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.
In the last few years, a small, culturally conservative academic journal has gained public attention by showcasing difficult sentences written by intellectuals in the academy. The journal, Philosophy and Literature, has offered itself as the arbiter of good prose and accused some of us of bad writing by awarding us “prizes.” (I’m still waiting for my check!)
The targets, however, have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism — a point the news media ignored. Still, the whole exercise hints at a serious question about the relation of language and politics: why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?
No doubt, scholars in the humanities should be able to clarify how their work informs and illuminates everyday life. Equally, however, such scholars are obliged to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.
Many quite nefarious ideologies pass for common sense. For decades of American history, it was “common sense” in some quarters for white people to own slaves and for women not to vote. Common sense, moreover, is not always “common” — the idea that lesbians and gay men should be protected against discrimination and violence strikes some people as common-sensical, but for others it threatens the foundations of ordinary life.
If common sense sometimes preserves the social status quo, and that status quo sometimes treats unjust social hierarchies as natural, it makes good sense on such occasions to find ways of challenging common sense. Language that takes up this challenge can help point the way to a more socially just world. The contemporary tradition of critical theory in the academy, derived in part from the Frankfurt School of German anti-fascist philosophers and social critics, has shown how language plays an important role in shaping and altering our common or “natural” understanding of social and political realities.
The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, who maintained that nothing radical could come of common sense, wrote sentences that made his readers pause and reflect on the power of language to shape the world. A sentence of his such as “Man is the ideology of dehumanization” is hardly transparent in its meaning. Adorno maintained that the way the word “man” was used by some of his contemporaries was dehumanizing.
Taken out of context, the sentence may seem vainly paradoxical. But it becomes clear when we recognize that in Adorno’s time the word “man” was used by humanists to regard the individual in isolation from his or her social context. For Adorno, to be deprived of one’s social context was precisely to suffer dehumanization. Thus, “man” is the ideology of dehumanization.
Herbert Marcuse once described the way philosophers who champion common sense scold those who propagate a more radical perspective: “The intellectual is called on the carpet… . Don’t you conceal something? You talk a language which is suspect. You don’t talk like the rest of us, like the man in the street, but rather like a foreigner who does not belong here. We have to cut you down to size, expose your tricks, purge you.”
The accused then responds that “if what he says could be said in terms of ordinary language he would probably have done so in the first place.” Understanding what the critical intellectual has to say, Marcuse goes on, “presupposes the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behavior into which you want to translate it.”
Of course, translations are sometimes crucial, especially when scholars teach. A student for whom a word such as “hegemony” appears strange might find that it denotes a dominance so entrenched that we take it for granted, and even appear to consent to it — a power that’s strengthened by its invisibility.
One may have doubts that “hegemony” is needed to describe how power haunts the common-sense world, or one may believe that students have nothing to learn from European social theory in the present academy. But then we are no longer debating the question of good and bad writing, or of whether “hegemony” is an unlovely word. Rather, we have an intellectual disagreement about what kind of world we want to live in, and what intellectual resources we must preserve as we make our way toward the politically new.