“Disgusting!” “Raunchy!” “Desperate!” So went the scathing reviews that poured in after once wholesome Disney star Miley Cyrus’ recent bizarre performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.
Bopping up and down the catwalk in hair-twist devil’s horns and a flesh-colored latex bikini, Cyrus lewdly wagged her tongue, tickled her crotch with a foam finger, shook her buttocks in the air and spanked a 6-ft. 7-in. black burlesque queen.
Most of the media backlash focused on Cyrus’ crass opportunism, which stole the show from Lady Gaga, normally no slouch in the foot-stamping look-at-me department. But the real scandal was how atrocious Cyrus’ performance was in artistic terms. She was clumsy, flat-footed and cringingly unsexy, an effect heightened by her manic grin.
How could American pop have gotten this bad? Sex has been a crucial component of the entertainment industry since the seductive vamps of silent film and the bawdy big mamas of roadhouse blues. Elvis Presley, James Brown and Mick Jagger brought sizzling heat to rock, soul and funk music, which in turn spawned the controversial raw explicitness of urban hip-hop.
The Cyrus fiasco, however, is symptomatic of the still heavy influence of Madonna, who sprang to world fame in the 1980s with sophisticated videos that were suffused with a daring European art-film eroticism and that were arguably among the best artworks of the decade. Madonna’s provocations were smolderingly sexy because she had a good Catholic girl’s keen sense of transgression. Subversion requires limits to violate.
Young performers will probably never equal or surpass the genuine shocks delivered by the young Madonna, as when she sensually rolled around in a lacy wedding dress and thumped her chest with the mic while singing “Like a Virgin” at the first MTV awards show in 1984. Her influence was massive and profound, on a global scale.
But more important, Madonna, a trained modern dancer, was originally inspired by work of tremendous quality — above all, Marlene Dietrich’s glamorous movie roles as a bisexual blond dominatrix and Bob Fosse’s stunningly forceful strip-club choreography for the 1972 film Cabaret, set in decadent Weimar-era Berlin. Today’s aspiring singers, teethed on frenetically edited small-screen videos, rarely have direct contact with those superb precursors and are simply aping feeble imitations of Madonna at 10th remove.
Pop is suffering from the same malady as the art world, which is stuck on the tired old rubric that shock automatically confers value. But those once powerful avant-garde gestures have lost their relevance in our diffuse and technology-saturated era, when there is no longer an ossified high-culture establishment to rebel against. On the contrary, the fine arts are alarmingly distant or marginal to most young people today.
Unfortunately, the media spotlight so cheaply won by Cyrus will inevitably spur repeats of her silly stunt, by her and others. Image and profile now rule the music industry. At a time when profits are coming far more from touring than from CD sales, performers are being hammered too early into a marketable formula for cavernous sports venues. With their massive computerized lighting and special-effects systems, arena shows make improvisation impossible and stifle the natural rapport with the audience that performers once had in vaudeville houses and jazz clubs. There is neither time nor space to develop emotional depth or creative skills.
Pop is an artistic tradition that deserves as much respect as any other. Its lineage stretches back to 17th century Appalachian folk songs and African-American blues, all of which can still be heard vibrating in the lyrics and chord structure of contemporary music. But our most visible young performers, consumed with packaging and attitude, seem to have little sense of that thrilling continuity and therefore no confidence in how it can define and sustain their artistic identities over the course of a career.
What was perhaps most embarrassing about Miley Cyrus’ dismal gig was its cutesy toys — a giant teddy bear from which she popped to cavort with a dance troupe in fuzzy bear drag. Intended to satirize her Disney past, it signaled instead the childishness of Cyrus’ notion of sexuality, which has become simply a cartoonish gimmick to disguise a lack of professional focus. Sex isn’t just exposed flesh and crude gestures. The greatest performers, like Madonna in a canonical video such as “Vogue,” know how to use suggestion and mystery to project the magic of sexual allure. Miley, go back to school!
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