Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In Defense of Miley Cyrus: The Art of Wrecking Balls and Sledgehammers

Miley Cyrus, Wrecking Ball, sledgehammer, destruction, video, Bangerz, pop music
by Ben Howard

I'm guessing you're a little bored of Miley Cyrus. You read the blog posts, watched the VMA performance, dug yourself into a scandalous Wikipedia hole to figure out what the hell “twerking” was and now you're just done with the Miley Mania, the Cyrus Circus, the Hannah Montana Hullaballoo.

Well, dear friends, don't be so quick to jump off the Miley bandwagon because things are just starting to get interesting. Last week saw the release of her new video for the song “Wrecking Ball” which features the young star writhing around in rubble, riding a wrecking ball naked, and licking a sledgehammer. Because of course it does!

Since Miley is currently the Big Boss of ruining the hearts and minds of America's youth, there has been a good deal of hand-wringing about this “shocking” video. What kind of heresy is this?! What kind of monster would allow a naked woman around construction equipment?! What does it all mean?! (And seriously, why is she licking a sledgehammer?)

But here's the problem. I am of the opinion that those raising the alarm have been overly influenced by the VMA performance (which I reserve the right to have no opinion on other than to say that Blurred Lines is a terrible song when performed live). They've filtered their opinion of “Wrecking Ball” through the lens of the VMA's. They think it's just another example of Miley taking off her clothes to get attention.

And they couldn't be more wrong.

I'll admit that the song, by itself, is essentially a by-the-numbers pop hit. It sounds like it could have been written for Selena Gomez or Demi Lovato or Female Popstar X and it would be just as popular. It's good, but it's nothing special. However, when you add in the video you have the ingredients for a profound (if potentially unintended) statement. You see, I'm convinced that “Wrecking Ball” is a legitimate work of art.

While it may sound like any run of the mill love song, listen closer. These lyrics aren't about romantic love, they're about sex. They're about a physical love so intense that the participants didn't realize the lack of emotional intimacy until it was too late. Miley doesn't sing about still “loving” her ex, she sings about still “wanting” him.
Miley Cyrus, Wrecking Ball, sledgehammer, destruction, video, Bangerz, pop music

The video emphasizes this raw, physical kind of sexuality. Miley's nudity isn't subtle, nor is it seductive. It is total. It isn't sexy as much as it is sexual. She is the metaphorical and literal incarnation of the wrecking ball.

It is only too obvious to the observer that the relationship in question was more of a quasi-relationship bereft of the emotions it professed and the intimacy it desired. It is a relationship based on want, desire and the power of physicality, yet from Miley's lyrics you can see she desires the emotional intimacy, the freedom of vulnerability, that she has been prevented (prevented herself?) from having.

Here is where the true artistry begins. The video highlights this desire for vulnerability, the desire to know and be known, by invoking the iconic Sinead O'Connor video “Nothing Compares 2U.” That video consists almost entirely of a close-up shot of O'Connor singing her pained emotions directly into the camera thus keeping eye-contact with the audience. It's captivating and deeply moving.

However, where “Nothing Compares 2U” forces the viewer to encounter O'Connor's emotional gaze with unwavering concentration, Miley's video cycles back and forth between the raw emotion of the close-up direct-into-camera shot and the brute force destruction and raw sexuality of Wrecking Ball Miley. Where O'Connor's video was artistic for it's unflinching portrayal of emotion, the artistry of “Wrecking Ball” can be found in the tension and confusion between the vulnerability of Miley's gaze and destructive chaos.

It's tempting, not to mention easy, to try and couch this song and the feelings it narrates into the narrative of Miley Cyrus: Pop Star. Many view it as a conscious sexualization in order to shed her good girl image. Others have implied that the song is about her on-again/off-again relationship with Liam Hemsworth. It's tempting to think these things, but it's almost a 100% certainty that they aren't true.

The song was written months ago by a team of songwriters and producers. It's possible (maybe even probable), that it wasn't even written with Cyrus in mind as the singer. It was recorded by July at the latest. This song, like any good pop song, is a construct, a product of the culture that creates it. And this particular song was birthed of a culture that is deeply confused by the relationship between physical and emotional intimacy. This is the art of our culture and it is good.

Miley Cyrus, Wrecking Ball, sledgehammer, destruction, video, Bangerz, pop musicThis is good art because it reflects the culture back at itself, but with big hooks and even bigger vocals. This is culture in a fun-house mirror. This is culture turned to 11. This is good art because everyone knows that it's about someone even though it's about no one in particular.

This is good art because it's about us, even though we know that's not possible.

So let us all heed the warning of this pop music construct. Let us choose to be vulnerable, lest we become the instruments of our own destruction in search of an ever illusive intimacy. Let us work through the pain of our confusion together with honesty instead of destroying each other in our isolation.

And let us refrain from licking sledgehammers, because that's just weird.

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87. 
You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OnPopTheology.

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