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You Got the Miley You Paid For, America

You Got the Miley You Paid For, America

Just days after Miley Cyrus’
bizarre, off-putting performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards—which saw
the twenty year-old performer rubbing herself provocatively with a foam finger,
“twerking” against the genitals of thirty-six year-old singer Robin Thicke, and
gleefully slapping the buttocks of her backup dancers—Camille Paglia wrote a
piece for Time decrying Cyrus’
decidedly unsexy three-ring circus primarily on artistic grounds. Miley has
never been given “the time or space to develop emotional depth or creative
skills,” and therefore lacks “professional focus,” wrote Paglia. Paglia ended
her essay with an impassioned exhortation: “Miley, go back to school!” Instead,
Miley went to New York City, where she hosted Saturday Night Live and
announced to a cheering studio audience that her reasonably well-behaved Disney
Channel alter ego, teenage schoolgirl Hannah Montana, had been “murdered.”
Played for laughs, the gag was funny in part because it was true: the Disney
Corporation, with a subtle but equally reckless assist by Miley’s
fans, killed Miley’s childhood dead, and neither wishes nor revisionism
will ever bring it back. It’s a cycle we’ve seen played out with
nausea-inducing regularity: America, its legions of consumers just as much as
its faceless institutions, siphons away any sense of normalcy its artist-heroes
might ever have enjoyed, then stands in mock outrage above the debris field
that invariably results.

The idea that performing artists need time and space—perhaps
even the time and space afforded by a school-like setting—to learn something
about the history of their art and thereby develop so-called “professional
focus” makes a certain sense in the music industry. Because touring brings in
as much or more revenue than album sales do, there’s a strong incentive for
recording artists to stay perpetually in the limelight. The utility of time,
space, focus, and professionalism is less clear in other art-making genres.
It’s easy to see why singers ought to sometimes flee the glare of the national
spotlight and the equally searing heat of their record companies’
profit-margin assessments, but what about poets, sculptors, painters, potters,
and the millions of other artists working daily in unprofitable and rarely
acknowledged sectors of America’s art culture? What (and when and how) should they
be fleeing?

One possible answer: the ravages of a culture that annually
finds ever more ingenious ways to screw up the lives of profit-driven and
profit-blind artists alike. The means of such systemic destruction may be
different in different genres, but the end result is all too frequently the
same—whether it’s for Miley Cyrus or Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber or Britney
Spears, Corey Feldman or Danny Bonaduce. Whenever an artistic sensibility is
given too much or too little leash, the risk of a public or private disaster
resulting is high. A young singer with little proper schooling (Miley was home-,
set-, and tour-schooled following middle school), a perpetually abnormal social
life, only sporadic parenting, and too much expendable income to use
responsibly will often enough end up—using Miley as just one example—twerking
on the privates of someone almost twice her age for a screaming national
audience. Likewise, a writer with no job, no health insurance, no stable and
affordable housing, no reliably encouraging community, a spotty sense of
history, and a virtual rogues’ gallery of indifferent role models is equally
likely to end up in an emergency room as making Great Art. When
individuals as emotionally and psychologically temperamental as artists
habitually are lack access to high-quality healthcare, employment, and support
networks, they all too often under-medicate, 
under-insure, under-employ, and over-isolate themselves into episodes of
financial and spiritual despair.

Because often it’s lack, not surfeit, that’s most conducive
to artistic greatness, we can’t really say that instability is always unhealthy
for budding artists in the short term. What we can say is that the Muse
of suffering ought not be foisted upon all artists indiscriminately, as even
those who benefit from it often don’t benefit from it for long, and even when
and where suffering inspires an artist one can’t know whether a different
medium might have worked as well or better as a conduit for genius. In any
case, at no point in the process of watching artists’ lives play out do
audiences earn the right to expect more from their artists than the
pitfall-riddled lives to which they’ve been left. You (that is to say, we) get
the Miley we overpaid for, just as we invariably get the poets, sculptors, painters, and potters we’ve habitually refused to pay for at
all. While formal schooling only lends focus to those artists already inclined
to be focused or to benefit from a particular emphasis on skill-development and
historical awareness, the time, space, depth of seriousness, and range of
skills Camille Paglia wished for Miley in her Time essay should be
wished for for all our nation’s artists—and so we shouldn’t be
surprised when the lack of any of these leads an artist to a public or private
meltdown. 

This isn’t to say that denying artists time and space for
the development of serious ambitions and a versatile skill-set invariably leads
to disaster, merely to note that the fact that it may is
foreseeable and therefore unworthy of public shamings in Time or
elsewhere. Likewise, none of this is to say that artists should face no
censure for poor behavior; they can be, they should be, and they frequently are held
to account (often unfairly) for bucking the norms our culture so
authoritatively insists upon. A media outlet like TMZ, for instance, exists for
no other reason than to shame artists for their ill-considered antics; the vicissitudes
of the academic and corporate job markets do similar work in ensuring that
literary and visual artists never stray too far from the behavior employers
expect from their investments.

Yet even if we account for all of this, it’s still the case
that public criticism of artists should not be willfully ignorant of the
personal and professional milieu of working artists generally. Those
criticizing Miley Cyrus should somewhere in their critiques give some
indication that they know they’re criticizing a socially maladjusted
teen-equivalent who’s been surrounded by uncaring, selfish, morally incompetent
adults her entire life. Should Miley’s mother be managing her daughter’s most
important professional decisions, thereby confusing two roles with entirely
different expectations, responsibilities, and prerequisites? Should someone
have stopped a fifteen year-old Miley from granting what appeared to be a
topless photo-shoot to Annie Leibovitz? Should the bosses at the Disney Channel
have granted the then-thirteen year-old Miley a shooting schedule that
permitted her to be schooled amongst her peers rather than hurriedly and
on-set? Could Miley’s father, the one-hit wonder country singer Billy Ray
Cyrus—who recently said that Hannah
Montana
“destroyed my family . . . I’d take [Miley being on the show] back in a
second”—have resuscitated his own fading career via something other than a co-starring role alongside
his teenage daughter? Absolutely. A bevy of poor decisions—personal,
professional, educational, and otherwise—led Miley to where she is now, and
only a few of those decisions were solely Miley’s to make.

Miley’s decision to appropriate black culture for financial
gain was certainly an elective act—but it shouldn’t be deconstructed in the
same way one academic takes another to task. Rather,  critics should in some way acknowledge that
however foolish and race/gender-insensitive Miley’s shtick may be, she’s still
a young woman with little education who’s had no reasonable limits on her
spending since she was a child, who’s grown up in full view of the nation’s
hundred million living rooms, and who hasn’t lived the sort of life that
induces more temperate conduct since, well, never. Miley gets paid an
exorbitant amount of money to have no sense whatsoever of musical history or
even the barest standards of professionalism, and she gets paid that money by
the very same culture that subsequently derides her misbehavior as though it
were evidence of a system failure rather than a young person’s temperamental
decision-making. In other words, Miley’s been exploited by corporations,
unscrupulous charlatans, and blindly adoring fans her whole life, and almost certainly
hasn’t enjoyed a truly “normal” moment in more than a decade. Under the same
circumstances, you’d be twerking, too.

*

That an artist’s life is a relatively easy one is as much an
invisible presumption of American culture as is the idea that no culture can
long survive without Art. You’d think that decades of celebrity mug-shots, Behind
the Music
episodes, and checkout-aisle gossip rags would have convinced us
that the last thing you’d want your son or daughter to become is an artist of
any kind. Yet somehow America still encourages its children to pursue their
artistic inclinations, and celebrates their ambitions and successes as unambiguously
healthy and just. What’s the harm, after all? Sure, we know from mountains of
academic and pop-culture biographies that an alarming number of the literary,
musical, dramatic, and material artists whose work we most enjoy have died
penniless in ditches, or by their own hand, or with their hands on a bottle, or
choking on their own vomit following a drug overdose, but wasn’t that song
sublime? That poem? That novel? That sculpture? We know making Art often takes
a terrible toll on the psyche, on one’s mental health and physical well-being,
and on one’s finances—think Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Gary Coleman, or any one
of a thousand other young, much-heralded artists. But nothing can stop American
culture from consuming the energies of its artists so voraciously that hardly
any time or space is left them to catch their breath.

No one but Miley Cyrus’ doctor
and closest family and friends know her mental health status specifically or
her current medical condition generally, and no one outside that circle should
deign to speculate authoritatively on either. But here’s what we do know: Miley
has been in the public eye since she was eleven. When I was eleven, I was still
alone in my room trying to figure out how to masturbate properly. So to
converse about Miley Cyrus as though she were a normally socialized twenty
year-old defies both the evidence and common sense.

This isn’t a matter of crying
“Leave Britney alone!”, it’s a question of knowing the cost and value of the
throes of American culture. In other words, with Miley, as with all artists,
you get what you pay for, America: If you offer your artists no jobs, no
patronage, no supportive communities, and no means for coexisting with any
measure of comfort alongside their fellow citizens, you end up with artists
whose lives are unstable, uncertain, and in at least some identifiable
percentage of instances, psychologically and/or physically unhealthy. Moreover,
you end up with artists who begin to falsely associate infelicities with
predestination, who believe that being at loose ends emotionally and
financially is the only way to make Art that they and—on occasion, perhaps—other
Americans will respect. On the other end of the spectrum, if you throw millions
of dollars at children before they’ve reached puberty, if you pull them from
their local middle school to “help” them avoid paparazzi they shouldn’t have to
deal with in the first instance, if you juxtapose the roles of parent and
manager, if you reward ethical misbehavior or profligate spending or shoddy
songwriting with ever larger and larger royalty checks, you are ruining a
childhood and you’ll undoubtedly see that ruination play out on your television
set in a few short years. The conversation about Miley Cyrus isn’t dull because
we’ve done it before—it isn’t dull because it’s hard to see much daylight
between Paris Hilton, Amy Winehouse, Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan, et cetera—but
because it’s so cynically and insidiously hypocritical it’s nauseating. Miley
isn’t shocking; in fact, she’s so predictably derivative of the way our culture
condones the abuse of young artists across all genres that it’s painful to see
all our self-servingly unreasonable expectations unfolding in real time.

Those who take Miley to task for appropriating black
culture, or for undercutting responsible notions of femininity—as Sinead
O’Connor infamously did recently—are willfully missing the point. The time for
cultural critics to have intervened in the fiasco Miley’s life has become was
when she was a corporate wunderkind on the Disney Channel. Time and time again
we’ve seen children ruined by early success go on to harrowing tribulations as
adults—for every resurgent Christina Aguilera or Justin Timberlake, there’s a
whole dollar-bin of Britneys—yet we speak of an unsocialized teen’s predictable
nervous breakdown (or, the apparent non-clinical equivalent) as though it takes
a gaggle of scholars to sort it all out. Though the analogy is by no means a
perfect one, I for one am no more surprised by Miley appropriating black culture
or undercutting third-wave feminism’s political gains than I would be by an
abused child re-enacting the horrors once visited upon her by insidious
elders. 

If indeed Miley has offended or done damage with her
straight-from-the-playbook youth rebellion, I’m more insulted by those who are
insulted than by the one purportedly doing the insulting. If you don’t want
your consumer dollars going directly to the abuse of children whose antics
you’ll later find repugnant and comment-worthy, don’t watch the MTV Video Music
Awards, don’t watch Miley’s YouTube videos or follow her on Twitter, don’t buy
her albums or attend her concerts, and most of all don’t participate in
farcical remonstrations over Miley’s antisocial displays. Not because Miley
does or doesn’t deserve your patronage, but because America’s moral degradation
is long past the point you’ve any right left to ignore it. After all, this is a
country that establishes national campaigns to protect urban youth from the
ravages of drugs—on the theory that many such youth have few or no responsible
adults available to help them avoid drug addiction—and then pounces on them
when they turn sixteen, as the nation’s anti-drug campaign, having failed to
save any of those it was charged to save, turns on a dime into a nationwide,
incarceration-happy flash-mob. Miley bears a good deal of responsibility for
Miley, certainly, but the responsibility of a child to raise herself in a nest
of vipers is by no means limitless. America helped raise Miley in a very real
way—indeed, it did so carefully, consciously, and conscientiously over
more than a decade—so it has little right now to decry its own failure to
protect a vulnerable, impressionable, and naive young artist. To Camille Paglia
I would say, Miley doesn’t need a better school; what she’s long needed, and
what she never got nor will ever get, is a better country to grow up in.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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Comments

Lisa

An excellent and thoughtful article that points to cultural truths very few take into consideration. Well done.

mfan

Miley's only setback was in the USA. On her Wonderworld tour, she dressed in short shorts, bent over so her audience could see her ass, and even, I think, dry humped the stage once. These were short moments in passing, but the backlash was incredible. Parents who held the pursestrings wouldn't support Miley's next album, so even though it went platinum in Europe, it didn't even go gold here. And here is where the "you get what you pay for" comes in. Miley saw quite clearly who she could depend on and who she couldn't. So any brakes on her behavior to satisfy parents were now off the table. Miley now works to attract groups that buy the most music in america. That does not include easily offended parents.
On a selfish note, Miley is a workaholic. For fans this is great! So there won't be any breaks or long lags between tours unless she gets married with kids. Which I hope she does.

O

The author appears to be at least 50… A lot of old-fashioned statements… What is with people who are trying to push young girls into these sort of compulsory boxes that one has to tick? Someone has to push boundaries. And it is stupid to speculate on her mental health… Not everyone can be "normal"…whatever that is… This society allows no-one to be different, it really is rather sad.Morever, it is particularly stupid of the author to make claims about Cyrus regarding her family as if he knew the dynamics. Its speculative and wrong.

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