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Twerks and Sea Shells

twerkBy now you have probably heard about Miley Cyrus’ performance of the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards (the VMA’s).  The 20 year old pop star pranced around the stage in different levels of un-dress, all the while performing a multitude of rude actions.  She ‘twerked’, she fondled herself (and others), and made sexually explicit motions with almost every inch of her body.   In the end, Cyrus wasn’t praised for her performance.  Moments after the she left the stage, the internet blew up with criticism and judgment, calling her performance inappropriate, raunchy, and over-the-top.

Let’s be honest, it was.  I agree that Miley’s performance was too sexual for the audience for which the show was aimed.  Yes her performance crossed the line between sexy and sultry to vulgar and pornographic.  Yes, her performance is a dangerous example to set to impressionable young girls and boys.

But what are the deeper questions that lie beneath the easy critiques?  For example, why has everyone criticized Miley’s performance, but remained silent about Lady Gaga’s?  I have intentionally withheld posting this for the past couple of days, wanting to see if anyone would mention Gaga’s performance.  With the exception of Canadian comedian Jon Lajoie and his brilliant video “Miley, you’re a good girl” (check it out here), I found no blog, no celebrity news reel, no entertainment site posting outrage for Gaga’s performance.  Yet Gaga actually ended her performance wearing fewer clothes than Cyrus.  So why is Miley Cyrus shamed for her scantily clad performance, while Lady Gaga is hailed as an artist for hers? Do we give Gaga a pass because she wasn’t a Disney star?  Do we appeal to some dubious distinction between art and pop?

Here’s a run-down of Lady Gaga’s performance.  Gaga begins her performance in a white outfit.  It is rigid, architectural, and covers up every inch of her body except her face.  The outfit is nun-like, virginal and innocent.  Gaga then morphs into a sexy black body suit, playing on the typical vision of sensuality.  Again, she moves around the stage making some suggestive movements before being transformed into an 80’s inspired blue business attire and blond wig.  It is hard, powerful, and forceful.  When stripped of the business look, Gaga again wears the black body suit, this time adding a stark yellow wig and clown-like make-up.  Is this a comment about the vapid shallowness of Barbie-doll and celebrity-based images of beauty and sexuality?  Her final outfit is the doozy.  It consists of only three white shells, strategically placed.  Gaga’s natural hair flows around her as she sings and moves around the stage.  Again, as little as Cyrus wore, at this point, Gaga (who is only 6 years older) wears much less.

When Gaga moves from white to white, from covered up to barely covered, we are left asking the deeper questions: what is the message that she is trying to convey?  Is Gaga’s performance about the decent of sexuality, the movement from that which is pure to that which is profane?  Or, is she actually saying that celebration of female sexuality is a reclaiming of lost innocence?  If we ask these questions of Gaga, shouldn’t we be asking them of Cyrus’ performance as well?  When Cyrus emerges from the world of teddy bear’s and play-things and into a place of twerking fits of sexuality, what is she trying to say?  Furthermore, when Miley Cyrus gets lambasted for her overt sexuality, but Lady Gaga gets a pass, are we complaining about sexiness, or the loss of innocence?

But is it just about sexiness?  Jo Piazza,  author of the book, “Celebrity Inc” would no doubt make the claim that the real outrage over her performance is that Cyrus has been inconsistent with her brand.  We accept Lady Gaga’s performance because we expect her to be risqué and off the wall.  No one balked when she posted an ‘artistic’ video of her chanting naked in the woods.  It was typical Gaga.  Yet Cyrus’ performance was different.  Cyrus was no longer the innocent and pure Hannah Montana that we expect and want from her.  Over the recent years, Cyrus has struggled to re-create her image.  Her first foray into more adult music was based on that very theme.  Yet while she sang ‘I can’t be tamed’ and donned more revealing clothing, still a sense of virginal innocence and do-good purity was continually ascribed to her.

Not so much here.  Here Miley has taken full control over her image, completely obliterating the false innocence that the media has continually tried to lock her into.  One is left wondering if Miley’s performance was not so much a voyeuristic look at her sexuality, but a cry of ‘This is who I am, accept me.’  If that’s the case, then one wonders if teens who emulate the overt sexiness of contemporary stars are actually saying – “Don’t treat me like a baby. Don’t force me to be someone I am not.  Accept me for who I am.”?

Then again, why are we yelling about Cyrus and Gaga, when they are mere reflections of an industry that commercializes sex and sexuality?  After all MTV knew about the performance and obviously allowed it to take place.  Such a ‘despicable and inappropriate performance’ was placed center stage in order to garner more ratings, more popularity, and more profit.  When a music industry cares more about how much skin you show than how good you sound on stage, where should our complaints actually be placed?

These questions are not altogether clear or straight forward.  Is our outrage over Miley Cyrus’ performance about sexiness or branding?   Are we more concerned with the amount of skin shown and gyrations performed, or about her perceived age and a loss of innocence?  Are pop stars simple pawns to serve the desires and wishes of the entertainment industry?

I’m obviously not posing any answers.  Yet in order for the church to engage theologically with popular culture, we need to look deeper into these issues.  Our responses to events like the MTV VMA’s can’t be one of simple hand –slaps and cries of ‘Miley bad!’  We need to look deeper.   We need to look at the issues of identity, marketing, sexuality, expectations, and the complex matter that all of these intersect with one another.    We need to look beyond the rightness or wrongness of actions, and into what these actions convey about the values, directions, and spiritual underpinnings of the culture in which they emerge.   After all, the Gospel message isn’t just about moral purity and a prescribed list of do’s and don’ts.  It is much more.   Engaging authentically with these questions, then, means that the Church can truly be a witness to the Gospel in this world.  It means that the church is able to hold out the truth that faith in Jesus is about life, healing and wholeness, and that these things can be found even within the complex and murky waters of Popular Culture.

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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11 Responses to Twerks and Sea Shells

  1. I was just looking this up today!

  2. Matthew Griffin

    It’s worth noting some other critiques of the performance that speak about the issues of race that have arisen for many; a good summary can be found at NPR’s music blog:

  3. The racism in the performance was bad enough, but my main source of outrage actually has nothing to do with her and everything to do with Robin Thicke’s disgusting song about date rape. I’m sick of people “slut-shaming” and not taking any time to read the lyrics to his song “Blurred Lines”, which is nothing more than a glorification of rape culture, or save any vitriol for him. I personally found her performance odd, off-putting, and not at all sexy, but it was nowhere near as offensive as his filth.

  4. Kyle Norman

    I have to admit I don’t know what I think about the racism angle to Cyrus’ performance, especially considering the backlash that that position has received. Some have argued that suggesting that white artists should avoid use of African American back-up dancers and dance-moves is itself a racist comment. Paul Simon used authentic African drumming and musicality for his “Graceland” Album – and not only did no one object, but it was his most successful album. Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, in their book “A Matrix of Meaning” effectively argue (I think) that in a time when white people can become the most successful rappers (Beastie Boys, Eminem) and an African American can become the most successful golfer (Tiger Woods), the lines of what is what is ‘black’ and what is ‘white’ become increasingly less clear in popular culture.

    Clarity, I think you are right on the money about the lack of response to Thicke’s lyrics. Like the silence over Gaga’s sea shell bra and thong, the silence of Thicke’s song clearly muddies the waters. Why object to one and not the other? What does this say about what people are actually objecting to? And, where should the objections lie. Not only did MTV greenlight Miley’s dancing, but they also allowed Thicke to sing a song which is arguably more offensive and criminal. So why isn’t MTV being raked over the coals for this one? Why do we just say things like ‘well they did it again’, or ‘typical MTV’. They aren’t because of course, the more we talk about this, the more clicks they get on YouTube video’s and the more people turn into the station for more reports – they get what they wanted – ratings.

    So how do we respond? Instead of pointing a finger at one person, be it Thicke, Cyrus, or even Gaga, how do we respond to such a clearly self-indulgent and narcisstic industry?

    Interesting questions. I love the discussion that is taking place!

    • Regarding the misappropriation of culture. A few weeks before this whole Miley Cyrus thing, there was a trend on twitter call #solidarityisforwhitewomen. The point of the hashtag was to call attention to racism that exists within the mainstream feminist movement and how that movement silences the voices of women of colour, especially when they criticize racism. One thing I took away from that conversation is that the opinions and observations of women of colour are frequently ignored. I’ve read several blogs and articles about Miley Cyrus’ misappropriation of culture and objectification of the bodies of Black women (BTW, that second part is important. It’s not just that Miley Cyrus was twerking. She was twerking to gain some type of status and she was using the women on stage with her as props while doing so.) by women of colour and every time there were comments that can be summed up as “You’re wrong. You’re oversensitive. It’s not a big deal.” Yet to many of these women, it IS a big deal. It’s such a big deal that they are willing to write about it and risk being trolled and gaslighted. I think it is extremely important for those of us who are not people of colour, to stop, step back and listen when we hear these criticisms and to not dismiss them out of hand. That can be hard because when we hear criticisms aimed at a group we belong to (in this case, white people), our automatic reaction is go on the defensive. I think we, especially Christians, need to learn not to do that and to give people courageous enough to speak out the benefit of the doubt.

      One more thing. I don’t know Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album so I can’t say whether or not it’s a misappropriation of culture. I believe it’s completely possible to borrow from other cultures in a respectful manner. I mean, I don’t think there is anything wrong with wearing a pair of moccasins, for example, but if you start wearing a headdress, yeah, that’s a problem. That being said, just because a) no one complained and b) it was popular, doesn’t mean anything. Lots of popular things are racist and there are lots of reasons no one complains (eg, they’re scared they’ll be attacked or ostracized, they’re afraid they’ll be dismissed or ignored, they don’t see the point). Moreover, just because you’re aware that no one complained, doesn’t mean that no one did. It all depends on where you get your information from. I didn’t watch the VMAs and it was on the news, but that focused all on the sexuality and race was never mentioned so, if I didn’t follow the blogs that I do, I would never have known about what Miley Cyrus did. And that, really, goes back to learning to listen to criticism. Diversity is great and we need it but if we are always on the defensive when criticisms made, we won’t learn anything.

      Anyways, those are my thoughts. This way longer than I meant it to be. Thanks for writing the original post. 🙂

      • Kyle Norman

        I recently read a blog that stated that many essay’s and doctoral theses will be written on this event. I think they are right. The event seems to be jam packed with meaning and intense discussion. As I mentioned, I am not sure where I stand on the raical angle to Miley’s performance. By no means do I dismiss the critique, or wish to rise to Cyrus’ defense. It’s a very tense topic, one which I don’t feel all that comfortable weighing into. Although this is something that Pop culture (particularly in the music industry) does constantly. I mentioned Graceland, I could have easily mentioned Elvis Presly.

        Actaully, Elvis would be an interesting comparison. His hip-shaking and use of the spirituals and musical style of the African American culture was as shocking and off-putting as Cryrus’. An interesting question to ask would be “Was Elvis’ music “Racist”?” – given the critique that is given to Cryrus. I pose no answer at all, only to say that Elvis, Paul Simon, Beastie Boys, Eminem, Skinflint and many others have perpetually crossed percieved racial barriers. I would imagine that the racial implications of Cyrus’ performance are quite complex.

        An interesting side-line to the race question is how this event is viewed. I find it interesting that the back-up dancers were concered ‘Cyrus’ back-up dancers, thereby distancing them from Robin Thicke. The VMA performance was an entire performance, and the back-up dancers were dancers for the entire performance – yet people seem to identify the dancers with only the first 3 minutes of the number. Also, why are not Pherrel and T.I being talked about in the midst of this? We talk of Miley Cyrus, and are now eventually speaking of Robin Thicke’s cuplability in the performance – but Thicke’s song “Blurred Line” also feature two African American rappers/hip hop artists. They were also present during the number – with other African American back-up dancers that danced suggestively around the performers. So was Miley racist? Was the performance Racist? If the performance was seen as a racist performance, what does that mean for the two well known, successful, and respected African American artists that knowingly took part?

        Again it leads me to wonder if sexuality or race is the issue. Could it be about marketabilty and branding? At any rate, each time I look at this performance, there is something else that makes me uneasy, and makes me question the entire event.

        I’m very much enjoying following the continuing discusions.

    • Quick note, slightly off-topic: Paul Simon’s “Graceland” was hugely successful but it was not without race-related controversy — he disregarded an anti-apartheid cultural boycott to put that album together. But as far as I know he does perform fully-clothed in all his music videos and his dance moves with Chevy Chase are quite chaste.
      (There — back on topic again!)

      As for Miley Cyrus, I don’t much care for her music and I don’t feel any need to watch what she did. Seems to be all about and only about using her sexuality to sell records and the more fuss there is the more that’s ‘mission accomplished’. Had I been watching the show with or without small children around, I would probably have said “Ew. Gross.” and turned it off or changed the channel.

      Gaga’s performances are ‘quite something’ and not necessarily my cuppa but her take on sexuality seems to have more interesting (to me) messages about challenging societal conventions and embracing diversity. Of course she wants to sell records, too, but I have the impression she’d also like to generate conversations that aren’t just about herself.

  5. I did not watch the original performances and when I “googled” it I was blocked from watching it because I live in Canada and it was an American tv production. I will have to go on your description. But if you are going to question why Miley was criticised and Lady Gaga was not, I think you need to look more broadly at the performances, beyond how much clothing each woman was (or was not) wearing. What made Miley’s performance more disturbing and therefore garnering criticism, most likely was the song she was dancing to, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, a horrid earworm that is denigrating to women. It was not her own song, and she was not singing it. She was just the very young “good girl” prancing around the older male who is proclaiming in his song that even though you’re a “good girl” and you say you don’t want it (ie. sex), I know better and I’m going to force it on you. And this young woman is so desperate for attention, and to break out of the “good girl” Disney image, that she’s going to go to the opposite extreme and go along with this equally damaging “bad girl” image of self that is not her own. Lady Gaga’s performance, with five costume changes, sounds quite theatrical at least. She’s singing her own music, and is very much in control of her own self image (and she is consistently in control of her image as you noted). In the various costume changes it sounds like she may have been critiquing various images of women that have been projected on them. The final costume of the white seashells sounds a lot like Sandro Botticelli’s painting of Venus rising out of the ocean. Perhaps I am giving Lady Gaga too much credit but I do think there is a difference between the two performers and the message they are sending.

  6. This is the outcome of worshipping celebrity. Which is idolatry which I believe is condemened in Scripture . As believers we need to avoid culture /celeberity worship.
    If that means avoiding whle genres of art so be it.

    • PJW51 I agree that there is definately a realm of celebrity worhsip to pop-culture. They have become the idols of the day. However we can’t simply remove ourselves from the culture. It’s all around us. We may not listen to the popular music of the day, but there is still TV, movies, magazines, literature, fashion, and marketing/advertising that swirls all around us. I think we need to be critically engaged with pop culture, in order to understand it’s messages and directions. Only then can we speak into it.

      If pop culture is the world that most people are living in today, we do a complete disservice to the gospel and the church if we simply condemn it all outright and refuse to engage. Pop culture contains the stories and the images which give many people meaning. For example, at the height of Twighlight phenomenon, people would define themselves as either on “Team Edward’ or ‘Team Jacob.” We miss the cry for identity and the desire for a larger story if we simply say ‘That’s a stupid vampire franchise which I condemn’ (by the way it is a stupid vampire franchise)

      I don’t think we are called to like pop culture, or support pop culture. But I do think we are called to be informed about pop culture.

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