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How Miley Cyrus Takes Controversy Too Far
Noel Gallagher of the band Oasis had the following to say about Miley Cyrus after her controversial VMA performance with Robin Thicke:
"I think there's a trend, unfortunately, in the game, at the minute, of girls desperately trying to be provocative or desperately trying to - in inverted commas - 'start the debate' about some old s**t or other...I feel bad for 'em. It's like, 'Write a good song. Don't make a provocative video - write a good f**king song. That'll serve you better, I think'. She was on TV recently, Miley Ray Cyrus, and it was just like, 'What the f**k is all this about?' I don't know. It's a shame, because it puts all the other female artists back about f**king five years."
However, popular music has always been controversial. Rock n' roll was often about rebellion, irreverence and scaring parents. Many respected artists today were very controversial in their time. Writing a good song and being provocative aren't mutually exclusive. The Rolling Stones wrote many great songs but they were controversial from arrests for drug possession to Mick Jagger doing the Nazi goose-step on-stage. Madonna and Prince built decades long careers on controversial songs, images or videos. So, Miley Cyrus using controversy is nothing new or different and Noel Gallagher seems oddly unaware of the history of boundary pushing in his own genre.
And using controversy can be smart. Every singer or group is a brand. Proper use of controversy can help someone stand out and get attention in an otherwise crowded field. It's a form of brand differentiation. It doesn't matter how great your song is if most people are unaware it exists. I mean I'm writing about Cyrus and I have zero interest in her music. Her antics got my attention.
Controversial actions can get people up-in-arms and talking about an artist who may go under the radar otherwise. It's very easy to manipulate large numbers of people by offending them and then using their complaints as self-promotion.
Crossing the Line
So, I'll give Miley Cyrus this. I don't think she's necessarily unwise to use controversy to separate herself from her competition. And this comment to Forbes proves it:
"Miley went from like No. 350 on my list of most requested celebrities for brand partnerships to the top ten, practically overnight,” says Adam Kluger, president of product placement firm the Kluger Agency. “She’s not difficult to sell. If it’s an edgy brand, it’s going to work."
However, there are times when Miley have taken controversy a bit too far. During a show at the G-A-Y nightclub in London, she gave a well endowed inflatable doll a blow job. Tasteless sure but what went too far was a date rape joke:
"You know, everyone’s a little bit gay … It’s the truth. Everyone’s gay, all it takes is one cocktail. And if that doesn’t work, sprinkle something in their drink. That’s what I always do."
She had some health problems recently and attacked the nurses caring for her:
"she denounces antibiotics as useless, and calls the nurses who tried to give them to her bitches...Miley’s rants might seem like desperate pleas for attention but they're more a reflection of her inability to regulate her own speech."
Then there was the Sinead O Connor incident, which showed an inability to regulate her social media usage. In October 2013, Sinead sent an open letter to Miley.
"The music business doesn’t give a s**t about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think it's what YOU wanted.. and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, ‘they’ will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body and you will find yourself very alone.
Real empowerment of yourself as a woman would be to in future refuse to exploit your body or your sexuality in order for men to make money from you...men are making more money than you are from you getting naked. Its really not at all cool. And its sending dangerous signals to other young women."
Now, I disagreed with Sinead on this. It's unfair to assume all women are victims even if the music industry is male dominated. Many female singers choose to be provocative. It's also unfair that men can exploit their sexuality without being accused of sending dangerous signals to young men. Women are being told to cover up and behave themselves because if they don't they're somehow setting back women's rights, a burden not placed on men.
However, Miley's response was unnecessarily vitriolic. Instead of a polite mature response she made fun of Sinead's mental illness. And she brought an uninvolved third-party Amanda Bynes, who's also suffered from mental issues, into it. She made the following tweet with an image of tweets from Sinead O' Connor who was clearly going through a lot of mental and emotional difficulties. In the tweets, Sinead is desperately in need of seeing a mental health professional and she's begging for help.
And then there was the racial stuff. Miley asked for a "black sound" for her Bangerz album. By black, she meant "rachet" and her song We Can't Stop had references to big butts, twerking and drug use. She wanted to develop a bad girl image and seemed to associate bad with black. And as one comment on a forum pointed out:
"How the hell does someone say "I want something that sounds Black". Like, correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't black artists at the forefront of a variety of musical genres including Blues, Soul, Funk, Disco, Rock, Jazz and many others? So in Miley's mind she immediately associates the word "black" with urban music?"
She also offended Jews when she tried to make a point about record executives being out of touch with what people want to hear.
"With magazines, with movies, it’s always weird when things are targeted for young people yet they’re driven by people that are like 40 years too old. It can’t be like this 70-year-old Jewish man that doesn’t leave his desk all day, telling me what the clubs want to hear."
Her comment would have been completely valid if she had left religion/ethnicity out of it. She also faced controversy in 2009 after a slant-eye photo that appeared to make fun of Asians.
Journalist and feminist Devon Maloney accused Miley of using bad behavior solely to serve her own interests. It's a means to escape her goody-two shoes past as a child star and transition into her career as an adult. Many women in music have used sexual images and provocative behavior to challenge hypocrisy, prudery and double-standards in what women versus men can get away with. Madonna, Beyonce, and Kesha have all been outspoken about feminism and breaking down the notion that female sexuality is a bad thing that needs to be controlled. Miley's controversial behavior seems to come purely from having a bad character. Maloney, in an article on Grantland, said:
"She (Miley) uses it (her wildness) largely in the service of her own image, rather than any sexist double standard...Miley still frequently employs her “forget the haters, ’cause somebody loves ya” defense, doggedly avoiding self-reflection with incredible tenacity. She will take the bait and feud with other women."
The potential problem for Miley is that her controversial behavior has been relentless. She seems to be all controversy all the time. In an Internet age when people get bombarded by it, her bad behavior may turn out to be harmful to what could be an otherwise promising career. The Rolling Stones didn't live in a time when millions of people could easily access and condemn, and possibly become bored with their antics. Miley is in danger of having her antics overshadow her music.
Her most recent single Adore You peaked at only 21 on the Billboard Hot 100. The continuing use of controversial videos could very well bring diminishing returns. The first single from her Bangerz album got 400 million views. The 2nd infamous naked on a wrecking ball video got more than 600 million. These videos attracted many critics who voted the videos down. In the process, they brought Miley paying clicks. These videos were followed by a disappointing 74 million for Adore You, which also tried but failed at using racy imagery to draw in viewers. Her antics no longer garner the major headlines they used to and according to vice.noisey.com her album and Bangerz tour are struggling:
Forbes believe it’s unlikely she’d sold out “as many as half of her shows”...Her record sales have also been surprisingly poor. Despite being repeatedly described as “the person of the year” with unprecedented coverage across the worlds of music, entertainment and news, not to mention having two of the most watched music videos of all time, Cyrus’ album was only the 71st best selling of last year in the UK. Globally the album did slightly better, but was still a long way off the top 20 global albums of 2013.
Controversy can be helpful if used thoughtfully because it grabs people's attention. If it's overdone they stop noticing. At this point, could she even outdo the shock value of her previous antics to get people to pay attention to her again? Time will tell how it all works out for her.