In the Wide World of Music, VMAs Present a Very Small View

Miley Cyrus Beetlejuice MTV VMA 2013

Miley Cyrus’s Beetlejuice moment at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards

My family stayed up late watching the Video Music Awards (VMA) on MTV to unwind after a busy weekend; my wife and sons had people they wanted to see. What struck me was how in a world full of diverse music and musicians, there were only a dozen or so in a narrow brand of accessible pop music on display.

If you look at the list of winners below, and you noted who was in the very small ‘stars seating area’, you will notice tremendous overlap.

Pink, feat. Nate Ruess
30 Seconds to Mars
Selena Gomez
Janelle Monae feat. Erykah Badu
Capital Cities
Taylor Swift
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, feat. Mary Lambert
One Direction
Austin Mahone
Bruno Mars
Justin Timberlake

I have gotten very used to music awards in particular being very insular and self-congratulatory, to the point of industry execs expressing outrage at Justin Beiber and Eminem being ‘snubbed’ in 2011 in spite of bringing loads of money to the industry. And 2012 showed the impact – no one like Esperanza Spalding was going to win, and the industry changed the definition of ‘indie’ in order to be able to keep the awards within the ranks of the ‘big labels’ while calling many artists ‘indie’.

But the VMAs were an extreme example – for an award show that used to be edgy and would bring in artists from all over the popular music realm, it now felt like a shameless plug for products with artists and hosts alike constantly plugging for brands. From Windows Phone to Cover Girl to State Farm and more, there was a constant stream that dominated every aspect of the evening.

I thought it was cool how they had a pre-show that had performers and a variety of other little ‘moments’ going on, but soon I realized that they were padding for time – there simply weren’t that many celebrities anyone cared about in attendance. The red carpet gave us Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, One Direction, Will Smith and his kids, Austin Mahone, 30 Seconds to Mars, and Becky G who seemed to be there pretty much exclusively for Cover Girl.

Most of the performances were acceptable, with Justin Timberlake having the most memorable; the bar was very low, but he did a decent job. As usual with these events, there was a mix of live singing and lip-sync. But the thing that had everyone cringing and asking ‘did I just see that?’ was Miley Cyrus.

For me it started on the Red Carpet, where she turned to the onlookers and said something and when they cheered she unironically said ‘see … they’ll do anything for me’. Unlike others she made no attempt to engage or acknowledge her fans.

But it got really bad in the performance that transitioned between her song and Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’. Thick has become his own meme by wearing a ‘Beetlejuice suit’, but for Cyrus it was an embarrassing spectacle of twerking and grinding with her tongue hanging out.

Just in case you missed it and are curious … but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Here is what MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski had to say:

“I think that was really, really disturbing. That young lady, who is 20, is obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed, clearly has confidence issues, probably eating disorder and I don’t think anybody should have put her on stage. That was disgusting and embarrassing … That was not attractive. That was not fun. That was not funny. That was really, really bad for anybody who’s younger and impressionable and she’s really messed up … The whole thing was cringe worthy but I feel bad for her. She is a mess. Someone needs to take care of her. Someone needs not to put her on stage and make a complete fool of herself.”

And a classic reaction show from Will Smith and family:

Will Smith Family React to Miley Cyrus

So I am once again left asking just WHY I stayed up to watch this, but aside from the usual reasons of overt commercialism and self-praise amongst a tight inner circle, I was dismayed at how small that circle has become, how hard the industry is working to push a certain set of artists and a certain ideal. And I was most dismayed at how in a world full of amazing music, we were up such a small, limited and safe version of what is available.

Categories: Editorials, Music Diary

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22 replies

  1. I may be the only person on earth who thinks this, but other than sticking her tongue out and being all shades of rediculous on the stage — and yes — anoying, I thought Miley looked great, sounded fantastic (she’s actually singing, right?!), and hell … it’s nothing Madonna, Britney, or anyone else in pop for the last 20 years wouldn’t have done if they had thought of it first. The fact that Miley managed to make Ga Ga look tame is pretty freaking … impressive? But more importantly, the fact that she is ALL anyone is talking about on CNN or elsewhere today means she did something right because it WILL translate to album sales. That’s publicity that you can’t buy, and she totally worked/twerked it. 😉

    • I guess I pretty much disagree:

      – Looks – she is very thin and fit, but her outfit did not fit her at all, and was unflattering. Who cares? Not me, we all have unflattering looks from time to time, and I am not going to judge her choice in the image she is projecting. My only hope is that the image and stuff she was doing was truly her choice and she hasn’t been manipulated into being an anti-Hannah Montana, because in that case I really worry about her future.

      – Singing – My assessment was that she was using the typical technique – which is there is pre-recorded vocals and a live mic so you can sing along or not. And mostly she was not. You could see it in most people – the reality is that even omnidirectional microphones have response curves and if your head is moving and the mic is not and the volume is constant … you are not singing.

      – If you want to look at how the ‘coming of age’ thing is done … Britney. Sexy, controversial – but she brought the show, and danced her butt off.

      – Compared to Gaga … well, Lady Gaga does things in a ‘pop performance art’ style, that requires artistic vision, singing and so on. Personally I have little use for Gaga either, but I appreciate what she was doing in context.

      And remember – in 2007 all anyone could talk about was Britney shaving her head. And I am sure there was a sales bump there as well. My point – all things that gain publicity are not necessarily beneficial.

      Did you see Miley on the red carpet? She was either baked or has such a disconnected sense of self that it is scary. Personally I hope she was wasted, because it would be really sad if she looked at ‘the little people’ as her puppets to be manipulated.

      • There’s trying to break the Hannah Montana image and then there’s shattering it. What she has done is shatter it and shown that she has a warped sense of what being sexy and being an adult is. Her typical Hannah Montana fan is close to my niece’s age. About 14 or 15. Would I have wanted her to watch Miley on the VMA’s? No way. Would I have expected her to stay close to her roots? Not entirely but she could have done it in a much classier way.

        I’m with Michael. I think she’s GOT to have major issues be they drug abuse or mental. It’s really sad. I hope her dad at least says something to her as I know if I saw my niece do something similar the whole family would have at least said: what were you thinking?

        The fall out is already starting to happen. A local bakery here in Columbus still had a bunch of Hannah Montana cake decorations which they promptly threw out. Stating: She should no longer be marketed to children. Makes me wonder how much fall out will hit and can she bounce back. She’s young enough to do that but it’s goign to take a reworking of her image to be less Hannah but a WHOLE lot less of whatever she was on the VMAs.

        • A bunch of random thoughts about this:

          Maybe I am giving her too much credit, but to me it looked more like she was having fun and being young (exactly as what’s described in the song she came out singing), and the exaggerated sexuality was parody. The tongue sticking out was obnoxious and unsexy … but whatever. To me, she looked like she was having fun, being careless, awkward — being young.

          At her age and stage of life, I don’t think “classy” is what she’s going for. I think she is trying to figure things out, rebelling a bit, and that’s what many kids go through as they reach adult-hood and the age of responsibility.

          Was her performance shocking? Yes. Are we still talking about it? Yes. As a result, are people watching her videos and buying her music? Yes — “We Can’t Stop” was the fastest video to hit 100 million views on Vevo, it peaked at #2 on Billboard (it’s still sitting at #3). Have I bought it? No … it’s not my kind of music, but I’ll admit that I don’t run away screaming when I hear the song playing; it’s catchy, and there is a reason why it is such a popular summer song.

          Does she smoke pot and possibly do other drugs? Most likely. Should she be your child’s role model? No. Is she crazy? I don’t think so. She’s dealing with much of what kids her age are dealing with — upheaval at home, boy/fiance trouble, figuring herself out — add to that the fact that she is a child star that is trying to *grow up*. She can’t do anything without being under a microscope, so rather than pretend she is this demure child/woman her Disney viewer’s parents want her to be, she is acting out *on stage*.

          Is she getting the last laugh? Yes … because we are STILL talking about it/freaking out over it — like it’s the most shocking thing we have ever seen. Seriously. Are we really this puritanical? Evidently.

          Think about it for a minute: she isn’t in the news for doing freaky things on the street, shaving her head, striking out at stalker-press, getting in fights, getting thrown out of night clubs, or being busted for drugs; she is acting out *on stage*. To me, that’s the safe outlet, and it has the added benefit of keeping her in the news where people might say, “what song is all this fuss about”, then they go listen to it … and if they like it, they pay to download it.

          As for her Hannah Montana image; I didn’t like that show when Kev’s girls were watching it, because it was aimed at young kids — 6 -10ish — and I felt that her character was too back-talky/sassy to be a good example for that age. Now that she has broken out of her Disney persona, I think that she can appeal and market herself to people that closer to her own age group. That’s not to say 14 year old kids aren’t going to buy (and possibly relate to) her music … but at least parents of minor children are given the choice of allowing the explicit or non-explicit purchase when its offered.

          Regarding throwing out the Hannah Montana cake decorations based on a show and an album that the targeted age group likely didn’t see and won’t buy anyway? That seems a bit extreme. Who is Hannah Montana aimed at, anyway? 6 – 10 year-olds or so, right? Why would they be watching the VMAs, anyway? That’s a music awards show that has a history of trying to push the envelope with shocking performances and pseudo-sexual situations.

          Maybe I am overthinking all of this and giving Miley more credit than she is due, (and maybe you are sitting there silently agreeing that I am), but I think she is a talented girl/woman who is trying to make a difficult transition in a difficult time. I am not personally offended by what she is doing, because what she is doing doesn’t affect me personally.

          I hope that she is counting her money, enjoying her life, and laughing at everyone who is *still* talking about her performance. =P

          • Here’s my question:

            If Justin Bieber did a suggestive and offensive performance that was far above the maturity level of his target audience, would people be horrified?
            Or is it that Miley Cyrus wasn’t being a “good girl” and that’s not acceptable?
            Sent from my thumbs

          • The answer is YES …

            Yes we are that puritanical
            Yes we continue to hold vastly different standards for men and women (see SlaneGirl)
            Yes we are so celebrity obsessed that we allow this crap to dominate our news cycles.

            • Then the question becomes, how do we fix that? Why do we have to be so hypocritical puritanical? Why do we hold men & women to different standards? And why does this crap dominate our news cycles?

              • Actually for me as the only one in my house with no interest in popular music, I was appalled at the widespread lack of basic musical skills on display.

                Miley Cyrus was particular egregious because:
                – she can’t really sing all that well … What was cute for a tween is obnoxious now. Her records are heavily processed and auto tuned, and the performance featured a prerecorded vocal track so she didn’t have to sing.
                – she cannot dance … Look at Justin Timberlake that night, his vocals are forgettable, but he came on to put on a show and was amazing at dancing.

                I have high expectations of those claiming to be ‘musical artists’. If you cannot adequately sing or play an instrument, your claim to such a title is questionable. Bit at least if these is talent demonstrated in showmanship like Bruno Mars that is something.

                I have no idea why this stuff is so interesting … I have no idea why people listen to such bland and obviously derivative music designed by committee to maximize profits (such as Blured Lines blatant Marvin Gaye rip off, or Katy Perry’s songwriting team nuancing another song to make it distinct yet same)

                • Because it’s no longer about the music, it’s about spectacle and envying those with fame and fortune. That’s why the Kardashian and Hilton are household names. Celebrity culture is the closest thing these days we have to The Truman Show.

              • >why does this crap dominate our news cycles?

                Because that’s what sells. You won’t see this stuff on NewsHour, but NewsHour won’t be winning sweeps either.

          • >she is acting out *on stage*.

            That is what makes me think this was entirely stage-managed, just like the Swift-West “controversy”, just like Rihanna and Chris Brown making up, just like the various iterations of Britney Spears, etc.

            And it worked.

        • Actually, Joel … That quote on drugs, etc was from MSNBC.

          My concern was more about who was making the decisions. We have seen too many of these kids from Disney, etc who are so tightly consoled that when they gain independence they flip out and end up in very rough places … And their enablers just keep saying YES because they like the paycheck.

          If this was a publicity stunt, I hope Miley was an equal partner in deciding it, rather than being handled and managed through THIS as well.

    • I recall after Britney shaved her head, that was all anyone was talking about as well. I don’t necessarily agree that “spectacle” leads to positive things, but I guess we’ll see.

  2. Apropos of nothing, a lot of people are going on about the flesh colored bikini Miley wore (along with the giant white foam finger) during the Robin Thicke/Blurred Lines portion of her appearance.

    I’m guessing that no one watched the original NSFW version of *his* video, which featured both (along with the ugly white shoes) quite prominently. Miley’s bikini was actually much more modest than anything worn by the dancers in Robin Thicke’s video. =P

    • I think most of the talk–at least online –about the flesh-colored LATEX bikini (as opposed to the fabric attire of Thicke’s original video; and I guess we would agree that the redone version was in turn more modest that what Cyrus had on) was how unflattering it was. There’s a picture floating around comparing Miley Cyrus’s backside to that of Hank Hill… not a favorable association any way you slice it.