Is there a scribe among us — save for Wire writers and those whose bylines eagerly accompanied reviews of that Larry Coryell reissue — who didn’t pull down at least $40 for Miley musings in 2013? Perhaps a shocked and awed news item, a post-VMAs reaction, a pondering of that preponderance of tongue? If not, I hate to break it to you, but you got ripped off. It was her year, whether we liked it or — well, yeah.
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We wrote about Miley perhaps not so much because she fascinated but galled us with her every move. And to be sure, it was the moves — the videos, performances, masturbatory fingers, nudity, twerking, tongues, the way she used other women’s bodies and her own as props; her actual album, Bangerz, was a tertiary concern at best.
It was a long year for pop aggrievement; excepting Bruno Mars’s five-week run at the top of the year, the No. 1 spot on Billboard in 2013 was occupied by white artists. While Baauer, Macklemore, Robin Thicke, and Lorde hits got their share of controversy and think-piece lather, nothing disquieted us as thoroughly as Miley. She did a mere three weeks with “Wrecking Ball,” but spent the last half of the year as lightning rod for our censure and outrage; we cut off her head and she just kept writhing, unchastened.
Writing about Miley was and is simple. We treat young women as billboards — because they are impossible to define and easy to vilify, they can dependably carry water for any idea we care to assign them. (We don’t care, we’re writing call-outs in our dreams.)
Miley is enrapturing, repulsive, hysterical, ignorant, white, young, female, ultra-rich, sexy, scary, skeezy, feminist, an artist, not feminist, privileged, talented, sad, visceral, plastic, real, too real, and friends with Terry Richardson. What can’t we say about her? Apparently nothing. Bad girls are infinite. Miley possesses us in a way that fully clothed Lorde may never.
Yet the sins of Miley were real, and she made egregious missteps as she attempted to telegraph her artistic primacy by appropriating her understanding of hip-hop culture and tangling herself in black cultural idioms.
She claimed she didn’t see or consider race, and of course she doesn’t have to consider race — she’s a very rich and very successful white woman. To ask her to see the scope of her privilege, to understand what it means to mean-mug and then push in her grill, to really get how a swipe of her tongue across Amazon Ashley’s ass could play to anyone but herself — is an act of futility.
Her irreverence, her defensive assertion that we were all prudes with a problem, illustrated how wide the chasm between her actions and her awareness was. It made her naïveté seem willful, emblematic, and made her continual triumph enraging.
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Then there was the other matter in the paucity of imagination in how Miley served herself to us in 2013. Permanently lensed in pornographic gaze that forced us with every glance to imagine what it is to fuck her or to imagine ourselves as her, viewed as a young woman begging for consumption with knowing doe-eyes. By the time the video for “Adore You” dropped in December, Miley’s pussy-as-Thor’s-hammer pretext and uncomplicated invitation began to feel ruthless in their continual deploy. Their cheap power was fatiguing.
If there was any discernable deep thought behind the image, Bangerz could have been a masterful Top 40 long con, a work of weapons-grade performance art on par with say, Valie Export’s Actionist peepshow Action Pants: Genital Panic. Miley engaged our baseness and biases, only to make us confront how much we want to see (or at least have been culturally sensitized to be turned on by) a rich, white bitch daring us to want her, watching us as we watched her suckle her fingers as if nutrition could be supped from the tips. By year’s end, she’d utterly failed to shock anyone who was still paying attention. Which, if we’re being honest, was all of us.
In the same week “Adore You” dropped (wherein she gnawed her arms in ecstasy between two billowing white sheets like a disturbed fabric softener mascot), Miley offered up a hopeful revision of herself to the New York Times. If taken at face value, it would seem we’ve misunderstood her all along: She’s a Mandela-mourning big-tent feminist living in hope for America’s post-racial future. She doesn’t want to be a bad example to the youth, but she’s got a rebel nature. She respected her Disney-branding enough to curtail it till she was legal.
The part of that complex equation that actually jibes with the Miley we recognize now is that yoke of Disney. Her grown-up image requires a constant reminder of her Disney past to show us just how bad a bitch we should understand Miley to be. They made millions branding Miley as a clean-fun-loving, purity-ring clasping everygirl; Disney had her formally apologize for taking bikini selfies after the then-teenage singer’s phone was hacked and pics disseminated. It is only natural that the adulteration of Miley’s emblematically pure image would be sensational, that it would have the power to horrify us.
Miley’s Bangerz-era story is a transformation fantasy built on proximity to what she was, how we knew her, how fast she went supersweet to superfreak, suggesting that, yes, she was an authentic bad girl all along under that darling Disney guise. Her drifting orientation from the Mouse mothership is meant to tell us as much about who she is now as when she cried real tears for Richardson’s camera, then followed them up with real fellatio on a sledgehammer. This is her ceremony to show us, and whether we want her or not, she belongs to us now.
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