Surely you've seen the Miley Cyrus performance at the Video Music Awards by now. My initial reaction was to file it under the pursuit of attention. By that phrase I'm referring to a book by Charles Derber. Derber examines the ways people seek attention in everyday life. Attention is something that can be shared and allocated. While some people are inclined to share or even avoid attention, others compete for attention. It's not only celebrities that crave attention. Derber points to ways 'ordinary' people strive for attention too. But in order to stay relevant, celebrities have to become experts in gaining and maintaining attention.
To an extent, then, this is what celebrities do: they pursue attention. So I mostly looked at Cyrus' performance in the context of celebrity behavior. In the first 'highlights' I saw, parts of Cyrus' performance were shown after clips of Lady Gaga in various costumes. Cyrus and Gaga are both very good at staying relevant and being in the news. Notice they are often trending topics on Twitter. So my first reaction was to view their performances as part of a competition to gather the spotlight.
I still think Cyrus' performance can be partly understood as a major attention grab, but there's much more to it. I think the racial dimension has to be accounted for, something I had not initially considered. It was when I read this piece that I began to grasp how the performance must also be understood in racial terms. And then I read this analysis by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Toward the end of her piece, she writes: "I am not surprised that so many overlooked this particular performance of brown bodies as white amusement parks in Cyrus' performance." It's a really deep analysis that helps me think more critically about the performance. Another important read about Cyrus, written a few months ago by Dodai Stewart, provides context about twerking and discusses how Cyrus, in a video, uses black women "as props, a background for her to shine in front of."
So there's a lot to consider and think through. There are many ways to analyze Cyrus' performance. This article by Emily Heist Moss focuses on gender and power. As I've tried to show by compiling these analyses, the Cyrus performance is not simply a case of 'Hannah Montana' crafting her image and getting attention. This is a complicated story with profound race, gender, and power dimensions.
Elite media figures who have focused their energy on sounding an alarm along the lines of "Think of the children" (Mika Brzezinski comes to mind) miss bigger picture points identified in the articles to which I've linked.
As a final point, Robin Thicke shouldn't escape criticism. He walked slowly on stage to join Cyrus in the performance. There he was, Mr. Cool in a pinstriped suit, singing and 'dancing' with Cyrus during his sexist song "Blurred Lines." Let's not forget this popular song contains the lyrics "I know you want it." Cyrus stole the show at the Video Music Awards. I think that's why so much criticism (warranted) has been directed at her. Thicke deserves criticism too, for being part of the performance and for bringing even more attention to a degrading song.