An older generation used to call the boredom of bad habits “reaching rock bottom”; the present variant perhaps is “jumping the shark” — that moment when the tiresome gimmicks no longer work, and the show is over.
In a moral sense, Miley Cyrus reached that tipping point for America, slapping us into admitting that most of our popular icons are crass, talentless bores, and that our own tastes, which created them, lead nowhere but to oblivion.
After all, what does an affluent and leisured culture do when it has nothing much to rebel against?
That was poor Ms. Cyrus’s recent dilemma at the MTV awards ceremony. There are no real rules about popular dance anymore: no set steps, no moves borrowed from ballet, not even a few adaptations from scripted square dancing. It is all free-form wiggling and gyrating — twerking — as if to shout out, “Who are you to say that fake screwing in a vinyl bikini is not dance?”
The same is true of music and lyrics. You can talk to a drumbeat and call it music. You can hit the same chord ad infinitum and call it music. You can scream almost anything and call it music. Doggerel becomes lyrics. Half notes, full rests, rhyme, meter — all that is irrelevant, to the degree it is even still remembered. That is why we often see our performers just stop singing for a few moments in a daze; the dead beat goes on without their constant mindless input.
In the first part of the 20th century modernist contrarians established a counter-music, an antithesis to classical genres. Populist dancers announced, “Who needs ballroom formality?” But again, how do you oppose that opposition, without a reactionary, full-circle return to formalism?
The advisers of Miley Cyrus should have a problem in that the 20-year-old ignoramus is not a Paris showgirl in the Folies Trévise of the 1870s, not an Impressionist artist in 1890, not a Ziegfeld Girl circa 1910, not a poet of the Great War, not a Depression-era novelist, and most surely not a blues singer in 1940 — all defiant in arguing that in turbulent times genres, rules, protocols in the arts, literature, and popular expression were confining, hypocritical, and fossilized (as if it is more difficult and challenging to write a poem without iambic pentameter, rhyme, or poetic diction).
Miley Cyrus, to the extent she was intent on anything other than making more money and headlines, seemed to be trying to rebel against the rebellion, most likely Madonna and her own knockoff insurgent, Lady Gaga. But given that both of them have appeared on stage nine-tenths nude, routinely simulated sex in front of millions, and adopted symbols and sets designed to gross out Middle America, how do you go beyond their uncouthness? Higher platform shoes? More videos of public nudity? Two foam fingers?
For going “beyond” — not singing more mellifluously, dancing more adroitly, or energizing the crowd more enthusiastically — is now the point. In Petronius Arbiter’s first-century novel, The Satyricon, the fatter and more repugnant is Trimalchio, and the more loudly he passes wind, burps, mangles mythology, and invokes scatology, the more he thinks that he appeals to his bored dinner guests. In terms of repugnance, Miley Cyrus was the anorexic and mobile version of Jabba the Hutt.
She has neither the training nor the discipline to go formal retro. She surely was not going to appear in her vinyl bikini, put on ballet shoes, and do a bit from Swan Lake (now that would be shocking). Nor was she going to offer “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi, waving her huge foam finger in Mitch Miller sing-along fashion. That too these days would be shocking.
So what is a poor multimillionaire celebrity to do in the age of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, when slumming has become passé and the audience has become post-decadent? Just say, “And you idiots are paying for this”?
There are no large cultural stimuli to force Cyrus the Younger to question society’s classical norms. No struggle to win the vote for women and then blacks. No Verdun, with a million dead in the muck. No Great Depression, with rampant starvation.
Instead we live in a psychodramatic age of virtual oppression and feigned want, in which “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is updated with Oprah’s melodramatic account of being denied a closer look at a $38,000 Swiss handbag. Our version of D-Day is the question whether or not to lob a few cruise missiles at Bashar Assad to make Obama’s redlines red. Soup kitchens and five-cent apples have transmogrified into electronic EBT cards and Obamaphones. Where is the elemental inspiration, the existential need to tap popular anguish and turn it into revolutionary artistic expression?
If multimillionaire rapper Jay-Z performs at the White House, where is to be found the font of resistance? In short — resistance to what?