If people choose to remember the 2013 MTV VMAs, the thing that is probably going to be most remembered is going to be Miley Cyrus’s performance with Robin Thicke. Right now, most of the attention focused on the number has been negative, and that’s understandable to some degree.
Still, I’m surprised by the sheer volume of venom pouring through the internet over a musical number on an awards show that has banked on controversy practically since the moment of its inception. People do not watch the VMAs hoping to catch a live performance that will be loved by multiple generations of the family and held as a cherished memory. People watch the VMAs because they’re hoping for train-wreck moments and, maybe not so shockingly, the VMAs tend to reliably deliver those kinds of things. For every “Soy Bomb” on the Grammys, there are ten or more events like the guy from Rage Against the Machine climbing part of the set and refusing to come down at the VMAs. It’s a continuous smorgasbord of bad behavior and stupid ideas gone awry in a very public setting.
My own ideas about free speech and art have put me in a position that I don’t really like, but it’s one I’m going to stick to, and that is a position where I find myself actually defending Miley Cyrus. For better or worse, she decided to go on this year’s VMAs to give a performance. There are probably people on her team that were encouraging her to go because it was good for her career. I have no idea how much of her performance was her idea and how much was someone else’s. At this point, it doesn’t matter. It’s already happened and now, people are trying to figure out exactly what happened there.
I’ve seen a lot around both Twitter and Tumblr deriding her for the outfit she was wearing. It was a bikini. Pure and simple. People run around on beaches wearing much, much less. The parts of her that had to be covered so she could be seen on TV were covered. Goldie Hawn was wearing less fabric on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” when she wore a bikini on it. For that matter, I’m bombarded with constant streams of Victoria’s Secret ads that feature a fraction of the clothing Miley Cyrus wore on the VMAs. The weird little mouse one piece swimsuit that she was wearing at the beginning-well, it was odd and it was fuzzy, and I’m pretty sure that when she tore it off to reveal her hot pants and bra top that she was sending a clear message about breaking free from another mouse. Again, all of the parts of her that the FCC says have to be covered were.
Then, there’s all of the really insulting hate speech about her grinding all over Robin Thicke. People seem to be really emphasizing that he is married and has kids. Very few, if any, of those comments that I’ve seen have made mention of the fact that Robin Thicke was standing there on the stage and letting it happen. He was obviously okay with the performance. To the best of my knowledge, having seen him on a few videos here and there and in a couple of interviews, his eyes, his brain, and his legs all seem to work just fine. If he saw an issue with a married father participating in a performance with obviously sexual dancing and blatantly simulated sexual actions in it, then he could have simply walked away.
People seem to be completely forgetting that this was a scheduled musical performance on an awards show. Both Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus rehearsed the number before it ever went live, probably for days ahead of time. At least some of it had to have been choreographed and then all of the performers had to learn their dancing and their marks. The people at MTV can’t have been surprised, Robin Thicke certainly didn’t seem surprised in the slightest, and Miley Cyrus wasn’t surprised either.
Miley Cyrus began her career as a small child. She’s twenty years old now. She’s been struggling to break free of “Hannah Montana” for years and her go-to mechanism for doing that has largely been generating negative attention for herself. As an outsider, many of her career decisions seem to be focused on doing the exact things that the Disney Corporation would want her to avoid. She was held up as a role model for years and, now, the whole world gets to experience her painfully awkward stage as she tries to find her own voice. That’s not an admirable position for anyone to be in. It’s not really up to me to decide if she’s handling these decisions well or not, she is the one who will ultimately have to live with everything that she’s chosen.
That said, I also find it very interesting that nobody seems to be paying attention to the lyrics. I have far more objections to the lyrics of Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” (which was part of the medley) than I do with what he and Miley Cyrus were doing on stage. Thus far, the SexEd site Scarleteen and performers Mod Carousel seem to be the only ones pointing out what those lyrics are actually saying. Sure, “Blurred Lines” sounds like a fun, kind of cheeky song about mixed messages but what it’s really saying about consent gets disturbing very fast. If you just read the lyrics without hearing the melody or singing the song, there’s a lot to be angry about in a very small space. Those lyrics advocate treating another human being as a means to an end, rather than an actual person attached to actual feelings. That’s not a sentiment that I find reassuring in the slightest.
This was intended to be a performance. Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke are working artists. Whether you disagree with what they’re saying or not, they were intending to convey a message. Sometimes, the message gets garbled, which is really what I think happened at the VMAs. There was too much playing the audience for shock going on to really do anything but shock the audience. Anything constructive that might have been intended was completely overwhelmed by bumping, grinding, and exaggerated tongue wagging.
There were other people on the stage that seemed to be wearing giant stuffed animals. That was probably one of the most pointless things that I’ve seen happen to backup dancers since I was aware of what a backup dancer was. I was more concerned that all of the backup dancers seemed to be there so Miley would have something to rub against. I hope they were informed about their roles before rehearsals started and that they were given ample opportunity to refuse to participate if they felt offended or demeaned in any way by that number.
In that same respect, regardless of whether or not I understood what Thicke and Cyrus were trying to do on that stage, I recognize it for what it was. They were performing. And, regardless of whether a piece of art enlightens, entertains, distracts, or disgusts there are a few things that I always try to keep in mind. First of all, just because an artist is saying or showing something, that in no way indicates how they behave in their private lives. They are fulfilling a role, either one that they have determined for themselves or that society has assigned to them. If they choose to work within that role, they are within their rights to use it for a few seconds or for years if they so desire. It’s part of how they achieve whatever statement it is that they want to make. It is, for better or worse, their way of telling their story, however fictionalized it may or may not be.
A performance is a moment in time in which the artists involved have decided to embody a specific mood or theme. For whatever purpose, they feel so strongly about what they’re doing that they want to create. That kind of drive can cause them to carry their message to a level that may be uncomfortable for some or even all of the audience. At the same time, the artists have managed to get that audience to not only see them, but to think about the topic they chose. If they’re really lucky, they’ll spark even more thought and discussion. That performance can have the power to change people’s minds and attitudes. That performance can become a catalyst for broader change and bigger ideas. That’s the kind of thing that art is supposed to do, maybe not through every piece every time, but it’s meant to provoke emotional reactions. Those emotions remind us that we’re human and that we’re connected if not directly, then at least through a common set of shared reactions and experiences.
Did I actually like the performance? I can say unequivocally that no, I did not. Did I dislike it because I thought it was dirty or because I felt like Miley Cyrus should go home and put on some clothes? Nope. My reaction to the performance had nothing to do with any of that. Honestly, I’ve seen worse, some of it on primetime network TV, it just wasn’t all compacted into a six minute segment, they were smart enough to spread it out over thirty to sixty minutes. The reason that I didn’t like it was because I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to say. Even if it was something as simple as “Miley Cyrus isn’t Hannah Montana”, it lost all coherency between the stuffed animals, the foam finger, and the twerking. I wasn’t quite sure exactly what I was watching, which made it very difficult for me to make decisions about it. The whole thing got lost in translation and my brain just reached a point where it decided that it wasn’t going to try and process any more. I guess, what really happened is that it seemed to be nothing but shock for shock’s sake and my brain, having seen better, brighter, bigger examples of that very technique, decided that it was bored.
I can’t predict what kind of impact this will have on Miley Cyrus’s career. I’d like to point out again, though, that she is twenty years old. She’s young. If this does turn out to be a mistake, at the very least, we should try to keep in mind that everyone does some dumb things, especially when they’re young and don’t necessarily know as much as they think they do. Most of us were fortunate enough that we didn’t make those mistakes on a stage with millions of people watching us. We probably weren’t anywhere near any kind of recording equipment, so it won’t be preserved for posterity or revisited ad nauseum in news outlets and across the internet for years to come.
Honestly, I really don’t think she deserves all of the criticism she’s getting. Sure, the performance itself was an incoherent mess. But people seem determined to ignore that another artist was singing with her and they don’t seem to want to recognize that both artists are adults. The content of the performance may have been considered questionable, but it was airing during late primetime viewing hours. Mostly, though, people are expressing their shock in really hateful and destructive ways. They’re angry about six minutes of television that was meant to showcase a medley of songs by two currently popular artists and resorting to name-calling and shaming one of them, mostly because she is a twenty year-old young woman and that’s not what girls are supposed to do. We may like to think that we’ve come a long way forward in our cultural attitudes, but this is showing me that we still have a very long way to go.
The real beauty of watching something on TV, though, is that if I don’t like it, I don’t have to keep watching it. I can change the channel or turn the TV off completely and go do something else. When something generates outrage or disgust, though, we often seem to forget that, too.