By 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.