News Column

We survived Madonna, and we'll survive Miley, too

August 30, 2013


Aug. 30--The last time a 20-year-old woman caused this much discussion after a five-minute appearance on television, Britney Jean Spears had a python draped on her.

Does it seem as though we as a society build up our performers only to squeal with delight when they misstep, or go in a direction slightly more artistic or risque than their previous persona might have predicted?

To be clear from the start, this will not be a defense of Miley Cyrus' performance Sunday at MTV's Video Music Awards. Nor will it be an attack. If you loved it, good for you. If you despised it, that's fine. Everyone is entitled to their own reaction. (Mine consisted largely of laughter and befuddlement. Amid all the discussion, no one has even begun to explain the oversized teddy bear dancers. What is that?)

There were any number of things Cyrus' performance was. But it is not a number of other things. It does not represent the death of music. It does not mean pop culture is at a nadir. It does not speak to the sexual proclivity of the performer, nor does it speak to her relative talent or lack of same.

(It sure seems like we had these same discussion after Spears' nonperformance at the 2007 Video Music Awards. The public couldn't wait to analyze her and watch eagerly as she went through a very public meltdown.)

In fact, the general reaction to the performance says more about those reacting than anything else. Allow me to address some of the most widely spread reactions.

* Cyrus' performance masks a lack of talent.

Interesting how Cyrus' talent or lack of same was not really a point of national social media discussion until Monday morning. Not only was she untalented enough to do four seasons starring in a television show for Disney (not exactly the most tolerant of masters), before she was Hannah Montana, Tim Burton cast her in "Big Fish." So maybe discussion about her talent masks other concerns.

Like her originality. After seeing a Facebook post decrying Cyrus' lack of talent, my response was to post a picture of Madonna's 1984 VMA appearance -- the one where she wore a wedding dress and writhed on the floor while performing "Like a Virgin" -- and write, "I know, right? Somebody asked me that question 30 years ago."

A friend texted me that Cyrus' greatest sin was a lack of originality.

Not a lot of people in 1984 were convinced Madonna had much talent. (What changed my mind was a year later, listening to and seeing videos of her 1985 tour performances of "Dress You Up" and the "Like a Virgin"/"Billie Jean") mashup.) Cyrus may never have that breakthrough moment where she earns full-fledged adult artistic respect. But she might. Stranger things have happened.

* Music isn't what it used to be.

No, it isn't. And thank goodness for that. Because barbershop quartet harmony is great, but a guy needs a little variety now and then.

Seriously, isn't the point of all current pop music to not be what it used to be? Every 10 years or so, things should change. Maybe they change back a little bit, but then they change again a whole lot more.

Guitars are considerably less present in current pop music than they were 20 years ago, to my deep disappointment. But -- and this is an important thing to remember -- pop music is not aimed at 30- or 40- or 50-year-olds. It's aimed at those Cyrus' age and younger. Tisk-tisk all you wish -- that's part of your job as an adult. But just as your parents and elders weren't fully allowed to define what music was for you, you do not get to do it for today's adolescents.

* The producers.

There are two mindsets about the quality of the show. Either the music was bad (see above) and producers encourage Cyrus' raunch for attention, or Cyrus is the next Lindsay Lohan, on the fast track to the end of a career. It can't be both. If it's the latter, then we at least know Cyrus has a flair for publicity, which gives the untalented girl a lot of talent at least in media and public manipulation.

If it's the former, then it's the producers who should be criticized, not Cyrus. Where were all the good performers? Ask the producers.

* If this is what pop culture is about, it is doomed and we are doomed.

Just on the entertainment front in the United States, we've survived Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, KISS, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Marilyn Manson. It will survive a 20-year-old in her underwear.

One of the best memes present on social media Monday was an assortment of provocative and suggestive magazine advertisements that exploited women. Over each provocative image was text like "This is fine" and "This is just clever advertising" and "Well, sex sells, so this is OK too." And over a picture of Cyrus was one of the standard grumbles in the case: How do I explain this to my child?

The honest answer: You might try by trotting out the same explanation people used in the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, or the Britney Spears python incident, or the time in 2008 when Vanity Fair published some provocative photos of a then-15-year-old Miley Cyrus. Or reference the 2009 pole dance performance at the Teen Choice Awards.

But it was probably OK then, because she didn't have any talent at that time either.|(217) 421-6908


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