Is Miley Cyrus Actually Bad or Just a Symbol For Being Bad?
Even in a new year, we can't escape the ever present updates about a mature star speaking against Miley Cyrus and her questionable antics over the past six months. The first voice of 2014 is none other than Oscar-winner Kate Winslet, who says she's worried about Cyrus in a chat with Psychologies magazine. It's a little shocking to see someone like Winslet speak out against Cyrus — other voices in this onslaught have included more famously outspoken people like Sinead O'Connor, Cher, and Joan Rivers — and it begs the question, is Cyrus really that bad or has she simply become the embodiment of undesirable Millennial behavior?
As someone who's defended Cyrus in the past for deliberately experimenting on an international stage so that she might play us all like well-tuned fiddles as she rakes in fame and money, it's difficult to take any claims about her behavior being too wild too seriously. However, when more reasonable voices emerge and use Cyrus as a symbol for poor behavior among young adults, it becomes easier to question the "Wrecking Ball" singer.
After all, she's basically enjoying the benefit of something like Janet Jackson's infamous Super Bowl nip slip — if Jackson had continued to slip her nip every couple of days for the following six or more months. Where most stars try something a little racy once and let it marinate with fans and the media, Cyrus has delivered an onslaught of racy moments so perfectly-timed it has to be premeditated.
Cyrus may only be 23, but she's got too much experience to be entirely naive about her new public persona. Since she debuted on Hannah Montana she's had time to experiment with acting outrageously and seeing where the media chips fall. She saw how quickly all eyes turned toward her when she did a racy Vanity Fair shoot. She saw how easy it was to get serious music blogs to take notice of her (and by proxy, her music) when she dissed Radiohead in an interview. And she saw how quickly a haircut could turn her entire existence into a story when she chopped off her long, brown hair in favor of "The Miley." She's been testing the limits, and now that she knows where our weak spots are, she's exploiting that knowledge.
But whereas, at its outset, the revealing of the new Miley was almost impeccably executed — first the hair cut, then the questions about trouble with then-fiance Liam Hemsworth, then the interview with Cyrus and Pharrell Williams legitimizing her song of the summer "We Can't Stop" — it all culminated with the sensory overload of her performance with Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs. At that point, we'd been played by the Miley Machine and we were absolutely helpless against her, because love her or hate her, we could not stop talking about her. She played a few outrageous hits after that (smoking a joint at the MTV EMAs, hacking up Michael Jordan's Bulls jersey, fellating a hammer in the "Wrecking Ball" video, etc.) and the fame monster continued to grow, but eventually it had to reach a peak.
For some, that peak was the joint-smoking onstage in Amsterdam — it was the epitome of deliberately acting like acting out — for others, the peak came later, like when Cyrus released the video for "Adore You" which features the singer masturbating in billowing sheets. But no matter where you hit the turning point, Cyrus has now sufficiently gone from the woman who surprised us every few days to someone we simply expect to be "bad." It's to the point that if "Adore You" featured Cyrus simply lying naked in a bed sans o-face and clear instances of masturbation, the media narrative would have likely shifted to "Has Miley gone soft?" or "Why is her new video so mild?" Her "outrageous" behavior has become so commonplace, it's entirely normal.
It's so normal that we need her to continue to be on the edge, so we continue clicking feverishly on headlines blaming Cyrus for ruining haircuts, SNL episodes, her own career, and even "party culture." It was inevitable because while Cyrus is clearly "bad" on some level — whether or not she's done the things she's done as deliberate PR stunts rather than cries for help, she did do them — but her behavior has made her something of a corral for the undesirable segments of pop and youth culture. Rather than pointing out specific behaviors exhibited by young adults, it's much easier to simply call on Miley, the embodiment of all undesirable behavior and render her a scapegoat. It gives "the problem" a face and thus the semblance of a possible solution.
Take, for example, the woman who inspired this article: Kate Winslet. When she spoke about Cyrus, she used the singer as a symbol, saying,
You hear horror stories where you think, 'God, who's looking after these people and why does it seem like they're losing their way?' ... I mean, you think about someone like Miley Cyrus, and I said to my daughter the other day, 'I'm this close to opening my mouth about what's going on with that girl.' Who is actually saying, 'Stop for a second. What do you want, who are you?'
Cyrus has become the example, the template for acting out or crying for help. And in a world that includes plenty of fodder for young people behaving badly — Justin Bieber, alone, could be the subject of a study on the topic — it's somehow easier to focus on Cyrus. Focusing on the pop singer is easy because it alleviates our responsibility to resolve the so-called problems of youth culture. Cyrus is unstoppable, and even the angriest of critics know deep down that one bad word against Cyrus equals at least another week of heightened fame for the singer.
The focus is not on Cyrus because she's the root of the problem or because she's inherently terrible or because she can be forced to change, the focus is on her because she gives critics of youth culture a neon bulls-eye.
While there are young celebrities who prove that the sky is not actually falling and that youth culture won't ruin the world as we know it — Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Shailene Woodley, and Lorde, to name a few — they're not relevant in this fight. According to the overarching narrative, Cyrus is the only person ruining young people, and we're going to ensure that she her voice carries for as long as she wants it to because when it comes to buzzing about her behavior, we can't stop.