Somewhere, MTV execs are cackling in delight.
Thirty years in, the network needed something to make its annual Video Music Awards ceremony the talk of the town. It needed something shocking. Something provocative. Something that would put the VMAs (and by natural extension, MTV) back in the cultural spotlight. It needed a defining moment that would ingrain itself into the zeitgeist and provide memorable video clips for years to come.
What MTV got was Miley Cyrus. And did she ever deliver.
The mediasphere has been bubbling over since Sunday night's duet with Robin Thicke, replete with a mashup of two of the biggest hits of the summer, questionable fashion choices and the opportunity for journalists to use the term "twerk" with impunity, as if it somehow made them in-the-know.
Somewhere between dancing with the giant, drug-addled teddy bears and grinding on a 36-year-old man in a Beetlejuice suit, Miley defined a moment in American double standards that fits the times better than any self-important essay or government report ever could. In a period of history in which society decries federal surveillance while simultaneously demanding a totalitarian security blanket, where half the population loathes socialist-style benefits programs yet is utterly dependent on them, Miley illustrated just how fast our country can turn on a child of its own making.
What a perfect brew of scandal, sexuality, racial injustice and gender inequality she provided! A photo of Will Smith's family watching Lady Gaga was falsely appropriated as an anti-Miley meme. Vulture's Jody Rosen described the performance as "Miley's minstrel show," and for some inexplicable reason said Cyrus was "toying with racial imagery." Thicke's mother Gloria Loring was so dismayed she told omg! "It was so over the top as to almost be a parody of itself." Morning Joe's Mika Brzezinski called the routine "disgusting and embarrassing," saying Cyrus is "deeply troubled, deeply disturbed, clearly has confidence issues, probably an eating disorder."
No, Mika, Miley may have plenty of issues, but I don't think a lack of confidence is one of them.
Almost every piece of outraged criticism published contains the same thesis: How could this 20-year-old woman — a mere child, really, they'd like you to think — dare to strip down to latex undies to simulate sex onstage during a nationally televised event?
These same critics forget this is an awards show that trades its name on attempts at controversy. The very first broadcast in 1984 featured Madonna writhing around the stage in a wedding dress singing about sex.
Granted, there is some difference between that and jamming a foam finger into your crotch while your tongue lolls out of your mouth like an overheated Boston terrier, but the idea is the same — Miley got the attention she wanted. She didn't just become the highlight of the show, she became the entire show. *NSYNC, Daft Punk and Lady Gaga were the big draws leading into Sunday, but Miley willed herself into the story of not just the hour, but the entire week.
That is no doubt the reaction both Miley and MTV were hoping to elicit. This is a spectacle the ceremony hasn't enjoyed since 2003, when Madonna kissed Britney Spears (and Christina Aguilera, if you recall, which no one does) when Brit was only 21. Spears had danced suggestively with a python and in a flesh-colored bodysuit in VMA performances even before that jaw-dropper.
What's truly shocking is that so many people dare to call Miley's performance shocking. Finally able to break free of the stranglehold of her Hannah Montana days, Cyrus is simply doing what so many young people do — freaking out while desperately seeking an identity of her own.
The difference is that she's doing it in public, for money, so it's not like this is a surprise. "Does anyone know if Miley Cyrus has become a sexual being?" The Atlantic Wire's Richard Lawson wrote in the tweet of the night. "She's been so silent on the matter."
Forget the psychological maturity aspect for a second; now that she's 20 and needs to reinvent herself to preserve her fan base, she is undeservedly getting blowback for no longer being an acceptable role model for 11-year-olds.
But such are the whims of a culture that demands a woman barely of consenting age become even more sexualized than she was as a teen in order to stay relevant as an adult. Then when she does, she is condemned for it.
Blame a lot of things for what Miley Cyrus is at the moment, but don't blame Miley.
She can't stop.