Maybe I'm too old or too removed (literally) from the action, but I can barely keep track of when they're on anymore. I had no idea that the MTV Video Music Awards were being handed out last Sunday until the morning after (afternoon, Roman time) when I started reading the comments about them in my Facebook News Feed. Most of the commentary was about Miley Cyrus and her "controversial" performance with Robin Thicke, whose black-and-white candy-cane outfit one Facebook friend compared to Beetlejuice, providing an indisputable visual aid.
The reviews, I figured, must have been better than the show itself, which I still haven't felt compelled to watch in its entirety. Yesterday while channel surfing in Florence, I landed on MTV and caught the last 30 minutes or so of the ceremony. It reinforced what I already knew: I didn't really miss a thing -- not even Miley's latest bid for adult pop stardom (remember how flat "Can't Be Tamed" fell three years ago?), which I finally got around to witnessing on YouTube yesterday morning.
Verdict: I'd rather spend all day watching Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show on repeat than ever again having to be subjected to Miley Cyrus shaking her ass at Robin Thicke -- and mangling not only her own latest hit in her off-key way but also a verse from his sublime chart-topper "Blurred Lines," which has thankfully kept "We Can't Stop" from becoming Miley's first No. 1 Hot 100 single.
Watching her cavort around the stage like a puppy in heat with neither bark nor bite, I was less appalled by the sexual content of her performance than I was by how unsexy it was. Desperation is never an enticing come-hither look. Perhaps if Miley had a modicum of musical talent (or even a fraction of, say, Kelly Clarkson's), she wouldn't have to try so hard to command our attention. Kelly can perform in a sackcloth -- which she pretty much did during American Idol's "Idol Gives Back" in 2007 -- and still wow a crowd.
If her goal is to be the next Madonna, she's failing spectacularly. Anyone old enough to remember Madonna's VMAs debut (and the show's itself) -- in 1984, when she premiered "Like a Virgin" by rolling around on the floor in a wedding dress -- already knows that Miley is no Madonna. Sure they both have a limited vocal range, but what Madonna lacked in musical technique, she more than made up for in performance art. The "Like a Virgin" VMAs routine may have been campy, but that was intentional, and in the nearly three decades of shock antics that followed (the "Justify My Love" video, the Sex book, making out with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 VMAs), Madonna may have been a lot of things, but cheap and cheesy were never two of them.
Who knows if Miley even aspires to be the next Madonna -- or the next anyone? But if she wants to create half the ripple effect of Madonna at the peak of her attention-grabbing prowess, she'll need at least five things currently not in her arsenal of pop ammunition....
1. Timeless songs Five years into Madonna's recording career -- back when she was at the half-decade mark that Miley is currently straddling (along with the hottest male pop star she can get her crotch on) -- Madonna had already offered such enduring pop classics as "Holiday," "Like a Virgin," "Material Girl," "Into the Groove" and "Papa Don't Preach." I was never a huge fan of any of those hits (having not been particularly sold on Madonna's brand of pure pop until she began to pursue critical acclaim with the Like a Prayer album in 1989), but I can sing pretty much every lyric to all of them, whether I like it (or them) or not.
Right now I can't even hear the choruses of either of Miley's two pre-"We Can't Stop" biggest hits -- "Party in the U.S.A." and "The Climb" -- in my head. "We Can't Stop" is fresher in my mind, but only because it provided the soundtrack to the first half of Miley's VMAs bump-and-grind fest. In the 2030s, will anyone be dying to hear any of Miley's songs, or remember what she was singing when she had her VMAs moment 20 years ago? Did any of the post-show hoopla even mention her singing?
2. A woman's body Memo to all those female stars who think too thin is beautiful: Having the body of a teenage boy is not sexy. Miley, who will turn 21 on November 23, may no longer be a girl, but she's definitely not yet a woman, too paraphrase Britney Spears, who though also on the cusp of turning 21 when she sang that song, looked far more the part of a woman. Sure Madonna had more than 10 years on Miley when she started shoving the envelope with her early '90s sex phase (and she easily filled out that bullet bra), but that's precisely the reason why it worked. Miley looks like a little girl who just had her first orgasm and is trying to prove that she's all grown up now. Madonna didn't have anything left to prove in music circa 1992. She came across as a grown woman who just enjoyed sex.
3. Classy collaborators Madonna had Nile Rodgers (producer of "Like a Virgin"), Prince (her duet partner on Like a Prayer's "Love Song"), Warren Beatty (her costar in the 1990 film Dick Tracy and her boyfriend at the time), Herb Ritts (director of the "Cherish" video) and Naomi Campbell and Isabella Rossellini (two of her costars in the 1992 Sex book), among many other A-list cohorts. Okay, so Britney and Christina Aguilera were not the classiest pop stars on the planet when she made out with them onstage at the VMAs in 2003, but at least they were two of the biggest. Of the seven people it took to write "We Can't Stop," Miley is the one with the most impressive pedigree, which is a clue to how low she's aiming creatively.
4. An audience that hasn't already seen everything If the public hadn't watched Miley grow up as Hannah Montana, I doubt that anyone would have blinked at her VMAs performance. As it is, I suspect that people are more embarrassed for her than shocked by her daring. After all, from Madonna to Lady Gaga to the topless girls in Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" video, we've already seen everything, including Janet Jackson's nipple. Miley is a like a stripper who slides down the pole already fully naked, which, if the censors would allow it, she probably would have done, in a desperate bid to remain relevant in an age where, if you're a female pop star with limited talent, you're only as talked about as your last strip tease.
5. Better moves Is sticking out your tongue the new thing -- the "strike a pose" of 2013? It looks even more ridiculous when it's accompanied by "twerking," which, in one of her few opinions to which I'd proudly cosign, The View cohost Sherri Shepherd likened to a "ho move." It makes me long for the '90s days of "voguing." I never thought Madonna was much of a dancer, but compared to "twerking," "voguing" looks like high art, and when Madonna performed "Vogue" at the 1990 VMAs, she did so decked out in full 18th-century French royalty regalia. That, boys, girls and Miley Cyrus, is how pop legends are made.