They say a picture is worth a thousand words. They don’t say what a gif is worth, but as if for good measure, we’ve gotten both out of the performance by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at MTV’s Video Music Awards on August 25.
Within minutes of the twerking, a clip of Rihanna’s unamused reaction to Cyrus’ performance hit the web and went viral. Same for the shot of Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, sitting with their kids Willow and Jaden, staring up at the stage with looks that cried, “what the hell are we watching?” Only later did we find out that they were reacting to Lady Gaga’s performance.
Apparently countless other people had the exact same reaction to Cyrus, and most of them had a keyboard or smartphone handy. Twitter and the rest of the social networks were overflowing with 140 character shock at the duet.
Much of it has been straight up puritanical in nature, such as the tweet by country artist Josh Gracin: “Thanks Miley Cyrus. Now I have to explain to my 11 yr old daughter why she no longer can follow your career.”
As if sexual objectification isn’t the norm in just about every career and walk of life for women today.
Then there was Mika Brzezinski, who had a whole segment on Morning Joe the day after the VMAs in which she absolutely laid into Cyrus: “I think that was really, really disturbing. That young lady, who is 20, is obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed, clearly has confidence issues, probably eating disorder and I don’t think anybody should have put her on stage.
“That was disgusting and embarrassing … That was not attractive. That was not fun… The whole thing was cringe worthy but I feel bad for her. She is a mess. Someone needs to take care of her. Someone needs not to put her on stage and make a complete fool of herself.”
Mean-spirited pop psychology masquerading as compassion. Is there anything more indicative of neoliberal cultural logic than that?
To be sure, the performance -- a medley of “We Can’t Stop”, “Blurred Lines” and “Give it 2 U” -- was vile stuff. It wasn’t, contrary to much of the shrill outcry, that she was wearing “next to nothing”. It wasn't even how she was dancing (what she was dancing is a different matter).
Rather, it was the plasticity of the whole thing, the contrived and tired white male narrative that put Black women on the bottom, Cyrus a little above, and then finally transformed her into a set piece for the supposedly well-dressed dude-bro who more or less just stood there singing “Blurred Lines”.
No mistake, the fantasy being performed was his. And given what we know about Robin Thicke’s fantasy, that’s a grim prospect.
One wonders why Thicke has been let off the hook in all this manufactured outrage. After all, he was there too. He and his Beetlejuice suit were equally important to the routine, but he apparently shares none of the blame that has been hurled at Cyrus.
Everyone seems to be asking what happened to Hannah Montana, but nobody’s saying Thicke needs to act more like his gut-wrenchingly wholesome father on Growing Pains.
Putting the heaps of hypocrisy aside (and those are admittedly some big heaps) the controversy over the VMAs performance has brought into relief some real tensions that the music industry just can’t seem to bridge.
“We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines” were easily among this summer’s most controversial singles; that they appeared in the same duet was perhaps telling.
“We Can’t Stop” was almost immediately criticised for the video’s appropriation of dance and imagery -- twerking, “ratchet” culture -- more genuinely associated with working-class African Americans.
As Dodai Stewart wrote on Jezebel in June: “Let's not get it twisted: The exchange and flow of ideas between cultures can be a beautiful thing. I believe in cross-pollination and being inspired by those whose experience is not like your own.
“If Miley is inspired by gold teeth and bounce music and has friends who are rappers, that's not a problem. But when she uses these things to re-style her own image, she veers into dangerous territory …
“Miley and her ilk need to be reminded that the stuff they think is cool, the accoutrements they're borrowing, have been birthed in an environment where people are underprivileged, undereducated, oppressed, underrepresented, disenfranchised, systemically discriminated against and struggling in a system set up to ensure that they fail.”
The VMAs performance of the song displayed a similarly wilful ignorance; throughout the “We Can’t Stop” segment, Cyrus treated her Black backup dancers more or less as props, much like the video. An insult added to injury at an awards show where not one Black artist took home an award.
Already a flood of articles and blog posts are thankfully asking why so much energy is being expended on “slut-shaming” Cyrus, but not saying a peep about the very real racism underlying the Hottentot Venus minstrelsy of her performance.
As for “Blurred Lines”, the song has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s still completely fine to release outward, even proud misogyny through the mainstream music business. The song’s lyrics can probably be most delicately described as creepy, but more accurately described as “rapey”. (It’s take on consent is captured in the lines: “I hate these blurred lines/I know you want it.”)
As for the song’s video, it takes female objectification to an absurd and deliberate extreme. In interviews, Thicke has reassured us that is the point: “People say, 'Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?' I'm like, 'Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I've never gotten to do that before. I've always respected women.'”
Elizabeth Plank at PolicyMic provided a good response to this kind of dodge behind the ironic: “Sexism can't be ironic because we're not over it. It's still massively prevalent. Men still benefit from it, women are still hindered by it.
“Most women in music videos are required to wear next to nothing, while men have the privilege of keeping their clothes on and earning the same degree of attention, or more.
“It's not ironic to put women naked in a music video because it's an extension of the crap that already floods our screens. It's not anything new, it's just more of the same old sexist garbage.”
That Cyrus has received the brunt of the finger-wagging since the VMA performance, while Thicke strutted away scot-free, highlights the double standard at play. But that double standard is the making of neither Thicke nor Cyrus.
For all the moral panic foisted at Cyrus, the crocodile tears shed over the supposed depravity of youth culture, few are willing to ask any questions about the morality of the music business.
After all, some of these labels made their first millions by paying jazz and blues musicians in heroin instead of real money. It’s they who pull the strings behind the award shows, that decide which artists are signed and promoted. Are we surprised that class divisions, sexuality and the realities of US racism are so callously manipulated?
The impulse to take genuinely lived lives and human experiences and turn them into something coarse and profane isn’t just an added bonus for the culture industry; it’s essential to how the whole thing functions in the first place.
This is an industry specialising in creating spectacles that relay the fault-lines of society back to us in a way that’s easy to sell but sapped of all substance. It is how they’re able to stay relevant in a harshly unequal society without letting on that their kind are the ones responsible for inequality in the first place.
And it’s one of the many ways that the system is able to call itself “post-racial” while trading in base racism, post-feminist while engaging in wilful degradation of women.
Perhaps that’s why the most poignant and yet ominous reaction to the performance at the VMAs wasn’t the tweet, but the shrug. When misogyny and bigotry are so commonplace that the supposed shock of it all becomes mundane, you know your culture is long overdue for a soul transplant.
[First appeared at Red Wedge Magazine.]