Good sexy vs bad sexy at the VMAs
Just watched some VMA 2013 music clips, both they long-awaited (for me) JT+NSYNC reunion (he’s so amazing) and Miley grinding against Robin Thicke during “Blurred Lines” and some other songs I didn’t really recognise.
Let me start by saying: I’m not a Miley Cyrus fan - her songs are the worst kind of pop, manufactured without any sense of authenticity and hyper-stylised. She’s not a great singer, dancer, it’s all nepotism yada yada yeah we all know. I don’t disagree with you.
But I don’t find Swift much better. In fact, her saccharine, poor-me-in-my-bedroom-playing-my-sparkly-guitar-with-a-capo-why-doesn’t-he-like-me tunes make me puke. Jeez at least Miley’s songs you can dance to (sometimes).
They are two sides of a fairly unpalatable coin: ‘all-American country girl growing up and exploring a more “real” (read: less niche, broader appealing) side of herself.’ How convenient those sides also happen to be exactly what does well in the US charts!!
But it’s the way each of them - or rather their teams - have commoditised their sexuality where I find the water gets murkier, and I start to diverge from the common assessment, that being: Miley is a trashy and kinda racist role model for young girls.
During Justin Timberlake’s performance, there were several and regular cuts to Swift and her ‘bestie’ Selina Gomez (I thought that other girl was her BFF?? You know, the one with the face… Or maybe it was Selina idk) dancing in the crowd. They also cut to other celebrity fans - Rihanna, Lady Gaga, One Direction - but not nearly as much as Swift. Except she wasn’t really ‘dancing’ - she was moving her shoulders and singing along to JT’s sexy hits, and full-on mugging for the steadycam in her face. The general expression and ‘vibe’ was that ‘play sex’ thing we all do when we go out dancing with our gay friends or at hens’ nights. It’s really fun. When you’re in a club. With your friends. There are no broadcast cameras involved, generally.
She was particularly hammy during Timberlake’s call and answer during Senorita:
It was a bit tricky to get specific shots of what she conveyed - but watch the Justin clip you’ll see what I mean. What you’re seeing there is someone who knows 100% what they are doing. There’s no question that this scenario was at least somewhat planned, if not a full blown creative decision by MTV, and probably her label/management.
Juxtapose this with Miley Cyrus’ recent incarnation: twerking, “we’re gonna party cos we can and f** you”, under cut, up yours, tongue out, I’ma par-tay (think Katy Perry but with slightly less pretty), and two things are stark:
1) There is clearly a virgin-whore dichotomy of sex appeal happening
2) There is also a dichotomy of overtness and intention. Miley has made sex an explicit part of her branding, whereas Taylor’s brand is about overt “love” that is subverted by her sexuality.
It’s the second point that irks me. Taylor Swift is clearly playing up her sex appeal at the VMAs, and yet if you were to put that to her it would be “oh gee, golly, me?? But I’m such a dork! I love dancing to JT and NSYNC with my girls! *snort*” (Note, Bye Bye Bye was released in January 2000, when Swift would have JUST turned 10. Senorita in 2002 - hardly her teenage pop-loving years, especially considering her country teenage brand).
Swift’s brand teases (for lack of a better word) the sex part. She undercuts her “bad-girl” sexiness with the message of “don’t worry, you can still take me home - I don’t swallow. I don’t actually really own my desires, it’s all just my sexy baby play.” Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl! Tee-hee!
There’s something offensive to me about this. It offends me more than Miley’s out-and-out grotesque appropriation of both black urban and punk aesthetics. At least in those aesthetics women are unapologetic about their bodies, enjoy sex, and are actively subverting traditional expectations of beauty - shaved heads, tongue out, being ridiculous.
I don’t like that it feels like being a young, attractive girl, wearing next to nothing and appearing as a sexual being is only acceptable if you do it with a cartoon/”art”/performance element (Perry and Lady Gaga) or with a good girl underpin (Swift). Newsflash, girls: THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH ENJOYING SEX, it doesn’t have to be a part of a bigger act.
I’m not 100% apologising for Miley - I accept there are problems with her grinding and twerking up against a guy on stage in front of kids.* There are problems with all the various sex archetypes pop is throwing at us these days. We could archetype Perry as the Jessica Rabbit, Gaga as the kook, Taylor as the ‘virgin’, Rihanna as the ‘femme-fatal wounded’ - I guess that leaves Miley as the punk trash.
It’s just, when you think about it that way, the one that looks the most real, the one character that is expressing an unapologetic, unfiltered representation of a sexual young woman, is Miley. And I guess I prefer that.
(Miley photo from People.com - http://www.people.com/people/package/article/0„20302940_20728423,00.html)
* I think there’s a sister piece to this one about Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” - a song about a specific type of sexual encounter that has been attacked for being ‘a bit rapey.’ Again we victimise from the outside participants in certain types of consensual sexuality because of a moral panic that seems to be happening. But I guess that’s for another day.