Miley Cyrus’s coming of age continued in a most spectacular fashion on Monday night at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York. Cyrus’s performance of We Can’t Stop involved her emerging from the stomach of that ultimate childhood accessory – the teddy bear – “reborn” and miming masturbation.
What followed was an onslaught of tweets and blogs. Some damned Cyrus for being vulgar; others defended her right to display her sexuality; still others claimed the more important issue was her apparent appropriation of African-American “ratchet” culture.
All this web babble, however, distracts from critique of Cyrus’s position as a human pop star commodity. She demonstrates that we have reached a point where we have become resigned to the hollowness of music industry “products”.
Cyrus’s VMA performance, just like her latest music video, was all about foregrounding her post-Hannah Montana image. Her performance (below) screamed “I’m a grown up now”. In place of the overalls and saccharine smile were revealing clothing and suggestive simpers.
Instead of being surrounded by the all-white aspirant Montanas and her pals, Cyrus was surrounded by black women dressed as teddy bears, and a grinding 36-year old man (none other than fellow controversy courter singer-songwriter Robin Thicke).
Her spectacular performance immediately generated raging hashtags decrying Cyrus as “slutty” and, at the other extreme, lamenting her lack of “ass” (#mileyasssmallerthan was a top trending hashtag). In turn, the blogosphere responded in defence of Cyrus. Tweeters were called out for slut shaming and Cyrus’s willingness to “have fun” on stage was celebrated.
Other bloggers reminded us that the “real” issue was not Cyrus’s sexuality, but her insensitive appropriation of ratchet culture. Ratchet is associated with working class African-American women and Southern hip-hop acts such as Lil Wayne.
Ratchet was relatively subcultural - defined by its own style (“slutty” clothes), space (the “hood”) and lingo (YOLO; swag; twerk) – until the recent ascendancy of “ratchet girls” like Nicki Minaj, who is now a judge on American Idol.
As is typical of the music industry, anything edgy is immediately incorporated and sanitised in the form of sellable three-minute tracks and purchasable fashion styles. Certainly, we can see this in Cyrus’s “whitened” ratchet image.
But her performance was simply the latest incarnation of the Miley Cyrus brand: Cyrus as scandal. The shift from tween idol to controversial pop singer shows that Cyrus is, in fact, an empty shell into which the culture industries input branding strategies.
Yet, in our rush to dismantle the obvious misogyny and racism around the debate, we overlook a key point: there is no authenticity to Miley. There never was. Pop singers, movie stars and television heroes are products. Their role is to make profits for the corporations, which produce them. We are so used to the produced nature of pop culture we have begun to believe the marketing hype around stars.
Realness need only be on the surface – in Cyrus’s case through a lazy appropriation of subcultural style, and the blunt foregrounding of her “true self” (as sexed up and “hood”) in promotional interviews where she is at pains to distinguish herself from Hannah Montana.
Our acceptance of pop music commodities is perhaps due to the overwhelming commodification of the whole process of music production. No longer is the end-product (the single, album and video) the only purchasable object, but the production process, too, has become a commodity.
This is not new. Behind-the-scenes peaks into the entertainment industries has been fodder for gossip magazines for decades. However, we appear to have reached a new level in current pop culture.
Cyrus completely embodies this commodification. She always has. The whole premise of Hannah Montana was a foregrounding and selling of the star-making process and the mythology that anyone can become famous. This latest incarnation of the Cyrus brand simply compounds the production-as-commodity foreshadowed in the Disney version of Miley.
The apparent ease with which Cyrus has shaken off her super sweet image has been represented and, more importantly, sold through various profile spots on television; magazine “how to get Miley’s look” articles and numerous “behind the scenes” videos of Cyrus on YouTube. These multiple selling points of the Cyrus commodity demonstrate the mechanics of the contemporary music machine.
With a change in packaging, a fresh commodity is presented. While we obsess over the realness of the spectacle, we are losing sight of our own weary acceptance that music is always already a commodity.