POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 29 August 2013, Thursday
The Twerk Heard Around the World
By now nearly everyone with Internet access not hiding under a rock has seen Miley Cyrus’s provocative performance at the recent MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), and is either outraged, delighted, or still in facepalm mode.
Cyrus, a former Disney child star, has been in the media’s crosshairs lately for her clumsy attempts at reinventing her image. She is trying to transform from squeaky clean “Hannah Montana” to a grownup persona that will enable her to hold her own against the formidable competition facing her in Hollywood.
She has been accused of appropriating black culture and “accessorizing” with black people in her music videos, “stealing” the music and dance moves of crunk hiphop, and dressing, talking, and gesturing “ratchet” (what used to be called “ghetto) style.
However, it was her blatant display of sexuality at the VMA that shocked even her fellow performers. Her grinding on singer Robin Thicke, mock-self-pleasuring herself with a foam finger, and stripping to nude-colored plastic underwear left the Will Smith family with their mouths open and Rihanna unimpressed.
Online magazine Jezebel’s called it Cyrus’s way of “pushing the envelope,” with “her lack of clothes and movements [speaking] stronger than anything else.” It was expected that performers at the VMAs “would try to sell themselves to us this way,” but that the audience is complicit in the act because “we don’t want to stop feeding on what they offer us.”
Buzzfeed saw it as Cyrus’s “coming-of-age” performance, but sniffed that Britney Spears did it better in the 2000 VMAs with her glittery nude-colored outfit and masterful dance moves.
Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski said it was “really, really disturbing” and “disgusting and embarrassing” while calling Cyrus “obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed.”
Regarding the public’s reaction, parody site The Onion mused that it was swift, “as other, slightly older adults paused from maintaining their social standings and making potato salad for the church picnic to express dismay that a young female pop star would do something so scandalous for attention, on a show where young female pop stars have historically done something scandalous for attention.”
The VMAs eat controversy for breakfast. Madonna’s performance of “Like A Virgin” in a punk-style wedding dress and “boy toy” belt at the VMAs in 1984 was deemed outrageous back then, but ho-hum now. The same with Britney Spears in 2000 and 2001 (when she danced with the yellow snake). Ditto Madonna and Britney (again) joined by Christina Aguilera in 2003, singing “Like a Virgin” (again) and throwing in that infamous lesbian kiss. In 2009, Lady Gaga left them in the dust with a controversial rendition of “Papparazzi” that included barely-there outfits, on-stage bleeding, and a mock hanging.
There’s a pattern here of female pop stars turning their VMA performances into vehicles for one-upmanship through striptease, simulated sex, and death (reminiscent of the “little death” of orgasm). Miley had to top their antics in order to be noticed and gain the same sort of dark and somewhat sleazy notoriety that translated into their economic and professional success. Whether Miley achieved this with her twerking episode is still unclear.
Her performance shocked because it is transgressive: it violated social norms. It offended and is therefore classed as deviant behavior because it is something associated with certain subcultures – the rebellious, the defiant.
However, it is also a negotiation or construction of identity, as Cyrus asks herself: “Who am I?” She has to be different from Madonna, Britney, and Lady Gaga, even from herself as “Hannah Montana”. She is now creating an adult Miley Cyrus, and we have front-row seats to the construction process.
Female pop stars have more selling power if they can both sing and dance, and they employ erotic dance as a unique expression of their femaleness. This is nothing new. “In modern times,” said feminist intellectual Camille Paglia in 1994, “dance has progressively become more sexually explicit…the nude dancer can never be captured or completely known. She teases and eludes, like the female principle itself.”
Like pornography, that “focuses on our primal identity, our rude and crude animality” (Paglia), modern dance uses eroticism to shock, titillate, and break down norms. We see this in the highly sexualized performances on TV of dance groups like the Sex Bomb Dancers. They gyrate in skimpy clothing on variety shows scheduled during primetime and that may be viewed by young children.
Can this trend be reversed, short of a Taliban-type crackdown? Paglia warns, “The unpleasant truth is that we can never fully legislate the human psyche. Strange aberrations will continue to manifest themselves at every level of society.”
Cyrus’s performance in itself it was bad – the singing, the dancing. It did not even have the redeeming factor of being derivative (based on an already existing art form or other underlying work); it was frankly imitative of other such performances, but with the shock factor dialed to “high” in an attempt to surpass her peers.
What she succeeded in doing was grabbing the spotlight and training it on herself. It was a wielding of the feminine power – she made you look. Whether you were disgusted or mesmerized, in that instant, Miley and her shaking butt filled your world. ***