When one compares Miley Cyrus with those who’ve come before her, or places her in the context of modern-day pop-music, then the national revulsion following her performance at the VMA’s (or any of her recent behavior for that matter) suddenly becomes difficult to understand. The collective outcry has been so vociferous, so incredulous, that you would think Miley was actually doing something subversive or innovative. Yet, this is the hardly the case. There is no transgression here, no desecration of cultural norms. In fact, Miley is simply traveling down the well-worn road taken by several other major pop-stars, such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, which makes our incredulity and shock seem strange and misplaced.
This is important to address, because it raises questions about how our society deals with evidence of female autonomy and sexuality. In order to recognize that Miley’s transformation is unremarkable, and unworthy of national derision, one simply has to look at the steps Spears and Aguilera took to move away from their candy-coated, teen-pop origins. After that one can parse the potential reasons for why Miley’s behavior may (to some) feels more lewd, desperate, and constant than that of her predecessors. Finally, we can ask some real questions about what our culture’s reaction to these transformations says about our relationship to sexuality in the public arena.
I. 1999-2001: The Emergence of the Pop-Lolita and the Disavowal of Just That
One major unifying characteristic between Spears, Aguilera, and Cyrus is that their careers began under the mouse-ears of Disney. There are however some differences regarding the way this institution affected them, and affected the culture’s response to each woman’s eventual movement towards an adult-oriented image. For example the two older women did not begin their musical careers until they had broken with Disney, and their early work was certainly less squeaky-clean than Miley’s (a critical point). Yet, even without the authoritarian hand of Mickey Mouse around their throats, a majority of Britney and Christina’s early output revolved around passivity and sexual potentiality.
This is particularly evident with Britney Spears, whose initial, smash-hit single, Baby One More Time, mixes the angelic innocence of a school with erotic undertones. Still, despite the potency of the midriff-bearing Spears, combined with Max Martin’s ambiguous lyrics (specifically when Spears appeals to her ex-boyfriend, stating that there is, “…nothing she wouldn’t do”), the video largely curtails Spears’ sexuality. It reduces the scenes of her breaking free from her ennui, and dancing throughout the school, to the daydreams of a simple teenager.
This vacillation, between pious restraint and sexual and romantic empowerment, would linger throughout Spears debut studio album, looming over hits like Drive Me Crazy and many of her singles off of Oops!… I Did It Again. It wouldn’t be until her anthem of empowerment, Stronger, that Spears music would begin to shed its passivity. No longer would her musical heroines accept being commodified, or resign themselves to complacently existing in the throes of excitement. In Stronger Spears’ proclaims with ebullience that, “My loneliness is killing me no more,” opening up almost an interior monologue with her past-self from Baby One More Time, where she had wailed that her loneliness over the loss of her man was, indeed, killing her.
This message would continue through the nearly interchangeable lyrics of Overprotected and I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman (both off of 2001’s self-titled album, Britney). Both songs uniformly asserted the transformational journey the singer was on, urging for others to allow her the time to find her own direction. This thematic fixation was accompanied also with a more uninhibited depiction of sexuality, devoid of the repressive dichotomy found in her earlier singles. I’m A Slave 4 You was easily one of the singer’s earliest music videos to accomplish this. The breathy, serpentine-like vocals of Spears, intermixed with shots of lecherous male faces, and highlighted by swirling, half-naked bodies caked with sweat, signified a different world that Spears was inhabiting, a world far removed from the (relatively) innocent dream-scape of Baby One More Time.
For Christina Aguilera, Britney’s former pop-princess rival, the transitional process from teen-idol to gritty provocateur was quicker, more seismic, and certainly more artistically ambiticious. Her relatively innocent facade began splintering even with the release of her initial album, the self-titled Christina Aguilera. It was on the iconic Come on Over Baby (All I Want Is You), where Christina began asking for more creative control, a request that was somewhat successful, and led to her contributing a portion of the lyrics.
The song is far more explicit than anything from Spears’ initial release, its lyrics being free from much of the ambiguity inherent to singles like Baby One More Time. Yet, it maintains essentially the same aesthetic design so popularized during that period – its production defined by the convergence of brightly lit sets, synchronized dancing, and razor-quick editing. The song is remarkably upbeat and maintains an innocent feeling despite being very clearly about sexual experience. Similar to Britney, yet to a much greater degree, her third album, the infamous Stripped (2003), is where Christina’s career sharply diverged from her poppy, pre-packaged origins. In the album Christina took over as the primary song-writer, infusing her work, such as Soar and Beautiful (posted below), with a mature, dramatic tone, orbiting around the themes of self-empowerment and individuality.
When viewing these two women, both extraordinary figures in the realm of popular music in their own right, we can draw several conclusions. For both women being a teen pop-star, and little more than the pawn for various strategically minded music producers, was ultimately temporal. Their transformations, in terms of public image and musical content, and the development of their artistic autonomy, were necessitated if their respective careers were going to continue. These changes were driven by both interior and exterior circumstances (one simply can’t be a teen pop-star forever), featured a number of dramatic, visual re-inventions, and also reached several, pitched climaxes in highly public arenas (such as Britney’s multiple VMA performances). What’s more is that these evolutionary chapters involved a greater, more unabashed interweaving of sexuality, which, in some quarters (particularly Aguilera’s Stripped album) faced criticism.
II. 2008-2013: From Tween-Queen to VMA Terror – Cyrus’s Banal Journey
This is the paradigm for modern-day pop and Cyrus, in her journey from Hannah Montana to a twerking VMA vamp adheres to it completely. Like her predecessors, but to an even greater degree, Miley began her professional career largely under the institutional stranglehold of the Disney Corporation, and thus was tailored to meet the expectations of family friendly entertainment. Scrubbed clean of any sexual potentiality, or anything else deemed unsavory by parent groups, Miley’s original public facade was one of angelic hopefulness, and general normalcy, far more innocent than something like Britney’s initial releases, and certainly Aguilera’s early hits.
Through 2008’s Breakout, Cyrus remained firmly committed to the arena of teen-pop rock, playing to the demographics which had supported her by producing tame, generic ballads of love, loss, and the process of coming of age. Then things changed; the reinvention began, right on schedule. The artist’s third release, 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed, may have been unexpected for the singer’s fans but should have been, to most who had been cognizant of pop-music during the early 2000’s, entirely expected, even boring. The music video begins with blatantly obvious, albeit mildly startling imagery of a winged Cyrus, caged and on display for the bourgeoisie. It strikes a tone amazingly similar to what both Britney and Christina attempted to do with their third albums, where both declared a rebirth, and disavowed their established identity as solely a tween idol. Like her predecessors Can’t Be Tamed was an introduction to an entirely new public persona for Miley (the image above shows the similarities between Miley’s third album cover and Britney’s cover for the single Overprotected), one that was set to be further established in her subsequent work.
This is perhaps an understatement, as Miley, in the interim between Can’t Be Tamed and Bangerz, seemed intent on not simply removing vestiges of her time as a Disney Star, but a complete immolation of her previous public identity. From the twerking in a horse onesie, to the barrage of mildly suggestive photo-shoots, to finally the inimitable, lurid, hallucinatory VMA performance, Miley ineluctably (and, more than likely, strategically), built anticipation, fascination, and certainly revulsion for her impending album release. Now this build up, which has served to not only herald her new album but to declare her new identity as an adult performer, has received an unholy amount of press, some good, but most highly critical. It’s clear that there are a great deal of sentiments out there which feel that Miley has taken things to an entirely new level. But is that truly a legitimate point of view? Below, I will offer some insight into why this sentiment exists, and how it is for most part erroneous.
III. On Shock-value: Leaving Disney Behind and Establishing Oneself in the Age of Gaga
Miley’s actions over the past two years reflects the mentality of one who is hyper-aware of her former status as a Disney star. Say what you want about her but she is not an idiot, and there is little chance that her desire to rid herself of her past is not (at least partially) driving her current behavior. Now, what makes her transition seem more extreme is that, as opposed to Spears and Aguilera, Miley is synonomous with one of the more iconic characters on the Disney channel in the past decade; Hannah is her virtual alter-ego. And while Spears and Aguilera also initially tasted fame through Disney nobody can honestly make the comparison between anonymous Mouseketeers and the titular Hannah. Thus, the expectations that society holds for the performers varies. Miley’s transformation feels more extreme, more ground-shaking, because she actually had a public image to transform away from. As I have discussed, Spears and Aguilera entered into the fray and almost immediately began exploiting the dynamic between their juvenile age and their intrinsic sexual potentiality. Their movement towards more adult-oriented material, both thematically and aesthetically, felt more fluid and less jarring.
There are two other reasons why Miley’s behavior has created the effect it has. First, pop-music has changed profoundly since the early 2000’s when Britney and Christina were transitioning. There have been the introduction of new, innovative stars such as Lady Gaga, whose visceral style has raised the bar for pop musicians. Additionally, the genre has become obsessed with certain trends, such as romanticizing the thumping hedonism of club life. Pop music has many performers who exemplify this thematic obsession, such as Usher, who long ago jettisoned the soulful artistry of something like Confessions, for vapid club anthems, such as OMG. However, the biggest figurehead for this trend is the performer Ke$ha, who seems relentlessly engaged with producing content revolving around a celebration of a fantastical, binge-drinking, never-ending party lifestyle.
I bring these other performers into the discussion for a specific reason, simply to show that Miley is adapting to her vocational landscape. While the institutional changes to pop-music may indeed have affected the transitional process of this woman, morphing it into something that feels (slightly) more ghoulish than her predecessors, that doesn’t change the basic components of her journey. She is still working on a goal which possesses a universality amongst older female pop-music performers with a background similar to hers.
The second, and final reason why Miley has set of shockwaves is because of technology – or, more specifically, because of the way tech has changed in the past 15 years. On this point Miley doesn’t do herself any favors, with the non-stop tweeting, and the constant self-promotion through provocative photos and videos. Yet, simply because she has an annoying online presence does not justify characterizing her as an abhorrent anomaly. The tweeting is fairly subsidiary to the main source of her overexposure, which is primarily the instantaneous ubiquity of our digital age, and the myopic nature of our news culture. Miley is the eye of the beast, and so every action she takes feels grotesquely augmented.
All of this is not meant to have this essay functioning solely in defense of the singer. This section is meant purely to articulate what the rest of society seems incapable of doing – which is placing this woman’s choices into a larger context. In providing this context insight into the potential reasons for why we, the American society, can’t remember that this process is to be expected, can be finally gained. Yet, this still doesn’t address the psychology behind the public rancor regarding these transformations. It doesn’t explore why these transformations are always found to be so painfully controversial. To understand this one must look deeper into the culture relationship with female sexuality in the public arena. This is what shall be addressed in the conclusion.
IV. This is Our House, This is Our Roof – Social Panic Through Pop Music
With there being little credible support for labeling Miley’s transformation unique, we return to our central query: Why can society not remember that this is expected, and even boring? That simple answer is that our culture can’t recognize the banality of this process because we don’t want to. It is a hardly a revelatory idea at this point that the American society is one that is still very, very anxious in regards to sexuality, with Miley being, currently, at the center of this issue. This fact makes pop-star transitions particularly inflammatory because the insistence on autonomy is basically synonymous with greater and greater displays of sexuality. This is the very method for how these individuals announce their independence, their womanhood, their exoneration from the meddling claws of a producer or institution.
Therefore, the only real conclusion we can draw is that our society doesn’t like either: A. Women actively showcasing their identities as a sexual beings; B. Women actively showcasing their identities as independent adults; or C. Both. My personal suspicion is that it is C. Now, if we accept this idea then it suddenly becomes more understandable as to why someone like Miley Cyrus has set of the shock waves that she has. She represents what is, for many, the worst nightmare: A juvenile whose inherent sexual potential, and independent sensibility has now come to fruition.
Could she be handling this process better, more elegantly perhaps? Undoubtedly. Was her performance at the VMA’s disgusting? Yes, absolutely. But it is not for the reasons people are suggesting. What made the performance jarring, even revolting in certain sections was not that it was sexually charged, but that the use of sexuality felt vapid, even gratuitous. It should be clear to anyone, once they are able to shelve their desire to slut-shame, that Miley’s performance is simply ugly, chaotic, devoid of meaning. It is certainly something that doesn’t merit public admonishment. It’s just boring, reflecting an individual who is carrying through a process that is ingrained in the very DNA of her chosen profession. Offering one’s castigation is to give it attention – something which is counterproductive for those offended.
It is the reproach of society which essentially ensures that this process will happen again. Because while Miley has been controversial society has been downright hypocritical. The evidence for this lies in the response to the performer’s music. (Wrecking Ball is one of the biggest songs around currently.) Essentially, these transformations occur continually because they often work. So, for those who find this whole phenomena distasteful, shameful or trashy you would be well advised to pipe down. All you’re doing is feeding this beast. All you’re doing is helping to expedite the transition of the next child star – which I guarantee you is right around the corner.
Instead of trying to fight it or trying to tear someone like Miley Cyrus down, you should instead take a deep breath and recognize that while Miley’s behavior may feel more powerful than someone like Spears or Aguilera, it still adheres to that mold. If anything it is the direction of the industry itself and the rise of our digital world that enhances this woman’s profile to such an obscene level. If it wasn’t Miley it would someone else. Because the essential truths are these: Female teen stars grow up, they make their own choices, they break with their handlers and yes, god forbid, they have sex. By accepting this the next time a young female performer takes to the televised stage and sheds her clothes you can just break with the tube, telling yourself the cathartic and beautiful truth: There is nothing to see here.