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?
In shock-jock Miley’s defense, she did win our attention and get top ratings. How so?
Ostensibly, she brilliantly pawned her former Disney image as sweet, wholesome Hannah Montana for a grotesque postmodern Grendel’s mother — yet still replete with a whiff of teenage tennies and stuffed teddy bears. Madonna tried that disconnect with her anti-Christian shtick, which supposedly bounced off her Italian Catholic roots. But by the time the public had seen her genitalia, they had no idea of and did not care about what she had once been.
But Miley? Imagine Shirley Temple doing a pre–Deep Throat or Hayley Mills stripped down to vinyl underwear.
Miley rightly sensed that rivals Madonna and Lady Gaga had no constructed innocence to deconstruct. And neither of the two had a celebrity dad to bounce off as a pouty teenager gone wild. Ms. Ciccone and Ms. Germanotta needed silly made-up shock names; Billy Ray had taken care of that for Miley. (And thank God for Billy Ray, or we might have gotten Miley a.k.a. something like Mommy Superior or Sister Nothing.)
She also accomplished in live performance a grotesqueness that once required animation and, later, computer simulation — constructing a spooky female villain behaving as repugnantly as she appeared. Out jumped onto the MTV stage a rare female orc, or a weird androgynous concoction from Frank Miller’s Sin City. For us old guys, Miley Cyrus almost seemed like one of the 1960s Dynamation villain serpents conjured up by Ray Harryhausen in his Sinbad or Jason movies. She even had the Harryhausen slithering tongue, wooden movements, and hissing down pat. In other words, she tried her best to appear ugly and unappealing.
Of course, we have seen far more intriguing transformations (from truly talented performers) to keep up with the changing times — the suited and tied heartthrob Beatles suddenly going psychedelic, altering their appearance and turning into stoned critics of the Western establishment, as “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” morphed into “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Again, Miley had an edge over them all, having once been an anti–Britney Spears wholesome teenybopper, while Madonna and Lady Gaga had never trafficked in anything other than sexual boredom.
But less remarked upon was her inspired art of inversion. In all candor, Ms. Cyrus is hardly a natural beauty or talent. There is absolutely nothing about her 20-year-old figure that is sensual, and she has what we used to call in polite terms a “different” face. Hence the previous wise move of adding lots of hair and loose-fitting clothes.
In truth, the old cute look was a big seller, not just because a few million American parents still wished their teenaged daughters to have upright-appearing role models, but also because it hid rather than accentuated Miley’s otherwise plain sort of looks.
But at the MTV awards, her vinyl bikini reminded us that she has essentially no curves. Shoulders, hips, and waistline meet the same plumb line. Apparently not being fat and middle aged is somehow supposed to be sexy. Again, the exposure of her Twiggy-like anti-sex persona was precisely her intent — to repel rather than entice.
The reptilian tongue was supposed to suggest past and current mastery of some oral sexual act, but it only added to the repugnance. Her goatish permed horns reminded us why she wisely used to drape her hair over as much of her physiognomy as possible. And yet all that deliberate unattractiveness was as if to throw down the gauntlet: “Your old concocted Miley was actually no beauty — now see me full bore and deal with the old con.”
Take away the embarrassing bear sets, the foam finger, her pats on a nearby big rear end, and her randy thruster in the prison stripes, and the show’s effect was of some desperate frontier tomboy, coming of age in her under-bloomers and rutting around the hayloft in search of the hired hand — all set to some sort of mooing and grunting background barnyard noise.
Ugly sex is all that is left after revolutionary cool.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.