Why freaking out about Miley Cyrus is both pointless and embarrassing.
She was the good girl, the sweet innocent one, the official cute virgin celebrity. That was her image, and that image was worth a great deal of money. Then, that image got sullied by scandal, a whiff of sexuality and the taboo around the pretty young girl, and that was it. Mary Miles Minter‘s career never recovered.
Of course, that was back in 1922, when the celebrity-industrial complex was in its infancy. Today, the scandals are incorporated into the system. They’re a necessary part of the system.
So when you see the girl from the Disney Channel doing a godawful version of a sexy dance fad, as though that entire million-dollar choreographed production number were just some spontaneous notion she’d taken, you are supposed to freak out. They are counting on it; it is the role you are supposed to be playing in this game. “Good girl gone bad” is a very old and durable trope in our culture, and one that tends to provoke lots of tongue-clucking and moral outrage. Since moral outrage is one of the major things that drives attention in modern media culture, Ms. Cyrus’s publicists have the good business sense to harness it for profit. It’s not actually complicated.
Elvis Presley was a sex symbol who was always up to his neck in girls, right? He better have been, because his manager insisted on it. Conversely, boy bands frequently have morals clauses in their contracts that forbid them from any public awareness of their sexuality, so their preteen fans can safely swoon over those nice good boys in One Direction. (Older readers should substitute Backstreet Boys, New Kids On The Block, The Bay City Rollers, etc.) Because that’s how business works. You design a product to fit a niche in the market, and then you sell that product. This isn’t news to anyone.
Sometimes you have to work to find the market niche. Tori Amos couldn’t break through in the oversaturated 80s synthpop market, but she found that there was an unfilled niche for Twee Folky Piano Girl. Alanis Morissette didn’t make it far as a Nickelodeon child star, but then she got that sweet gig as the Angry One in the 90s grrl-music era. (She was the Angry One, Jewel was the Deep One, Fiona Apple was the Wounded One. Good times.) You find the product the market responds to, and you sell it.
We know how this works. We’ve known this for generations. In the studio era of Hollywood, companies would construct entire fake lives for stars to play out before the media, filling their designated role as the Sweet One or the Sexy One or the Bad Boy or the Innocent Girl. It’s the job: you become a celebrity, you have a brand identity that you inhabit. This is no more surprising than anyone else doing the job they’re paid to do.
Stop acting like you don’t know how this works. Anyone who looks at that stupid bloody VMA performance and asks “What’s happened to Miley Cyrus?” is being deliberately ignorant so that they can play their role in the game. The question they should be asking is “Why did Miley Cyrus’s publicists, in collaboration with MTV and its parent companies, decide that this was the performance that would be the most profitable?”
Except we know the answer to that question too. The answer is “Because your Facebook feed has been talking about it for days.” If you want to play the game, fine, but please stop pretending you don’t know what the game is. She’s playing the role of Good Girl Gone Bad because she has been cast in that role and is being paid to play it. You might as well get mad at the clerk at McDonald’s for serving lousy burgers.
There will be additional scandalous and shocking things that Miley Cyrus does. Maybe real soon if they want to capitalize on the present buzz, maybe in a few months if they want to keep the attention spikes spaced out for the long game. They will continue until they start showing a negative return on investment, at which point someone else will take over Cyrus’s shift and we can all be shocked by the new girl, enjoying the titillating thrill of sex and moral outrage that we’re being sold. And you already know that.
I’m not saying we must talk about serious issues; that’s part of the game too, decrying the shallow obsession with celebrity ass while still talking about celebrity ass. I’m just saying that since we all know what the game is, it would be less awkward if everyone would just admit that they’re playing it. Or, you know, not play it in the first place. Either is good.