If any doubt existed that people were paying attention to Miley Cyrus — for the love, The View was still talking about her twerking just yesterday — her new video, “Wrecking Ball,” demolished it. The clip broke records for most views within 24 hours on Vevo (which is how we see videos in the post-music MTV era). I would love to pontificate as to the many reasons why it might have broken records: Because it’s a great song? No, it’s a decent song, better than her first single, “We Can’t Stop,” but not about to sweep the nation or change music history. Because Miley Cyrus is inherently interesting? Alas, no. Because she is naked on a wrecking ball in it? Oh, maybe that’s it.
Miley may feel like she’s breaking new ground, the way every 20-year-old thinks he or she is breaking new ground in life, whether he or she is a massive pop star or a local newspaper reporter or a waitress at Denny’s. It all feels so new and interesting and confusing and daring when you’re 20, doesn’t it? I can’t imagine what it feels like when the world is watching. The problem right now with Miley — and this is by no means her fault, or her unique shortcoming — is that she doesn’t stand for anything. She did a really weird, sexually suggestive dance in very little clothing on national television, which stood out more for its weirdness than for its sexuality. (When Britney Spears did the same thing at about the same age, it was just sexy, which was infinitely less confusing to the general public.) Now she’s naked on a wrecking ball. And people love to pay attention to naked people. But so what?
So far, so not much. When Madonna invented the art of using female sexuality to get attention in the ’80s, she did it knowingly from the start. She was saying something specifically about female sexuality, allowing the millions of girls who imitated her to throw off the oppressive ideas of sexuality that patriarchy had impressed upon them. Rolling around in a sexy wedding dress singing “Like a Virgin” at the Video Music Awards did more than titillate; it poked fun at the idea of a chaste bride. Madonna always stood for something more than herself, and she became the biggest star in the world because of it.
Britney was hailed as “the next Madonna” but could never get there because she didn’t have the knowing ways of Madonna. Instead, she was the anti-Madonna, taking on the trappings of patriarchy-dictated female sexuality — and thus, unknowingly, she still stood for something important. She became a (sexy) blank screen on which an entire nation could project its sexual feelings about young women. She played the part perfectly, professing publicly to be a virgin when most likely she was not, then taking the stage with a pseudo-strip routine or a phallic python as her dance partner. She was the embodiment of the virgin-whore complex that Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” has stirred up this summer. That song might as well be about the Britney Spears persona of the early ’00s.
Miley doesn’t mean anything yet, symbolically speaking, and our pop stars, to truly last, to become iconic, must mean more to us than their latest song. (Go back and listen to a lot of early Madonna, and you will find a lot of mediocre music, but that hardly matters.) Madonna stood for sexual liberation. Britney stood for the good girl who wants it. Beyonce stands for sexy personal empowerment. Rihanna stands for the troubled, talented, devil-may-care woman. Lady Gaga stands for being yourself.
Miley has our attention now, but the question will be how she uses it, or whether, like Britney, it uses her.