A couple months ago, Flavorwire’s Tyler Coates (also of “Disappointing Gay Best Friend”) wrote a critique of that Bert and Ernie New Yorker cover that everyone loved. After the repeal of DOMA, the New Yorker hoped that playing on this familiar image of male camaraderie would be a coy wink-and-nudge to same-gender couples. But the problem was that Coates found the imagery infantilizing, reducing the struggles of real-life queer people to puppets on a children’s cartoon. Coates writes, “You know what kind of image would have been nice to see on The New Yorker cover? Perhaps one of actual gay and lesbian couples.”
Coates’ essay did what great criticism does: It makes you rethink an issue about which you thought you already mind made up. Like many, I was quick to champion the New Yorker cover after I saw the image posted all over social media, but Coates disrupted that process, forcing me to consider the politics behind the imagery I got checked. And I remember that just as quickly as Tyler Coates’ essay went viral, critics accused him of “overthinking” the issue — just for having a dissenting opinion. The problem, however, really wasn’t that Coates was thinking too much. It’s that he was thinking at all. If people accuse you of overthinking, that usually means you’re thinking the right amount.
I thought of the rush to squash Coates’ dissent this weekend when I saw that Miley Cyrus was lashing out at critics of her VMA set. After performing a medley of “We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines” with Robin Thicke, Cyrus got an intense amount of criticism for the number’s racial and sexual politics. Combining the worst aspects of both songs, the set grossly objectified black women’s bodies, placing black back up dancers in giant bear costumes that only allowed their asses to hang out. Not only were their sexualities animalized, they were reduced to a single object: their ass. This is literally the definition of objectification — cut and dry.
Of course, you’ve heard a lot about Miley’s minstrel show already — and everyone in the world is tired of talking about it. Like most things that have to do with Miley Cyrus, it gets old. We all know that Cyrus and her producers are clearly trolling America to sell records, but it appears to be working. Streaming of “We Can’t Stop” shot up on Spotify after the performance, and it helped make the song stay relevant at a time when its popularity would otherwise be waning. Before the performance, her record company was already gearing up to release “Wrecking Ball,” which is a good indication that a song is on its last legs.
Cyrus, of course, learned the expected lesson from this controversy: That if you do something awful, you will get a lot of press. Taking a page from the Amanda Bynes playbook, Cyrus followed up offending people of color with objectifying Little People on a German talk show. Instead of playing grab ass with black women, Miley spanks her twerking Little People sidekicks, making them into wacky puppets for our amusement, the same way that Jackass does. They’re just Miley’s harajuku girls, props onstage that make the music seem more interesting than it is — because otherwise, it’s just a second-rate Rihanna song.
If you don’t already know, “We Can’t Stop” was first offered to Rihanna — who turned it down. Cyrus, wanting to go for a more “urban” sound, quickly snatched up the song instead, wanting to remake her image based on the Rihanna playbook. In recent albums, Rihanna has insisted on pushing the envelope from “S&M” to “Rude Boy,” giving a middle finger to her critics and haters. (She even called her last album “Unapologetic.”) On that German stage, Cyrus appeared in full Rihanna costume, as if to signal that she has nothing to apologize for either. She’s just being Miley — which, in this case, means a K-Mart knockoff of an actually talented pop superstar.
Why else do you think Rihanna gave her that look at the VMAs? The girl knows when she’s being appropriated.
Because Miley feels she has nothing to apologize for, the singer absolved herself of all racial responsibility the media. Citing Madonna and Britney as influences, Cyrus commented that this is hardly the first time someone’s been controversial. “How many times have we seen this played out?” Miley said. “People are still talking about it. They’re overthinking it. You’re thinking about it more than I thought about it when I did it. Like, I didn’t even think about it ’cause that’s just me.” She also mentions that her goal was to “make history,” and in that case, she did succeed. She boasted a world-historical level of stupidity.
Here’s the thing: Imagine you had done something very wrong and you had to explain to your parents why you did it. If you plan on not getting grounded for the rest of eternity, you take responsibility for what you did, apologize and hope that the punishment isn’t harsh enough that you can all move on and forget about it. However, if you’re Miley, you would say: a) Well, everyone else is doing it, too and b) I wasn’t thinking. When did telling your parents “Oh, I wasn’t thinking about it!” get you out of something, ever? Not thinking is not an excuse for anything, especially in the real world, where the punishments are much harsher than being sent to your room.
Yet that is exactly the explanation that we too often accept, as if underthinking were acceptable in a world where artists have a responsibility to take ownership of their creative work. I’ve often heard that Miley shouldn’t be held accountable for what she puts out, because she’s not the only one creating it. There’s a team behind her of producers, choreographers and stylists that have just as much (if not more) say as she does. Miley Cyrus isn’t just a musician but the face of a brand and a marketing campaign, one that’s currently using controversy and black bodies to sell records.
If you think that appearing naked in her “Wrecking Ball” video was an organic expression of sexuality, you know not how PR works. It’s a move just as calculated as her image makeover, designed to get her name on the cover of Star and US Weekly, where they can wring their hands over questions of whether or not she’s on drugs. Lady Gaga wears meat dresses, Amanda Bynes sets driveways on fire and Miley Cyrus pisses people off. In an industry where women are too often expendable or interchangeable like Pussycat Dolls, you do what you can to stay in the spotlight.
However, expecting Miley Cyrus not to have agency or take ownership of her role in that industry is dangerous — as is her insistence that she’s above criticism. Miley wants to have her cake and eat it, too, courting controversy without the negative PR sticking to her. Sure, she’s not the sole proprietor of her public image, but she is the most essential component: the face of the brand. Miley is the voice that gives her lyrics life, the vehicle of corporate product sold to millions of fans. On “We Can’t Stop,” she reminds us: “It’s our mouth/We can say what we want to/It’s our song/We can sing if we want to.”
Without knowing it, Miley hit the nail on the head: She can sing if she wants to. She can say what she wants to. She has a choice. Miley Cyrus can to use her press power however she pleases; she can continue to go for the quick click, knowing that the internet craves something to galvanize their anger, and be an asshole as much as she wants to get attention. Or in an age where folks like Adele prove that real success isn’t defined by instant gratification, it’s about time that Miley Cyrus started thinking — and thinking bigger. Miley should work on giving fans what they really crave: Actual talent.