The Disconnect Between the Mouth and the Hips

Pop Icons' Mixed Messages

by Cary O'Dell

7 October 2013

Women are turning up the tramp factor, white guys are co-opting black culture, and black artists are upping their “gangsta” stance.

Recently, at a casual lunch among co-workers, I found myself the odd man out. We had gotten onto the topic of Miley Cyrus at the VMA’s (yes, we are still talking about it) and I rather off-handedly referred to her as a “slutty”. Some of my co-diners immediately disagreed and accused me of being too judgmental, of missing the point, of “slut-shaming” Miley. I retreated and returned to my plate of half-eaten tacos.

Later, though, on the inordinately quiet ride back to the office, I had a bit of an epiphany. After her now infamous appearance at the MTV Awards, just what exactly did Miley want us to take away from that performance?
Though the song she sung has been a success on the charts, it isn’t particularly memorable or catchy. And no one has ever accused Cyrus of having great musical chops; she’s no Mariah, she’s no Adele. Her “dancing” in the number was lumbered, at best. Even Cyrus has since come out and said she didn’t dance very well in the performance. 

Hence, what we were left with was Cyrus clad in her underwear/bathing suit get-up, her tongue perpetually sprung from her mouth, her “twerking”, her grinding up against Robin Thicke and her utilizing of a giant foam finger as a stand-in phallus. 

Sorry, but, in retrospect, it did seem more than a little “slutty”. or at least “slut-like”.

If the goal of her performance was to get us talking, then that Cyrus certainly achieved. If the goal was to show that little Hannah Montana has grown up, then that, too, she’s shown us… in spades. If the goal though was to show us the arrival of a new and commanding artist, then she unfortunately failed on all counts. What Cyrus ended up doing on stage was nothing that couldn’t be found at a generic frat party or at your local, garden variety strip club.

That, of course, has not stopped the singer’s camp from attempting to spin her VMA antics as something “edge-y” and as “pushing of the envelope”.

The whole brouhaha—including my lunch-time admonishing—reminds me a bit of the notorious Calvin Klein print and TV ads from 1995 which many saw as suggestive of kiddie porn. The ads featuring skinny, youthful looking waifs of both genders were shot against a backdrop of cheap-looking plywood paneling and grotesque shag carpeting. The television ads featured an off-screen, unseen male voice asking suggestive questions and enticing his on-camera subjects to pose or dance. 

Amid great controversy, the ad were quickly yanked off the air and from billboards the day after they debuted. Still, Klein’s company’s did not issue any sort of mea culpa. Instead, it played dumb, then coy, then insisted that, though it was bowing to public pressure to end the campaign, it saw nothing offensive or disturbing in the ads. In short, Calvin Klein suggested that it was us (you, me and everyone else who objected to the ads) who really had the problem. We were the ones with the dirty minds if we looked at this “innocent” images and scenarios and inferred child porn from them. It was, in the end, a response that was almost as offensive as the ads themselves.

Of course, for years entertainment—MTV especially—has been substituting titillation for innovation and talent. It’s as old as Michael Jackson’s crotch-grabbing and Madonna’s numerous girl-on-girl kisses. Well, OK, it’s older than that.

Madonna has continuously taken this sort of in-your-face sexuality and provocation a few steps further by always attempting to pass off her overt displays as a type of female empowerment. She’s gotten away with it for so long that we now seem to actually believe her. 

And Madonna’s still doing it with the recent online premiere of her 17-minute film, secretprjectrevolution. Co-directed by the Material Girl and Steven Klein, secretprjectrevolution is an artsy black-and-white mini-epic. In it, Madonna struts and poses, fires a gun, ends up behind bars and complains…a lot. In her oh-so-earnest voiceover, she laments the facts that she isn’t taken “seriously” because she’s a woman. She then she rallies incessantly against intolerance and censorship. Ultimately, she calls for a “revolution of love”.

Unfortunately, even if her intentions are good, her message is muddled. M. calls for a love but brandishes a gun. The messenger, too, seems at odds with this, her most recent magnum opus: When has Madonna ever been censored or censored herself? When has she been oppressed or held back?

Like Miley at the VMA’s, Madonna can posture all she wants, but what she’s attempting to communicate (or what she says she is at least) isn’t borne out in the images or performance she’s putting forth.

Cyrus as the new Madonna, Madonna as the new Messiah. No one, it seems, is happy the way they are. And everyone—musicians especially—seem to be working hard (working desperately it seems) to pass themselves off as something they clearly are not in order to gain attention and grab some of that much needed “street cred”. Women are turning up the tramp factor, white guys are co-opting black culture (yes, you, Robin, Justin and Justin), and black artists are upping their “gangsta” stance whether it has any basis in reality or not.

Well, they can pose and protest all they want but they aren’t going to fool us all. I know exactly what I’m looking at.

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