I’m going to do something in this column that I thought I’d never do: devote the entire thing to Miley Cyrus. For the past month, the country has been transfixed and bewildered by her seeming lack of subtlety, taste, or shame. First, it was the aggressive, nearly nude twerking at the VMAs. Then, it was the slobbering mallet close-ups and fully nude ball-swings of her latest music video “Wrecking Ball.”
As expected, we’ve been subjected to the usual panoply of voices pitting freedom of speech against decency and female empowerment against sexist objectification, but the truth is that they’re all missing another big point: What’s really playing out in the Miley Cyrus saga has far less to do with politics or gender relations and far more to do with the state of the pop music industry.
As we have all been made painfully aware, Miley was born to a famous father and achieved her initial success as a television child star. She then publicly suffered through a particularly awkward adolescence and finally morphed into a full-fledged—if somewhat unoriginal—adult pop star. She is not, as some people still suggest, a young person attempting to act older than her age. She is a 20-year-old woman in the pop music industry, and she is subject to all of the pressures and responsibilities that this entails. (But that’s a conversation for another column.) In any case, it cannot be argued that her latest onslaught of shock and awe is any kind of symbolic moment of lost innocence. It is very clearly an act of commercial desperation.
Looking at the charts, the trend is clear and it’s not good: Miley’s last several years have seen her record sales go from platinum to gold and from gold to silver. Reviews for her last album were also mixed, with many reviewers criticizing its noncommittal and erratic nature. If anything is for sure, it’s that she’s committing now, going all-in on her new image (which, as best as I can tell, is that of a enthusiast of foam fingers and demolition). The cold, hard fact of the matter is that, with this latest album and the accompanying media flurry, Miley’s team can’t afford to take any chances. Miley’s new album will be competing with releases by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, both of whom are exponentially more talented than Miley. What upsets me, as a true music lover, is that increasingly frequent grasps at controversy are truly becoming the most commercially viable option for many in the music industry.
In the wake of Miley’s Month of Madness (can I trademark that?), all indications are that the controversy did exactly what her management hoped it would. A recent Forbes article even went so far as to say that Miley was the big “winner” at the VMAs, despite her lack of any official nomination. This bothers me because it makes an implicit suggestion that the music itself is now a secondary factor when it comes to pop music. The tune and lyrics to songs like “Wrecking Ball” or “We Can’t Stop” are not meant to be appreciated as catchy, independent entities, but are merely meant to give controversial videos a reason for existing
Pop music is a valuable art form in itself and deserves to be preserved. When the genre begins to shift its focus away from the creation of pop songs and toward the creation of controversy, it seems that the entire industry is desperate, just like Miley. I couldn’t care less whether Miley licks a mallet or not—as a millennial I’ve come to expect pretty much anything from my music videos—but I would hate to see an industry give up on its own music.
David Ecker is a Columbia College junior. Slightly Off Key runs alternate Fridays.