In the past, there's been a certain ceremony to the public sexual awakening of pop divas.
After gently turning us down with "Let's Wait a While," Janet Jackson teased us with sensuality and newfound body confidence (the "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" video) that became more explicit with each following album. Madonna's always-present sexuality became explicit, as she turned Euro-confusing and then darkly hilarious in the passage from "Justify My Love" to Erotica. Mariah Carey jumped into a pool to wash herself clean of Tommy Mottola's oppression and within years was popping out of a cake (and her coochie cutters).
Whatever artistic integrity or biographical importance their public declarations of sexuality may represent for these women, the calculation, self-objectification, and attention-baiting is much clearer. This is always the case when your personhood is industry.
But all of these artists (and so many more) come off as delicately blooming flowers compared to Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards last night. Where her elders cooed and moaned upon emerging as sexually charged beings, Miley Cyrus did this:
It was like she plopped out of a furry teddy-bear vagina a fully grown 20-year-old ready to do things with her own. And oh the places she went! And oh the things that we've seen!
I was mesmerized by Cyrus' performance for the same reason I was mesmerized by Beyoncé's Life Is But a Dream documentary: Watching pop stars putting real effort into to acting like normal humans is never less than hilarious. Everything about Cyrus' performance was as try-hard as a 14-year-old in the mall with tissues in her bra, rouge on her cheeks, and lipstick on her teeth.
But then, all bravado is a performance, regardless of how big a stage you're on. Maybe darting her tongue like it's a smaller reptile in her larger reptile mouth is actually how Cyrus transmits her sexual readiness. Maybe pronounced swagging is swagger itself. Maybe arrhythmic flailing works for her.
Like Nicki Minaj, who twists up her face routinely because she's so striking that she can afford to do so, Cyrus was not afraid to look ugly on that VMAs stage. Though obviously choreographed, she exhibited a sort of hideous spontaneity that's you don't see as much in these safe, media-trained times watched over by St. Beyoncé. The carelessly tossed limbs and awkward fumbling stances reminded me of youthful experimentations with sex. Cyrus' performance was a pop rendering of clanking teeth, an elbow to the face, bodies that never quite find the right rhythm.
In fact, it reminded me of the awkward, iconic mess Madonna made when she just kind of flopped down and started rolling on the ground during her "Like a Virgin" VMAs performance, 29 years ago.
Cyrus was onstage for six and a half minutes, performing her own "We Can't Stop," and then alongside Robin Thicke on his own song of summer, "Blurred Lines." It had the feeling of a stage-hijack, like Cyrus didn’t know when to leave the party (the young ones never do). Whatever attempt to subvert and reframe the misogyny of "Blurred Lines" (Cyrus was the sexual predator, chirping, "I know you want it!," while Thicke merely stood there and agreed, "You know I want it, baby") was undone by a greater, unstoppable spirit of #YOLO chaos, and a giant foam hand that Cyrus insisted on using to molest Thicke, and herself. She looked, audaciously, daringly, like an idiot.
And not just an idiot, but a compulsive one. She couldn't stop, she wouldn't stop, no matter how many think pieces you write about the problematic nature of her borrowing from "ratchet culture." The debate that has surrounded Cyrus' grill-donning and twerking in the middle of a group of black women, in a cultural moment when white male R&B singers are all the rage (Thicke's "Blurred Lines" and Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience are respectively the biggest single and album of the year so far), at the very least demonstrates a general consensus that there are right and wrong (polite and crass) ways for white artists to sample elements of black culture.
But while she's certainly outrageous, I'm not sure that Cyrus is quite the outrage that some make her out to be. Her foolishness is instructive in itself, proof that simply borrowing black culture indiscriminately doesn't transform dorks into cool kids, a demonstration of how silly white kids who think they're really down can appear. It's not a phenomenon that started with Cyrus, and just by reflecting a widespread social practice there's at least a sort of anthropological honesty there, albeit a distasteful one. The unsavory elements of Cyrus' mugging at least have "created a dialogue," which from what I can tell, is something very many people on the Internet treasure. This performance had it all.
So Cyrus' showing was essentially incorrect—physically, visually, politically. Her entire aesthetic was awkward. But that kind of awkwardness is something our hate-watching, mess-celebrating culture values. Something that Lady Gaga tried to unsuccessfully touch on with her own mess of a performance of "Applause," which began with canned boos. But Cyrus outperformed Gaga on that front. I can't remember the last time I saw a pop star throw herself around a stage like that. Watching Cyrus with a simultaneous sense of delight and horror, I thought of the sage words of Throbbing Gristle's Genesis P-Orridge in the 1998 electronic-music documentary Modulations: "When in doubt make no sense. No sense is good. And nonsense is good."
As far nonsensibility is concerned, no one even came close to touching Cyrus. Sexual coming out is a grand tradition in pop, and I've never, ever seen it done like this before. This is one of those awards-show performances that only the Video Music Awards seems to be able to spawn—like Britney's "Gimme More," or the Madonna-Britney kiss, or Prince in assless pants. We'll still be talking about what the fuck was going on with Miley Cyrus last night for decades to come.