Here is a fun sentence to type: Miley Cyrus released a video in support of Occupy Wall Street! The clip, posted Saturday, pairs a remix of her 2010 song “Liberty Walk” with footage from the Occupy protests, and is so incongruous that when I first saw it I spent about five minutes verifying that it was an official Miley production. If the song hadn’t gotten such wide coverage, I’m not sure I’d still be able to say with complete certainty that the former Disney Channel star was responsible for it. The clip looks like a tribute video (fan-made clips that take, say, a Taylor Swift song and put it over footage from Twilight or Glee to emphasize the deep emotional relationships between the characters); it even opens with the suspiciously iMovie-looking white-text-on-black-screen epigraph “This is dedicated to the thousands of people who are standing up for what they believe in…”
In truth, it’s not so out of character. Cyrus is a longtime vlogger, and her ability to use new media in an accessible, authentic-seeming way has been a huge boon to her popularity. But for those more used to the image of Miley Cyrus as a slick, corporate pop star, the apparent sincerity and homegrown flavor of the video were hard to process.
Miley Cyrus, “Liberty Walk (Rock Mafia Remix)”
The response has been predictably ungenerous and snorty. Either Cyrus is clueless since she is herself rich—even though that charge didn’t seem to be particularly relevant when it came to other celebrities, and in the case of fellow pop stars Radiohead was ignored entirely in favor of celebrating their validity-enhancing endorsement of the movement. Or else she’s opportunistic, simply seizing on the movement as a way of promoting herself. Aside from the fact that YouTube videos are considerably harder to profit from than, say, t-shirts, the fact remains that 59% of Americans don’t know enough about the movement to have an opinion on it. If Cyrus is hoping to profit off the backs of OWS, it’s an extraordinarily bad business move.
Of course, the other possibility is that she honestly, earnestly believes in Occupy Wall Street, and that her opinion on the matter is just as valid (or invalid!) as that of John Cusack, Mark Ruffalo, or Colin Hanks. It shouldn’t be so surprising that an affluent 19-year-old American has a Bob Marley infatuation and vague, ill-informed leftist beliefs. The fascinating thing here isn’t Miley Cyrus being into OWS; it’s that being into OWS scans so easily as “normal” that support for the protests slips so easily into the mainstream of pop culture.
Miley Cyrus, “Liberty Walk” (live in 2010)
Cyrus herself is a great guide as to how the image of an anti-capitalist movement could make so much sense next to the processed guitars and gloopy affirmations of “Liberty Walk.” The anti-establishment rhetoric of the 1960s, once so controversial and divisive, has been processed by children’s entertainment into a kind of self-esteem builder, rebellion turned from a political stance into the mark of a well-rounded personality. You can see it in Miley’s signature flashing of the peace sign, the righteous questioning of Cold War foreign policy becoming a wish for everything to be chill y’all, and you can see it in the sign displayed as the video’s final image, its tweenishly hand-markered text reading “WE CAN CHANGE THIS WORLD… IMAGINE,” with the text interrupted by a red heart. That evocation of John Lennon’s most thoroughly neutered expression of leftism, and the resonance it apparently had for Miley (and apparently no one else), makes total sense if you’re even passingly familiar with the dynamics of tween shows: kids are free, fun, and in touch with the world, while adults are clueless, boring, and full of needless rules. In the 1960s, adults were a sort of stand-in for political leaders, but now adults are just adults.
It’s no accident that the video focuses not on the more staid moments of the protests, but almost exclusively on police confrontations. A bunch of hippies camping in a park is every stereotype you could have of a radical protest, but authority figures preventing young people from expressing themselves sounds like the plot of half the shows the Disney Channel has ever run. This is to say that the protesters made the movement acceptably progressive, but it took the police to make it all-American. (In one shot, a cop is literally tearing an American flag away from a guy trapped on the ground.) The ultimate effect of all that pepper-spraying and “kettling” has been to create an overwhelming body of images connecting the protesters to characters and narratives we’ve been culturally conditioned to see as heroic. Members of Occupy Wall Street now plausibly seem like the subject of a Miley Cyrus song.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your perspective. If you think that success for Occupy involves becoming truly mainstream, then Miley’s video is fantastic news. Getting Michael Moore on board doesn’t broaden your message much, but Miley Cyrus’ support brings the movement to people who normally don’t care about politics. (In a rare twist, it’s worth reading the comments attached to the video’s YouTube posting, which have somehow become a deliberation on the movement’s meaning.) If, on the other hand, you’re the type to worry about the movement being co-opted, watered down, or misinterpreted, this is cause for worry. There is, or could be, a robust critique of the role of corporations in modern democracy at the heart of OWS and its offshoots, but that is simply unsustainable at this level of exposure. If Miley Cyrus can glom onto the movement’s message so easily, then it’s unlikely to be particularly complex. Either way, though, Miley Cyrus making a video in support of Occupy Wall Street seems to be a far more important development than it’s being given credit for. Where the hell do you go from there?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 28, 2011