Miley Cyrus may well be a very nice person with some fine traits. She might be a loyal friend, generous, and caring. She might be sensitive. She might struggle with deep fears, insecurities, and a desire for intimate, plain-old love.
In other words, she's human.
The problem is that she's now twenty and therefore complicit in her own exploitation. Now that I'm in my forties, I think of twenty as extremely young. And how can you be truly complicit if all you've ever really known is your own exploitation?
The music industry produces some real talent, those who bully up from the ranks, and make it against incredible odds. Miley isn't one them. She's fine at what she does, but it's hard to watch her dance. Those with better ears for voice than I have are pretty clear on the limits of her singing. And now her job is to shock.
But she's no Madonna. When Madonna's first big hit came out, she was twenty-five, but seemed older. She quickly proved that she had things to say. She didn't have a large world view growing up in Michigan, but she had a deeply American one, a feminist one that allowed her to see boundaries and to break them. Also, she understood irony, and she had a longing, a sadness, some depth.
Miley isn't going for Madonna. The people who handle her image are clearly struggling to brand her as close to Pink as possible -- hair, make-up, and clothing. The rip-off is sometimes stunning.
But she's not Pink either who, for all of her toughness, is actually really soulful, smart, and funny. It also feels like Pink has earned her toughness from an authentically hard childhood. Pink's self-awareness and insights have gotten really interesting over the years.
The major problem with child-stars is that they didn't have foundational years where there was no stardom, knowing that those who loved them loved them for who they are. Even when stars are loved for who they are, it has to be cast over with doubt because their stardom exists.
Without the underpinnings of having been loved for who you are, your value in the world is unclear. Is your willingness to exploit yourself what you have to give others?
And without a worldview from the ground up, how do you understand boundaries that ordinary people feel, how do you speak for us, to us -- through music? Without some seeming self-awareness, some ironic eye cast on your own celebrity, the performances feel like they're born from a desire simply to please -- even the shocks are meant to fit in... The like-me, like-me factor is painful.
What we get is a disastrous melange of cheesy images, artlessness, and terrifying exploitation.
Less abstractly, what we got was a twenty year old girl bending over in front of a much older man, wagging her butt in his crotch with her tongue out while dancing to the funky rape song of the summer.
And we all know what's coming. It has all the markings of a storyline playing out like most of the other child-star storylines. Eventually we'll grow tired of the show. The attempts to get our attention will get wilder and messier. Miley could become a parody of herself. Robbed of her anonymity, this descent would be public even when she would want it to be very, very private. There may well be partying, drugs, overdoses, orange jumpsuits, a hotel room where things go very wrong...
Is there anyway to stop it? This is what I thought of the first time I saw her "We Can't Stop" video, which now has over 157 million views. Despite the fact that it's supposed to be a party song, it's played in a melancholy minor key. The beat is slow. Stripped from its video, it's a sad song that seems, if anything, to be about addiction... to what? Hers or, culturally, ours?
We can't stop it, but we have to fear how it will end.