For a very long time, Miley Cyrus embodied everything I hated about contemporary pop music. Meticulously groomed as a picture-perfect Disney sponsored pop starlet she seemed indistinguishable from the legions of similar cookie-cutter manufactured singers who came before her except for being the daughter of one-hit wonder Billy Rae Cyrus, which added bizarreness and nepotism to her lineage. Miley Cyrus’ Disney output was also precisely the sort of thing that sets me off: Willfully artificial and mass-produced faux country pop specifically designed to tap into the United States’ collective fixation on and fetishization of a rose-tinted glamourized “down home” fantasy version of its Manifest Destiny-driven version of imperialism. Being a sanitized, inescapable, ubiquitous mass-market commodity throughout the mid- to late-2000s pushed by a mega corporation that specializes in turning real people and ideas into such things and responsible for one of the most cloyingly unlistenable pieces of glurge I’ve ever heard, did nothing to endear her to me either.
Then this year happened. And all I can say is that I’m very, very sorry, Miley. I hope you can forgive me and that one day I can be as brave and cool as you self-evidently are.
And I’m really kicking myself because I totally should have seen this coming. Miley Cyrus’ comprehensive reinvention of herself from Disney Pop doll to hip-hop superstar over the course of one summer should only come as a shock to those who weren’t paying the slightest bit of attention to her or pop culture for the past eighteen months. As I like to consider myself at least something of a media studies thinker and thus someone who has some kind of general understanding of how pop culture works I try to cultivate an at least functional grasp of the pulse of things at the moment. I first started to become suspicious when Miley was interviewed on Chelsea Lately a year ago to promote a guest appearance on Two and a Half Men brandishing a buzzcut hairdo that would make Tasha Yar jealous. Now, Two and a Half Men is a pretty terrible sitcom, but I was blown away with what I saw of Miley’s performance, which was an actually genuinely hilarious parody of the redneck stereotype, and indeed a parody of the stereotype she herself seemed to have been saddled with. She effortlessly slipped into that character and displayed such a formidable and magnetic stage presence and charisma she totally dominated the entire episode. Nobody else in that cast came close to touching her. What I learned that night is that Miley Cyrus is in actuality one hell of an actor.
Upon reflection this makes a lot of sense. To those who don’t know her simply as Miley Cyrus, she’s most famous for the Disney Channel megahit show she starred in called Hannah Montana, where she plays a character who lives a secret double life as a pop sensation. By night she tours the world entertaining legions of fans as the titular Hannah Montana, while by day she goes to school like everyone else and tries to live a normal life as a young girl. In her civilian identity she goes by the name Miley, and this character quite obviously drew on caricatured and exaggerated aspects of her own personality. This had a tendency to get dizzyingly recursive and meta: There was an actual live Hannah Montana touring show where Miley Cyrus played Miley playing Hannah Montana…and sometimes playing herself as well (that is, Miley Cyrus playing Miley playing a different version of Miley, not Hannah Montana). Miley Cyrus is someone who has been drenched in performativity and recursive artifice since the beginning of her career.
As fun and fascinating as this is to dissect for someone like me, who runs a Star Trek blog where one of my as of this writing current major themes is how William Shatner really needs to be read within the larger theatrical tradition of exaggerated performativity to be truly understood and how recursive artifice is in fact one of his signature hat tricks as an actor, what does any of this have to do with the Center for a Stateless Society? Why should anarchists care about Miley Cyrus? Well, the thing is, all of this is pretty much crucial to explaining why Miley Cyrus is one of the most important and valuable public figures around today and why everyone should be paying attention to her and giving her proper respect. Ryan Calhoun has already contributed an excellent piece on how Miley’s recent performances demonstrate she is someone who treasures the virtues of liberty and freedom and acts on them through laudable willful noncompliance and cultural disobedience. This, Calhoun argues, makes her a good role model and case study for anarchists and left-libertarians to point to when trying to explain and sell their ideas and values to a wider mainstream audience. And while I think all of this is true, I feel there’s a secondary tier to Miley’s current persona that shows she’s also someone whose work bears considerable aesthetic merit as well.
The key to teasing this out lies in getting an understanding of the kind of performer Miley Cyrus actually is, both as a recording artist as well as a public figure. And the best place to start is with the song I consider to be her current masterpiece, “We Can’t Stop“. Though overshadowed by her subsequent and better-known single “Wrecking Ball”, “We Can’t Stop” was the first definitive proof Miley’s fans and mainstream audiences got of the direction she was very clearly intending to go, and in my opinion it remains her defining statement of purpose. “We Can’t Stop” has been described as a “joyless, soulless” party anthem and proof positive of the vapid, hedonistic shallowness modern pop music now celebrates. The thing about this reading though is that holding it requires us to ignore the larger context of the pop music industry’s twists and turns over the past half-decade or so: In truth, “We Can’t Stop” is a genuinely clever and subversive statement that says some very encouraging and positive things about the current pop climate and where Miley Cyrus’ real interests might actually lie.
In order to unpack what Miley’s actually saying here and how she managed this, let’s take a brief look at what the current pop climate is and how it came to be this way. To crudely and horrifically oversimplify and overgeneralize several decades of music history, a great deal of the contemporary pop sound is descended from hip-hop, which broke into the mainstream in a big way in the late 1980s and 1990s. Hip-hop in turn is derived in part from people of US-African descent in impoverished inner city cultures experimenting with DJ equipment and the sounds of German-style art house electronica acts, predominantly Kraftwerk, and blending this with traditional African rhythm, beats and a freeform improvisational style of lyricism. Also derived from Kraftwerk and their kin is electronic club dance, which began as a style of music born when musicians inspired by Kraftwerk (many of whom were British) tried to blend their sound with a more dance-friendly beat associated with Disco. Like hip-hop, this kind of club dance exploded into the mainstream in the late-80s and well into the 90s.
Eventually, the two styles started to get closer and closer in sound, probably due in part to declining record sales in the 2000s giving record companies the impetus to double down on a sound of pop music that had the widest possible demographic appeal so as to maximize sales. The music industry suffered just like everything else in the Great Recession, and following that there was a not-altogether-unpredictable uptick in pop music that sounded suspiciously generic and interchangeable. The watershed year here is probably 2010, which, while I don’t know the reputation it has in music critic circles now, at the time I remember was most definitely seen as a year defined by heartless, identical, clinically calculated “party” anthems increasingly desperately clawing at an increasingly vanishingly small and indifferent audience. In that regard the theme song of the slow but methodical and obvious homogenization of pop is probably Flo Rida’s 2010 single “Club Can’t Handle Me“, featuring David Guetta.
Now, I actually rather like “Club Can’t Handle Me”-I find it to be one of the most memorable songs of 2010: It’s catchy, infectious and fun and leagues better than say, The Black Eyed Peas’ painfully uninspiring and eminently forgettable mass-produced robotic “party anthems”. All things considered “Club Can’t Handle Me” is probably Flo Rida’s best song yet. So using it as a point of comparison here requires me to be harsher to the song than I’d really like, but the thing is, it’s such a perfect storm of problematic music industry trends there’s no better moment to talk about what modern pop music sounds like. Flo Rida is ostensibly a rapper, but he has a rather nasty (and sadly perhaps not entirely undeserved) reputation as the hip-hop artist for people who don’t know anything about hip-hop. And the song itself is wonderfully, gratuitously, almost defiantly generic.
One of the biggest criticisms of modern hip-hop is that it’s lost touch with its working class, inner city black roots and, thanks to two and a half decades of massive popularity, has become fixated on extravagant and lavish displays of conspicuous consumption. And, on “Club Can’t Handle Me”, Flo Rida rattles off a stream-of-consciousness string of derivative club dance buzzwords, dutifully namechecking the fact that he has a private jet, that “bottles” and “models” are present and that he has literally so much money he doesn’t know what to do with it all to the point he doesn’t even sound enthusiastic about it (which is emphasized by the heavy use of autotune everywhere on the track). There are random, pointless samples taken from other, more original songs and a general sense it’s trying to sound vaguely 1980s because the music industry, just like everyone else, is obsessed with nostalgia for a period it thinks was a lost Golden Age that it needs to find a way back to. Producer David Guetta makes a guest contribution to “Club Can’t Handle Me” largely because Guetta is the sort of music producer who thinks he really ought to be a recording artist instead and was hoping to piggyback on Flo Rida’s popularity to kickstart his own touring career. Then there is, of course, the fact the entire song was written specifically for the second sequel to a not especially successful movie about dancing that was notable largely because it heavily hyped the fact it was shot in 3D. I mean really, you’d be hard pressed to find a song that better encapsulates the desperation and excess of modern pop.
But here’s the thing, and you all knew I was going to say this: Miley Cyrus is not Flo Rida.
The tradition we ought to be placing Miley in is not so much the one that leads to “Club Can’t Handle Me”, but rather the one that leads to people like Ke$ha. There’s always been a contingent of pop musicians who were firmly invested in the experimental and avante-garde side of the genre, and while finding them requires an acknowledgment that pop music can in fact be avante-garde and experimental, they’re there if you look for them. The most recent manifestation of this began around 2008 with Lady GaGa’s Big Bang of a rise from nobody to the most talked about person of the decade. And make no mistake, no matter how controversial Lady GaGa has become in recent years, the reason she was originally popular is straightforwardly because she used modern pop music as an appropriated pop art statement about the vacuousness and self-destructiveness of celebrity culture. After Lady GaGa knocked the door down, her success was repeated when listeners granted it on colleagues and similar artists like Janelle Monae, Nicki Minaj and, well, Miley Cyrus (who made homages to some of Lady GaGa’s signature imagery and motifs in the music video for one of her final Disney recordings).
But the artist Miley Cyrus is most similar to is Ke$ha, whom she in many ways seems to be deliberately responding to. Ke$ha is the stage name of Kesha Serbet, a music industry veteran, mystic, explorer and former child prodigy who has made a career of taking the trappings of modern pop and fusing it with a raucous, Sex Pistols-esque attitude of rebellious satire (I spent a lot of time defending Ke$ha last year in this blog post). Ke$ha’s original gimmick was a style she dubbed “white girl rap”, which was intended to point out how laughable, and at times how shockingly demeaning and misogynistic, a lot of modern hip-hop lyrics are by embracing turnabout and having a female singer rap them. But the other half of the joke was that it was inherently nonsensical for a white woman to even be singing this kind of song in the first place, thus highlighting and emphasizing how race and gender roles manifest in the music industry. The best example of this phase of her career is probably 2010’s “Blah Blah Blah”, though last year she retooled herself a bit and is now more interested in doing gleefully postmodern romps through beloved pop and rock history stylistic cliches.
The point of the kind of pop music Ke$ha makes is to demonstrate how artificial and insincere a lot of the music industry is and how something that’s ostensibly universal and all-inclusive still fragments across visible cultural, racial and gender boundaries. Nevertheless, Ke$ha maintains that pop music should be fun and that it has the potential to do a lot of good for people. And here’s where we finally return to Miley Cyrus, because “We Can’t Stop” is very clearly her response to this dilemma and an attempt to show us how we can still have fun with pop music. Miley seems keenly aware of the state of pop music: I’d imagine she’d have to be given the perspective of it she’s gleaned over the past several years, and she also seems aware of what her role in it is. On the surface, “We Can’t Stop” seems to bear all the hallmarks of a rote, “Club Can’t Handle Me”-style generic ode to debauchery, but it’s in truth anything but. Paying close attention to Miley’s lyrics show that the song actually seems to wildly shift in tone a lot: There’s of course Miley’s chorus of
We like to party
Dancing with Molly
Doing whatever we want
This is our house
This is our roof
And we can’t stop
But then the verses do something different and curious, and Miley seems to completely change the song’s meaning in them. The song’s refrain is as follows (emphasis mine):
And we can’t stop
And we won’t stop
Can’t you see it’s we who own the night?
Can’t you see it’s we who ’bout that life?
And we can’t stop
And we won’t stop
We run things, things don’t run we
Don’t take nothing from nobody
That final line can be read two very different ways, and I think that was intentional. Firstly, it could mean that Miley and her friends are tough, headstrong and independent and they “don’t take nothing” (i.e. they don’t take gruff or lip) from people who want to bring them down. But it could also be a request from Miley herself to her friends and colleagues to not take anything from others for themselves, i.e. to not steal or otherwise hurt or deprive others. Don’t take anything from others such that it would disenfranchise and harm them. Don’t do anything that would take away a person’s freedom, liberty or agency. Miley is trying to cultivate a party of equals, one where everyone is respected and treated as a unique and worthwhile person. This is a rallying cry to denounce dehumanization and oppression and promote solidarity for all. Even the most reoccurring verse goes (emphasis also mine):
It’s our party, we can do what we want
It’s our party, we can say what we want
It’s our party, we can love who we want
We can kiss who we want
We can screw who we want
But what clinches it for me is this verse (emphasis once again mine):
To my homegirls here with the big butts
Shaking it like we at a strip club
Remember only God can judge ya
Forget the haters ’cause somebody loves ya
This is the heart of “We Can’t Stop” in a nutshell. It starts off as a provocatively vulgar modern hip-hop-style shout-out and then immediately dovetails into a declaration of love and acceptance. This verse, just like the song itself, is a perfectly innocent and kindhearted message disguised as raucous debauchery that still doesn’t shy away from its sexuality. Miley’s not only telling us to embrace our sexual side (whatever that may be) and have fun, she’s telling us that we’re all loved by someone and that all people and perspectives are valuable and appreciated, which is in my mind is just about the most important message that could possibly be made. In an age of growing systemic inequality where people face continual oppression in the face of the dehumanizing Western corporate state machine and where the untimely deaths of GLBTQ individuals, neruoatypical persons and people of colour are a real and present problem, why isn’t Miley Cyrus’ call for peace, love, hope and solidarity being celebrated by anarchists or anyone else who hopes to foster these values?
This goes beyond the lyrics too and is reflected in the actual structure of the song: Instrumentally, “We Can’t Stop” is quite in keeping with the kind of club hip-hop one would expect to see in 2013: It’s got a very prevalent, methodical beat and draws influence from the sort of pop dubstep sound that’s been in vogue for the past year or two. But Miley’s vocals remain extremely reminiscent of her country pop origins: She retains her signature twang, emphasized, in fact by the autotune post-processing drawling out her every syllable. Indeed, the melody itself remains basically country pop. “We Can’t Stop” then is, near as I can tell, a very deliberate mash-up of country music and hip-hop motifs. And I don’t think that’s ever been done before. Furthermore this is entirely in keeping with Miley’s message elsewhere: This is a song about building bridges and making friends, and bringing together two such wildly disparate and stereotypically diametrically opposed music styles is a deeply profound way of making that point clear.
But if all Miley Cyrus wanted was to make an earnest, heartfelt and simple plea for love and solidarity, why did she dress it up as a raunchy party anthem? There are a number of reasons why “We Can’t Stop” is such a deceptive song. Firstly, I think it’s a mistake to completely disregard the song’s sexual nature: Miley is making a bold and clear statement that she’s in touch with her own sexuality and isn’t ashamed of it, nor should anyone. This gets back to the cultural disobedience argument: She’s doing something that’s unfairly considered taboo and is trying to point out that it’s really all OK. But also, Miley Cyrus has been around the music industry for a very long time, practically her entire life. She knew she had to put out a song like this. It was expected of her, no matter what the only half-serious hand-wringing and teeth gnashing in the tabloid press would have you believe.
In the wake of Miley’s MTV Video Music Awards performance, I can’t tell you how many tweets I read by people saying some variation of the following: “I’ve seen Miley Cyrus’ new movie before when it was called Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan”. The latter two starlets were also at one point manufactured Disney-sponsored pop acts who are now more famous for their very tragic and very public psychological meltdowns culminating in multiple drug addictions, convictions and stints in rehab. The concept of “fallen Disney pop princess” has become entrenched in pop consciousness such that it’s become a Master Narrative: A kind of story we subconsciously recognize and expect to see play out time and time again, no matter how much actual historical basis it has (which is on the whole for these sorts of things, tenuous at best). Another thing that makes Miley Cyrus’ mid-career reinvention of herself so interesting is that she seems keenly aware that everyone expects her to turn out like Spears and Lohan (Spears even collaborates with her in one of the tracks from Miley’s new album Bangerz) so she pays lip service to this expectation…and then does precisely the opposite.
Think about it for a minute: Aside from the wild sensationalism of her salacious performances, have you heard anything bad about Miley Cyrus in the media? Has she been doing anything truly dangerous and reprehensible, like trashing hotel rooms, racking up assault charges or urinating in janitorial cleaning supplies like fellow former teen idol Justin Bieber?
No, you haven’t. Because she hasn’t.
And this brings us to the conclusion that, ultimately, at least a good deal of this is an act. Let’s all think back for a moment to Two and a Half Men and Hannah Montana: Remember, Miley Cyrus is an actor, and a damn good one. It’s an act that has definite positive repercussions as it definitely embraces and promotes civil disobedience, but, just like Hannah Montana, Miley’s Bangerz-era persona is still just that: A persona. A role that draws on exaggerated aspects of herself. The difference is that now she’s playing a part she’s cultivated for herself instead of one Disney made for her, and it’s a part that’s meant to emphasize the direction she sees pop music, and ultimately society at large, going and the role she’s had in getting it to where it is. For you see, Miley Cyrus’ final hat trick is that she seems to understand Social Entropy.
Social Entropy, for those unaware, is a term used to describe the predilection of all social systems and structures towards inevitable natural decay. One of the telltale signs of Social Entropy is a noticeable trend towards everything becoming predictable and homogeneous to the point all of society and its artifacts are reduced to their lowest common denominators. Ahistorical Master Narratives dutifully playing themselves out over and over again. This is the end point of civilization, where everything is worn down, run down, boiled down and burned out. Sound familiar yet? If not, maybe go re-listen to Flo Rida or The Black Eyed Peas. Pop music is possibly the most entropic of our cultural signifiers, and Miley Cyrus’ concerns about this are simply all over Bangerz, and in particular “We Can’t Stop”. Miley is freely granting the entropic homogenization of pop music, and perhaps society, and in addition the fact as an iconic pop superstar she is perhaps in some way responsible for a small part of it. But crucially, she also seems to believe that we shouldn’t be worried by this: We ought to be happy about the decline and fall of the current pop culture model because we have ourselves and each other, and that’s really all that matters.
And this above all else is why Miley Cyrus is such a powerfully anarchic figure, a force for good and someone everyone of an anarchic or left-libertarian persuasion ought to pay attention to. As anarchists, we believe that we can only bring about change by forging alliances and friendships such that we can build the new society as the old one collapses around us. We know that Westernism, defined as it has now become by post-industrial high corporate and state controlled capitalism and disposable, capricious and fickle consumerist culture co-opted by things like planned obsolescence, this kind of society simple cannot stand for much longer. We may well be witnessing its death throws, the Great Recession being one thing among many others that finally pushes it over the edge and causes it to collapse under its own weight. But we also know that this is a thing to celebrate, not mourn because it means those people who have lived under the boot of its authority for so long will now finally have the opportunity to craft a world where they can live free of oppression in all of its forms with justice, liberty and dignity.
Well, Miley Cyrus knows this too. And she, like us, wants to dance and love as the old world falls away.