Miley Cyrus and Ugly Sex
Was the MTV performance meant to be repellent rather than enticing?

Miley Cyrus performs at the MTV Video Music Awards.


Victor Davis Hanson

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?

Miley Cyrus Reactions
By all accounts, Miley Cyrus’s uninhibited, at times unhinged performance at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 25 was either the end of Western civilization or merely a new low for American popular culture. Here’s a look at some of the reactions.
Cyrus took the stage to perform the song “Blurred Lines” with singer Robin Thicke (left), stripping off most of her clothes and writhing suggestively across the stage, sometimes performing a dance move called “twerking.”
TWEETING AND TWERKING: At its peak, Cyrus’s performance generated more than 300,000 tweets per minute. For comparison, last year’s show had a peak of 88,300 tweets per minute, and the Super Bowl blackout just 230,000.
An image of Will Smith and family in their front-row seats reacting with horror to the show quickly spread on social media. But while it was later revealed that they were watching Lady Gaga at that moment, the image captured the feeling of many about Cyrus's performance.
Fellow celebrities offered some humorous instant analysis of Cyrus’s performance on Twitter.
Kevin Smith @ThatKevinSmith: “Thank Christ! The internet has stopped bitching about #BatFleck to bitch about Miley Cyrus' #MtvVMAs performance instead... #SentientTongue”
Bill Maher @billmaher: “Watching VMAs. Haven't been in a strip club in a while, but good to see nothing has changed”
Albert Brooks @AlbertBrooks: “Alan Thicke and Billy Ray Cyrus now under genetic arrest.”
James Van Der Beek @vanderjames: “Things I learned watching the #VMAs2013: There's nothing you can do with a foam finger that you can't air on MTV.”
Colin Quinn @iamcolinquinn: “Why's Miley Cyrus the villain? Because she's got the guts to go out and say "Hey, guys I'm trying too hard! Sorry it shows!" #screweverybody”
Lisa Rinna @“lisarinna: “Is it just me or are the #vma up to this point like what watching japanese porn must be like?"
Sue Sylvester @SylvesterWMHS: “Miley Cyrus, that is the most offensive thing I've seen since the Glee Club's horrifying performance of Push It. Please, somebody stop her.” (SylvesterWMHS is the feed of Glee character Sue Sylvester)
Nia Vardalos @NiaVardalos: “Gotta go, Miley's at my door waving that giant finger and twerking my dog.”
Bethenny Frankel @Bethenny: “Maybe @MileyCyrus tongue was wagging bc it’s National Dog Day today!!!!”
Josh Malina @JoshMalina: “Say what you want about Miley Cyrus, but she is very disgusting”
Josh Gracin @joshgracin: “Thanks Miley Cyrus. Now I have to explain to my 11 yr old daughter why she no longer can follow your career.”
Judd Apatow @JuddApatow: “It's nice that Miley is comfortable with herself.”
Chrissy Teigen @chrissyteigen: “What if miley is just like us and woke up and is like guys what happened last night”
Adam Lambert @adamlambert: “Listen if it wasn't ur cup of tea — all good but why is everyone spazzing? Hey — she's doin something right. We all talkin”
Robin Thicke @robinthicke: “That was dope Shout out to @MileyCyrus…"
Candace Parker @Candace_Parker: “Omg… I’m watchn VMA’s and ummm Miley Cyrus… Ummmmmmmmmmm ummmmmmmm #PoppedAMollyAndTwerked.”
Kelly Clarkson @kelly-clarkson: “Just saw a couple performances from the VMA’s last night. 2 words…. #pitchystrippers”
Mika Brzezinski @morningmika: “Anyone who thinks Miley Cyrus needs intervention, retweet. That was not art. That was a cry for help-Shame on MTV and any who facilitate.”
John Podhoretz @jpodhoretz: “Judging from Miley Cyrus I gather "twerking" is slang for "losing your immortal soul and consigning yourself to the Ninth Circle of Hell."
Jonah Goldberg @JonahNRO: “Perhaps all of the finger wagging over Miley Cyrus getting more attention than Syria could be solved by dropping her on Damascus?"
MODERN FAMILY: Miley's dad, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, was more supportive than most, tweeting: “Billy Ray Cyrus: Thanking God for so many blessings tonight. Continue to pray for world peace. More love ...less hate” (Pictured, Miley and Billy Ray in earlier days.)
Brooke Shields, who played Cyrus’s mother on the television show Hannah Montana, was less positive: “I do not approve. … Where did I go wrong? I just want to know who's advising her, and why it's necessary? … [Our children] can't watch that. … I feel like it's a bit desperate."
SPIN ROOM: The day after the show, cultural commentators, fellow performers, and plain-old concerned parents continued to weigh in.
Cyndi Lauper: “That was girl gone wild. So sad, so sad. … there she is a young twentysomething trying to prove, you know, she can hang with the big boys and girls, you know, basically simulating a 'Girl Gone Wild' video onstage and I just felt like it was so beneath her and really. It was really raunchy. It wasn't even art. It was raunch."
Lance Bass: “I didn't know I had to warn [my nieces and nephews] that their little Hannah Montana was going to be naked and humping a finger. I think it's her thing. I think she shocked a lot of her younger fans, especially the parents, who might not be so happy with her thing, and she's just being Miley."
"It's just a clumsy white appropriation of black culture. That is just part of the larger trend we were seeing in music and pop culture that night." — Professor Salamishah Tillett, University of Pennsylvania
“Cyrus’s twerk act gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin. Cyrus is annexing working-class black “ratchet” culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention: her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. — Jody Rosen,
“My list of reasons why I'm glad my girls, ages 5 and 7, were too young to ever get into Hannah Montana grew exponentially longer after Miley Cyrus' unforgettable 'twerking' in a bra and undies at MTV's Video Music Awards.” -- CNN digital and family editor Kelly Wallace
"This is unacceptable MTV continues to sexually exploit young women by promoting acts that incorporate 'twerking' in a nude colored bikini. How is this image of former child star Miley Cyrus appropriate for 14-year-olds..." — Parents Television Council
“Miley Cyrus did an in-your-face, look at me now, pornographic performance at the record industry's most public coming out party, the MTV video music awards. This was no accident. … What was Miley thinking? You don't have to guess. She was probably thinking: ‘I’m not that Miley Cyrus anymore and this ought to prove it.’” -- Pepper Schwarz, author, The Normal Bar
Updated: Sep. 06, 2013



Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review