Miley Cyrus sent out this tweet after her sexualized performance at Sunday’s Video Music Awards:
And isn’t that what it’s all about in tween/young adult entertainment land these days?
Here’s a question. Can anyone remember what song she sang? In fact, how many have looked at the video–probably at work with the sound muted–not to hear her music but rather just to see what all the fuss is about.
And getting people to stop by and see what the all the fuss is about seems to be the sole aim of pop culture these days. It’s about music industry-engineered “shock.” It’s about getting people like me to write about it (I admit it … they got me this time). It’s about, in the end, the truism that there is no such thing as bad publicity in the entertainment world.
What we saw on stage was one step above a Cyrus sex tape. And it worked. More the fools us for it was so obviously manufactured and packaged. We didn’t see an artist. We saw a product. A rather lewd one at that. One wonders if a producer’s voice piped in her ear as she entered the stage: “Wait for it…waaiiiit…okay…and stick tongue out….now!”
Personally, although I don’t deny she has talent, I care little for Cyrus and her contrived and very carefully mapped-out transition from sweetheart Hannah Montana to pole-dancer in training. It is so obvious that Sunday night was part of a strategy, a marketing ploy thinly veiled under the guise of “artistry” that so impacts me that I roll my eyes when I see her latest splash of Yahoo! News or OMG! headlines.
Didn’t we already suffer through this artificial “shock” way back in the day with Madonna’s gyrations when I was teen? And Madonna was good! And then again in the days of Britney the Mousketeer-turned-trailer-trash-turned-reborn-pop-icon who kisses Madonna open-mouthed. (Oh no you di’in’t!) Then we hacked our way through Lady Gaga’s absolute shrieks for attention (“Hey look over here! I’m wearing meat!!”).
Like her Material Girl forerunner in the professional outrage business, Lady Gaga has some good tunes. But when one wear’s a meat suit or still tries to stuff thirty extra pounds into the same fruit roll-up leotard she wore in middle school, it detracts from the artistry … which should in the end for a musician and composer be about the music.
You know? Music? Not explosions and lasers and androgynous dancers twirling while gibbons on unicycles smoke cigars and throw lawn darts at armored pygmies in elevated cages who in turn shower down “Hate Is Bad” pamphlets on a like-minded audience who, admittedly, eats that stuff up–many of whom I’ll wager wouldn’t recognize the musical circle of fifths or the pentatonic scale if they came stuffed inside a celebrity gift bag.
Perhaps this is just the old fogy in me shining through, but I can’t help contrasting the two competing images above. Here is Duane Allman circa 1970 (just three years older than Cyrus). An unshaven, simple guy with a weathered guitar, beat-up Marshall stacks behind him and a Coricidin pill bottle he used as a makeshift slide. He wore blue jeans, sandals, tank top and that’s it. And one more thing: he knew music inside and out and played some wicked blues.
So from this bare-bones formula, no flash, no pizzazz, no knee-high boots or tinfoil space suits and spiked helmets came some of the best music of an age where it was just that: all about the music.
Although he was referring to the Allman Brothers Band, Mike Mills from REM could have been talking about any of the rock/blues artists from the 1960s and 1970s, when he observed:
“There wasn’t a whole lot to look at. They dressed in bell-bottoms and denim shirts, and tee-shirts and whatever they had. It was purely, being so deeply into the music. They were living it. They were feeling it. It was all they were. It was all they did. It was all they cared about.”
When you compare Allman (son of a murdered father who learned guitar along with his kid brother Gregg from the black musicians he met along the way growing up poor in the deep South) to Cyrus (daughter of line-dance country phenom Billy Ray, wealthy and in front of the cameras since she could crawl) and then to reinforce my point, Robin Thicke (son of 80s talk-show and sitcom darling Alan) you see that a certain, well, authenticity gap exists. Hence the difference in core musicality on display between whatever it was we heard on the VMA this past Sunday and Live At The Fillmore East which is still the bomb four decades later.
I totally get that every piece of music is a gem to someone, and that, though passé to me, Cyrus’s act may seem “daring” to those too young to know that this is but a recycled bit of packaged envelop-pushing. So “degustibus non est disputandum” applies to me as much as the next man.
At least I tell myself that. And I’ll concede that when it comes to lifestyle, I would not want my children emulating the hirsute hippy scene that accompanied some of my favorite bands–awash in drugs, free love, and a liberal, consequence-free outlook on every matter under the forever shining sun maaaan…including hygiene.
Not to mention I can also remember my own parents lamenting the days of swing and big band when rock hit the scene. So I suppose what I am experiencing now is a generational rite of passage that comes with getting older and especially being a parent.
Homer Simpson once said: “I must be hip. I still like the same music I did in high school.”
I guess I’m coming to grips with the distressing fact that perhaps, wise as he is in many things, Homer may be wrong on this. If ever I need proof of my own pop cultural irrelevance, I just note the fate of the Classic Vinyl station pre-programed on Sirius when my daughter’s high school carpool mates climb into my SUV. It’s amazing how swiftly the dial gets spun away from “Statesboro Blues” to something more 2013-ish. Funny. I had intended this piece as a rant pining for the lost age of great music and using Cyrus and her engineered exhibitionism as the foil of my outrage.
And I will still offer that, based on the VMAs, with the exception of a few outcroppings of talent, the lunar landscape of quality music is pretty barren. Music as a pop art expression has been replaced with prancing divas, thug rappers, coiffed boy bands or barely legal teen angels whose sexual aggression make this father of an adolescent girl cringe.
But really all Cyrus, in her so obviously contrived “over-the-top” shtick, did for me was lay bare once and for all just how out of touch I am with my own times. I could get depressed about it. But instead I’ll just slap on some headphones, listen to the 11-minute guitar heaven that is the live version of the Allman Brothers’ Whipping Post and cast my mind back to a time when music was on center stage.
I don’t think Allman ever had one of those oversized foam hands that “bad girl” Cyrus was waving about the other night. Of course he didn’t. He needed both hands to play an actual instrument of which he was a master.
In other words, he was too busy making music to make a spectacle. But I doubt he’d get as many tweets as Cyrus. And that’s what matters now.