Miley Cyrus' new album, Bangerz, comes out on Tuesday. Yeah, that's right, the damn thing's only out this week and yet the tween queen-turned-twerk Antichrist has been the most controversial figure in popular culture for months.
After taking an unprecedented amount of clickbait abuse for her apparently apocalyptic VMA performance, Miley has finally taken to defending herself. First she made clear in a winningly revealing Rolling Stone cover story that she was not the manipulated puppet people are making her out to be.
"I basically cut off all ties. I got rid of my manager, I got rid of my label. I just started over," she said of her newly Disney-free career before explaining the lack of publicists and minders that usually surround pop stars. "I hung out with way too many adults when I was a kid. So now I don't want to hang out with any adults."
Then she put out the MTV promo doc Miley Cyrus: The Movement that aired last week, in which she pointed out:
"You could watch that performance from the VMAs and think that it's a hot mess, but it's a strategic hot mess. Right now I'm at a point in my career where I can just be exactly who I want to be. I can just have fun and not think about any kind of repercussion and just go for what you want to do. That causes a lot of reaction but I think there's something about watching people grow up."
That was followed by this past weekend's Saturday Night Live gig, in which she demonstrated a charmingly self-aware sense of humour, a showy display of her vocal chops (including a brilliant country-streaked acoustic version of "We Can't Stop") and even delivered the show's best political sketch since Tina Fey's Sarah Palin heyday with the "We Did Stop" government shutdown parody.
Then there was this morning's screw-you appearance on The Today Show, in which she blew off Matt Lauer's opportunity to offer regret ("It's a month later and we're still talking about it, so it definitely went as planned") and coolly dismissed Sinead O'Connor's entrance into the fray ("You can write as many open letters as you want, that's what blogging is.")
Oh, and she made fun of Lauer for being old. Which might seem kinda mean but c'mon, how many people have been haranguing her lately for being young? But the generational divide is the least of the hot buttons that Cyrus has been pushing.
As someone who has covered music since Britney Spears made everyone freak out with her own barely dressed Rolling Stone cover in 1998, North Americans being aghast at a young female pop star is nothing new. But there's something a little different about the Miley mess.
Why are we talking about her so much? Obviously, she's quite talented and incredibly charismatic -- neither of which would be revelations to her legions of Hanna Montana-raised fans but are to those who still think of her as that "Achy Breaky" guy's daughter. But the real reason goes further back. Like, way further back.
Sex and race are the original fault lines of an America founded by puritans and fuelled by slavery -- and Miley straddles them both. We may be well beyond earthquakes like the Salem witch trials or the Civil War, but those fault lines continue trembling to this day in the endemic racism of the Tea Party, the anti-abortion laws that keep being passed in the southern states and sexist subtext of the fight to keep contraception off health care plans.
Miley has been setting off these tremors, whether intentionally or not. Don't forget, she's not Britney plucked out of a Louisiana trailer park or Bieber scooped up from a St. Catherines single-parent home. Miley is southern-fried royalty. Her dad may be a one-hit-wonder to pop fans, but he's remained a force in Nashville and Miley's godmother is Dolly freaking Parton.
So the anger over her VMA twerking and working with hip-hop producers and MCs has to be viewed in that context. After all, Nelly Furtado managed to work with Timbaland without being called a racist -- and her video for "Promiscuous" featured booty-shaking and black dancers.
But when Cyrus does it, and when she makes her own hip-hop-influenced pop album, she gets accused of cultural appropriation and even outright racism. This seem dangerously retrograde to me -- are people actually arguing that popular culture should be segregated with whites only working with (and dancing with) other whites? Isn't what she doing actually a great message to be sending to her young, largely white fanbase?
As Cyrus herself pointed out in Rolling Stone,
"I'm from one of the wealthiest counties in America. I know what I am. But I also know what I like to listen to. Look at any 20-year-old white girl right now -- that's what they're listening to at the club. It's 2013. The gays are getting married, we're all collaborating. I would never think about the color of my dancers, like, 'Ooh, that might be controversial.' What do you mean? Times are changing. I think there's a generation or two left, and then it's gonna be a whole new world."
Then there's the sex and gender stuff. Much as her southern roots impact how she's perceived through a racialized lens, so to does her history as a clean-cut Disney pop princess impact her new hypersexuality. She started out as Hanna Montana back in 2006, and she's lately been complaining that parents of her original fans feel "entitled" to a say in how she behaves now because they watched her grow up. But that's hardly her fault.
As well, the outrage from the right over her sexually aggressive performances and videos is hardly unexpected -- no more so than the VMA reaction double standard. As Cyrus accurately noted in Rolling Stone, "No one is talking about the man behind the ass. It was a lot of 'Miley twerks on Robin Thicke,' but never, 'Robin Thicke grinds up on Miley.' They're only talking about the one that bent over."
Sinead O'Connor's open letters raised such a stink last week because she seemed like such an unexpected source of slut-shaming, blasting the young singer for "pimping herself," even denying her agency.
"The music business will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its what YOU wanted," O'Conner claimed. But while it may seem unfathomable to some that Cyrus could be in complete control of her career right now, that's condescending and sexist. She entered this new phase of her career with all the power in the world, for the first time, and she's doing whatever she wants.
This isn't new -- her last two albums were called Breakout and Can't Be Tamed and in her 2010 song "Robot" she pleads "Stop trying to live my life for me/Stop telling me I'm a part of the big machine/I'm breaking free, can't you see/I'm not your robot, I'm just me." But she's now earned enough cultural cachet and commercial potential to pull it off. She's been playing this game since she was 12 and finally freed of Disney's corporate clutches, she's clearly calling the shots for better or worse.
If there's one positive thing about all this -- aside from helping Miley top the song and soon album charts with some solid popsmithery -- it's that she has sparked so much conversation. Sex and race remain such dangerous fault lines precisely because they largely remain hidden from sight until they explode into chaos.
Hell, even her constant promotion of weed and "Molly" while denigrating hard drugs -- "Those are happy drugs, social drugs. They make you want to be with friends. You're out in the open. You're not in a bathroom. I really don't like coke. It's so gross and so dark. It's like what are you, from the Nineties? Ew" -- has a lot to say about the futility of America's war on drugs. There's a good reason why Vice.com recently proclaimed her "punk as fuck."
Yes, Miley twerking, toking and naked wrecking ball-riding may all seem incredibly silly and unimportant. But by bringing these subjects into the open under the safely superficial confines of critiquing a pop star, maybe it can help push us a bit closer to that whole new world we're all waiting for.