Camille Paglia: Miley, Go Back to School

Cyrus’ derivative stunt reveals an artistically bankrupt music culture

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Lucas Jackson / REUTERS

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke perform "Blurred Lines" during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards in New York City on Aug. 25, 2013

“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.

(MORE: Miley Cyrus Really Is the Girl Next Door: Predictable and Boring)

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.

(MORE: 4 Reasons You’re Still Hearing About Miley Cyrus’ VMAs Performance)

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!

PHOTOS: The VMAs: The Best and Worst

MORE: Does Anyone Really Still Want Their MTV?

715 comments
MarkKaspersky
MarkKaspersky

From an artistic point of view there was something almost "off the cuff" in her performance as if she were just winging the whole thing, it didn't look rehearsed or like something she was worked professionally to achieve. winmasters

kirstenra
kirstenra

Dear Camille Paglia, what can I, a 20-something do now, in order to be the kind of feminist you hope all women aspire to be?! 

MelbaHigbee
MelbaHigbee

Yes, Miley go back to school... or at least clean that white coated tongue before you shove it in our face!  Who knows where it's been!

MikeHosley
MikeHosley

The girl can hold a tune and has broken every record for staying on top of the mainstream media, which is no comfort at all to my 11 year old, who grew up idolizing Hanna Montana.   

The joint in her mouth and the references to molly, (MDMA)" glasses and drinking perp" (opiates) and the stylized meth lab in the 23 video are proof positive that she's hit mainstream media like no one else has in a while with this media-  with a shift into selling herself as a grownup. 

I felt a bit disappointed in her choice of the other drugs, and she could have made the same statement by just smoking the joint, but she's go a little something for everybody in that 23 video, including the new market she's opened herself up to- but I can't say well done because in the end, she's foreclosed on her younger fans. 

faithcps
faithcps

I think Paglia hit the nail on the head, on many points. I don't believe that having no exposure to genuine art is the only reason creatures like Cyrus carry on like they do; something's seriously screwy on the inside. But it's a part of it. There are no boundaries left to transgress - in taste or morals - which makes rebellion superfluous and aimless.

diegocastro2705
diegocastro2705

Miley Cyrus is obviously no artist, she's just another exploited child star, and if anyone is to blame for her derangement it's either her parents or Disney, not her. Those of you who like Camille argue that her performance sucked because of lack of artistry/sexiness, might be missing the point. Her intent was probably not on looking sexy or artistic but just plain reckless, and I believe she accomplished it quite well. In all sincerity I would much rather have her innocent, genuine vulgarity than Lady Gaga's pretentious, delusional, self-obsessed copycat "artistic" statements.

TriniTrent
TriniTrent

@simplyundrea and the attempts of adding a historical perspective were way off base, especially the examples.

TriniTrent
TriniTrent

@simplyundrea I get the point but the end fell flat and the many parallels to Madonna were not needed. I would've compared her to her peers

let
let

It seems the author found the Miley Cyrus' performance repugnant not because it was crass, offensive, debasing and yet another demonstration to impressionable youth that females are nothing more than boy toys and sex objects, but that her performance wasn't sexy enough and was too flat-footed.  Huh?  I'm disappointed in everybody.   

TomKolovosTKO
TomKolovosTKO

How could American pop have gotten this bad?" Camille, my love, where the hell have you been for the last 20 years? You were right about Oprah when no one believed you, but I've got to say you've missed the boat on pop culture if you think Miley stinks. Disney aka ABC family has been churning out "stinks" for 2 decades now. Miley is just trying to do the best with what she ain't got: talent. PR is all she's got left. Google Rihanna. And auto-tune. And Madonna. And Lady Gaga. Then Google The Civil Wars. Then write about that, because that matters! 



decoy57
decoy57


"Subversion requires limits to violate."

I always read Camille. Paglia is interesting because while she writes from the wild-eyed left she will also think - and type - notions that few others - outside of the wild-eyed right - will touch. As fodder for discussion I like her observations on education, which are (i'm not sure it is inadvertent) wildly un-PC, but to me they encompass some element of truth. Like everything else, of course we have to weigh this notion against the observation that a broken clock is correct twice a day. So in this quote she appears to have captured the unrecognized conundrum of the modern social liberal. In advocating for those who do so the destruction of every historical boundary of decency and morality, she destroys the currency of those whose notoriety is based on challenging these boundaries. Once the broader culture has no notion of decency or morality (we're almost there - give it a week or two), there is no money or fame in challenging these notions, nor in pseudo-intellectual palaver about these challenges. She, and those of her ilk, are writing themselves out of a job. Of course, because of her inability to create a thread of abstraction from the murky past to the foggy future (due to her "this feels good NOW" predilection) she has no concept or concern for the smoldering ruins that constitute the future to which her present leads. An impossible future based on her hypothetical humans is preferable to real one based on actual humans. When your own relationship is incapable of producing actual future humans, why would you care what their world would, in reality, be like? ................................................................

JohnMuir
JohnMuir

I was curious as to what Paglia's take on Miley Cyrus/Blurred Lines would be, but disappointed now to see it's just her lapsing into Madonna nostalgia/fangirl fanatacism.  The Miley Cyrus performance here was an homage - she was copying the girls in the Blurred Lines video in the latter half, so it seems strange to over-analyze a performance that is essentially a simple, fun homage.   Paglia argues that Miley's sexuality is "childish" - but in any comparison to Madonna it's clear that Miley has youthful female sexuality & doesn't need the "mystery" or "seduction" that an older Madonna needed to stay sexy and relevant.  With her pixie-ish devil horn hair, young body, playful tongue - she's young, fun, and sexy and doesn't need a backdressing of "erotica" or BDSM or whatever props Madonna needed.  Yes, Madonna had the better songs.  But if you're going to compare the two on "sexuality" or live performance, there's a reason Miley doesn't need to "tease" and "titillate" and can simply go out and gyrate and have fun.

Blastoff
Blastoff

She has zero talent and I agree with this article...the art world is flat.  Music flat.  Fashion is flat.  It's all about technology today....but creative art: music-painting-theater...flat.  Sad.

Whatanotion
Whatanotion

As a 12 yr old I could not believe the vulgarity of dancing at weddings in the mid 1960's.   This stuff is just the logical progression.  In the movie Amadeus, Mozart brags of musical vulgarity which impresses the king to fund the Play / orchestra.   Guess where it goes from here?  Terra X?

MarkKeresman
MarkKeresman

Golly, I can recall when people like Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Phoebe Snow would simply come out on stage and....whatsit called...PERFORM A SONG, maybe one they actually WROTE THEMSELVES. People either liked it or they didn't.  I even heard-tell of BANDS wherein gals played instruments...jeez, Miley makes the Go-Gos (which I liked) seem like Stravinsky by comparison.

JayPrestonSwafford
JayPrestonSwafford

its ALL abt image, people!...some of the BEST singers out there cant get a RECORD deal anymore!...

thats the SAD truth....MILEY...call it a career...go home...wherever that is...this week.

nwjerseyliz
nwjerseyliz

I think the most curious thing about these reviews of Cyrus is that no one ever mentions her singing. I guess her actual music career is a footnote to her image polishing.

PaulPearson
PaulPearson

Exactly right. Madonna and even Lady Gaga have actual narratives running under their acts. Cyrus' act was divorced from all subtext. Clumsy and sloppy, not to mention unsexy. It was spray cheese. 

Houstonrufus
Houstonrufus

@Seattle_D That was my favorite take on the whole episode. Total absence of art, subtlety, cleverness, wit, etc.

BPS81
BPS81

@kirstenra   I am sure Camille would want you to be an "equal opportunity" and "street wise" feminist as she has put it.  A Feminist that stands up for herself and seeks to compete alongside men without bashing men or masculinity.  The moxy of a Katherine Hepburn is a good role model of that kind of feminism.  The pathological Male hating modern day feminism of a Gloria Steinem only predicates imbalances of it's own between the sexes.  Both Men and Women must remain protective of themselves and on the look out for incoming threats, but living EQUALLY along side each other must be the goal.  Most modern feminists who attack images of gender distinction these days as uniformly all "patriarchal garbage" are locked into cold blooded ideological dogma.   That is not to say that their hasn't been plenty of things that have stereotyped and denigrated woman throughout this nations history, it just means that seeing "anti woman" in every depiction of women from video games to other media is not realistic.  Standing up for your self respect and the respect of women is not the same as pouring cold water over any and all expressions of male sexuality.  


A lot of the problem of today is that many men have become ideological pawns of MODERN feminism and that has created a narrative that there is only two camps.  One full of the "sympathetic male modern feminism supporters" and the other full of "uncouth sexually explicit misogynists".  Yet this is a red herring, because most men today do value the progress in the rights of woman as a milestone for society.  Quite aside from misogyny, male sexual interest toward women which is natural gets met with misunderstanding and painfully gets cold water poured all over it.  It seems like only sexually dispassionate men who are tools of MODERN feminism are acceptable these days.  Yet most Men of today are more or less at ease with women's rights, but want feminism to grow into the moxy filled counterpart to Masculinity and Male sexuality.   The level of equality and sexual tension/passion that would be generated between those two counterparts would be sublimely ideal.  This is NOT about "misogynists" anymore, it's about allowing male sexuality to be it's earnest self while also combating true acts of sexual harassment toward women.  To have the passion of moxy filled "street wise" feminism and assertive Male Sexuality in every relationship would be a match made in heaven. 

simplyundrea
simplyundrea

@TriniTrent: I totally scrunched up my nose at all the Madonna comparisons. It was a bit much, thought it was just me!

Houyqueen
Houyqueen

@JohnMuir First of all Madonna was 24 years old when she performed Like a Virgin at the VMA. She didn't "need" to do anything to enhance her youth or sexuality unless you consider 24 to be "old". The fact that Miley was copying the Blurred Lines video doesn't negate the fact that her performance was just awful. Miley's tongue wagging and awkward ungainly physical movements made her look like a seven year old pretending to mimic adult sexuality. She missed the boat on playfulness so well depicted by Katy Perry and instead of being provocative she came across as annoying at the least and needlessly vulgar. From an artistic point of view there was something almost "off the cuff" in her performance as if she were just winging the whole thing, it didn't look rehearsed or like something she was worked professionally to achieve. I have a problem with Paglia taking the time to compare her with Madonna or anyone else for that matter (even though Miley compared herself w/Madonna and others) since I don't think the performance had anything of significance to deconstruct from a cultural point of view. It should have been judged for the bombed performance it was. Miley needs to fine tune her image and put more thought into her performances if she wants to be taken seriously. Blurred Lines worked and was more tasteful & fun than Miley's performance. 

Houyqueen
Houyqueen

@PaulPearson EXACTLY! Clumsy and sloppy were exactly the adjectives I was looking for to describe her performance. 

Seattle_D
Seattle_D

@Houstonrufus Right? It was like an emotionally stunted seventh-grader planned the whole performance.

TriniTrent
TriniTrent

@simplyundrea it seemed as though the writer was trying to portray Madonna as superior yet blatantly forgot the Sex era.