindless stripperbot way. I've seen these moves before and I've heard these platitudes before but Miley seemed to mean it in a completely different way. She wasn't trying to turn anyone on, she wasn't objectifying herself, she was owning herself. It's a difficult distinction to define but it was very, very evident in Miley's show. What's more, Miley seems to sincerely and truly love her audience and that's something completely at odds with how everyone on the outside seems to view her. If she was really spoiled or unhinged, I don't think she could give to her fans like that.

  2. Addendum: That last picture you posted.... of Miley licking herself, The symbolism is delicious. She loves the shit out of herself. A lot of artists have these empowerment messages, but aside from making great music, I don't see what they're doing to empower people. I just get this vibe from Miley like she really accepts herself and accepts other people. I don't get that vibe from other artists. Like Lady Gaga, she runs on a platform of individuality and she certainly writes more articulately about it in her songs than Miley. But I'm not seeing the 'put your money where your mouth is.' Miley doesn't just tell, she shows, and that can be much more effective.

    That being said, I don't follow Gaga and I've never seen her live so it's a completely unfair comparison. I do hope to see Demi soon, codwilling.

  3. Yeah, more and more these days, it seems like I'm writing posts that could fit on any one of my blogs. The Miley concert was a personal experience for me, so it could go on my original blog. It's also a music review, so it would totally not be out of place on my review blog. But one of the things I like most about Miley is how she sticks it to the prudes, and so I thought it really deserved to go on this blog.

    Excellent words you've written here. I'm with you on the feeling that Miley is something special. I don't doubt that there are Lady Gaga fans or Katy Perry fans or what have you that are just as dedicated as the "Smilers", and maybe this is just my own perspective speaking. But the stuff Miley does, does feel real and sincere (and fearless) in a way that I don't get from other pop stars. I mean, Miley Cyrus is not the kind of music I typically listen to, but something about her integrity (and her sexual confidence) bridges that gap. I'm gonna totally sound like a teenage girl here (not that that bothers me :p), but - and especially after seeing Miley live, the album Bangerz has taken on all new significance for me - it's not uncommon these last couple days for me to listen to a Miley song with tears in my eyes - not tears of sadness, but tears of empowerment. This is probably the best example I can give: you gave me three discs of what looks like kick ass blues/rock music, that I'm looking forward to listening to, but as yet, I'm still listening to Miley on repeat...

    Also, I've always got this impression from Miley - like at the concert between songs, but also in interviews and stuff when she's not in "performance mode". Like, there was an interview in Elle magazine recently, or Harper's Bazaar, or one of those fashion magazines that I get, and Miley seems like such a grounded, down-to-earth person, but also very intelligent and wise-beyond-her-years. It's ironic, because people see in her just a spoiled rich kid with lots of money spending her days partying and being vulgar. But honest to god(dess), I think she's an old soul, and that resonates with me.

    Addendum: speaking of resonating with me, it's funny about that last picture, because I've done "indecent" pictures of myself with mirrors before, not much different than that one. Not to sound presumptious, and I am sure there are other things we might not agree on, but I feel as a kindred soul to Miley. And it's crazy, because there was a time when if you told me I'd ever feel like this, I'd have thought you were high!

  4. If I had any idea you were quite this enamored with Miley, I'd have seriously considered the meet & greet. 'Course there'll be plenty of other tour no doubt.

    Incidentally: everything about this is awesome: http://www.etonline.com/news/149427_miley_cyrus_weird_with_fan/index.html

  5. No worries. It's been a long and gradual process of realization, on which this concert has itself had a significant impact. For that, alone, I am very grateful.

  6. It's definitely something we should plan on someday. I'm severely distraught over the viciously wasted opportunities I've had when I've gone to meet n greets in the past -- I need to actually think ahead about these things, and do something good. Like in your case, I could imagine you commissioning a nude painting of you and Miley together. Bet she'd find that interesting.

  7. No doubt. It would be awesome, even just to get a picture with Miley, though I'd have to think real long and hard about what to wear. But those things are so open-ended, I imagine you'd always be wondering what else you could have done. And it's still a social meeting - I'm kind of awkward in those situations.

  8. I'm awkward with that stuff to, but my astronomically poor planned past experiences will (hopefully) be inspiration enough to be out-going next time. I'll just always be pissed I Cam paddle for Miranda & Jennette to sign. I mean, I met them both within a span of like 8 days, it would have been so easy. And a Cam paddle signed by both of them, that would be a genuinely unique and priceless piece of pop memorabilia...

    But I digress. Point is, let's not miss these opportunities next time!