The road from Madonna to Miley

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 25:  Robert Thicke and Miley Cyrus perform during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards at the Barclays Center on August 25, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for MTV)

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for MTV

Miley Cyrus has said repeatedly that twerking with Robert Thicke at the VMAs was an out-and-out bid for attention. The media and her fans agree, and can’t get enough of her.

Miley, again?

Eleven Sundays after the twerk seen ’round the world, the unsinkable Miley Cyrus will appear on the same show as her original partner in crime, Robin Thicke, at another MTV event.


This time, the two will perform — perhaps together, perhaps apart — at MTV’s EMAs (for Euro Music Awards) from Amsterdam, being broadcast Sunday at 7 p.m. on domestic MTV.

Consider this yet another buzzy extension of the Miley brand, a marketing campaign in deep and abiding lip-lock with the media. We in the press seem just as reluctant to let her go as she is to step away from the limelight for even one second.


This two-way love says a lot, not only about pop music of the moment but also about our attitudes about pop culture in general. While the commercial impact of Hurricane Cyrus has been widely noted, it hasn’t been acknowledged how Miley’s coup differs in crucial ways from similar stunts of the past.

On impact, everyone drew the obvious comparison, paralleling Miley’s hijacking of the MTV Awards with Madonna’s seemingly similar move at the first VMA show, back in the primeval year of 1984.


Elders will recall that night, with JFK-assassination-like clarity, when a young Madonna came grinding out in a white wedding dress as she rolled her way across the Radio City stage. I was there and so can report that the audience’s reaction mirrored the one after the first act of “Springtime for Hitler” in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.”

Jaws smacked hard enough against Radio City’s floor to lay that tony hall low. The newness of such a performance gave Madonna, and the show itself, genuine edge — something that’s been planed down to pseudo-shock through its double-hand-me-down status today. After all, Madonna’s playbook passed through Britney’s recycling in the ’90s before hitting Miley’s pale Xerox of today.


But it’s not just the shock of the new that distinguished Madonna’s move, and her era, from this one. In her performance, Maddy was expressing a genuine anger about any number of issues, from society’s view of female sexuality to our attitudes about what’s taboo. She meant her performance not only as an attention-getting career-booster — though she certainly must have prayed it would be — but also as a pointed protest. For that reason, Madonna took great, if overstated, offense to anyone who accused her of calculation or media manipulation of any kind.

Over the years, those two accusations have became her most hated. And there’s a reason for that, going beyond Madonna’s own desire to be seen as a sincere, ahem, artist. It’s also because the culture of her time had genuine contempt for such cheap stunts. Or at least for ones that didn’t serve a greater purpose.

There’s a totally different attitude held by both Miley and the current public. In interview after interview, Miley has gleefully admitted she cooked the whole VMA thing up as nothing more than a fame-grabbing stunt, as her way to slam the final nail into the coffin of Hannah Montana. Tellingly, both the media and her fans have reacted to this by congratulating her for pulling this off so successfully.

Think about the cynicism of this. Self-promotion is seen an end in itself, something no longer condescended to as a necessary strategy to expose one’s work but as a brilliant conceit. It’s part of a dramatic shift in what we now expect from our entertainment. In the current age of reality TV, we’re more excited by what we can condescend to than by what we admire. We revel in the greed of the “stars” who’ll do anything for attention, experiencing an odd relief that we no longer have to feel intimidated by their talent.

Luckily, all hope is not lost on this issue. We may enjoy watching Miley the manipulator, but fans haven’t flocked to buy her album. Her disc had a tepid opening, with sales in the 200,000s. It’s not picking up any steam from there.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming in the wake of the VMAs. After all, no one said they actually liked that performance. They just admitted they could’t stop talking about it. That’s likely to continue after this Sunday’s show. If it won’t necessarily help sustain a serious musical career for Miley, she still can be assured of this: She’ll have a life in the gossip columns forever.

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