Miley Cyrus: The Nadir of American Civilization?

Welcome to the nadir of American civilization! Tunku Varadarajan on Miley Cyrus’s depressingly un-sexy performance at the VMAs—and our absurd indignation.

John Shearer/Invision for MTV/AP

Several thoughts ricocheted through my head as I watched that smutty little clip from the Video Music Awards, this thought first: Miley Cyrus is the only performer who can make people wish they were watching her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, instead.

The second thought was that her act—in which she started off as a cartoon-porn plush toy, her tongue at a right angle to her mandible, and finished up as a latex-clad masturbationist—was the nadir of American civilization.

The third thought was the most depressing of all: this couldn’t possibly be the nadir, because America never, ever, hits rock bottom in its pursuit of crappiness. There will be other tawdry displays, by other tawdry performers, all of whom will plonk Miley Cyrus in the moral shade as surely as she has plonked her predecessors there.

Miley Cyrus was revolting, but should one be reluctant to say so, given that this revulsion is a prized fuel for the fire of shock value? (Miley wanted our jaws to drop. She succeeded. Miley wanted us to fulminate. She succeeded.) Still, I won’t shrink from asking whether her performance was an authentic expression of any underlying truth, the kind of truth that Pop Culture used (once upon a time) to make public.

The answer is that it was not, being instead a series of dissociated gestures that flopped right into a nihilistic void. To Pop Culture absolutists, nothing is ever fraudulent: Pop Culture is always the most authentic truth-teller, the more so when it annoys and exasperates, even if out of its sheer meretriciousness.

But where is the “truth” in a performance custom-tailored to outrage us, the next act in the professional arc of a Disney poppet now sexually recalibrated?

Once we distance ourselves from matters of meaning, we face the real reason why Miley’s act was so repulsive: it was because it was so badly executed. She was utterly un-sexy, utterly un-womanly. There was no nuance or heart in the effort, just raunch—but without the curves (or the spiritual conviction) to carry off a satisfying, raunchy-goddess performance. The hypersexual pose is poignant when a real-life young girl resorts to it, but loses its bittersweetness when the pitch is so craven and so cynical. To state the point more directly: the trouble is not so much that Miley is too sexy; it is that she is not sexy enough. She is too vapid and immature (and untalented) to pull off something really seductive.

The humane thing to do would be to note that this former Disney superstar is having a full-blown quarter-life crisis. This is the first generation of child stars who have only ever known constant media scrutiny of the most intrusive kind. These kids have never, for one second, been out of the limelight: they eat a sandwich, use a porta-potty, pick their nose, and hundreds of Tumblrs that track their every twitch break the news online. All this while their lives are built around wholesome, attractive, but not quite sexualized identities that become the American template for kids/tweens/teens around the world. Then, they emerge violently from their cocoons, not as butterflies but as flapping, rudderless, winged creatures heading straight for the flame ... and for immolation.

So there we have it: another lewd, dull-witted performance has sent America into a tailspin of indignation. People have said that an almighty indignation was voiced when Elvis shook his hips (was he “twerking,” one wonders). But Elvis was a lot more talented, and his hips were far more revolutionary. In Eisenhower’s America, they were a jolt. Miley Cyrus is just achingly, depressingly familiar.