Friday, September 20, 2013

Performance and Art: Is Making History By Getting People Talking Enough?

A very grudgingly extended congratulations to Miley Cyrus today (insert slow, deliberate hand clap here). This week, "Wrecking Ball," Miley's latest single to chart on Billboard's Hot 100, unseats Katy Perry's "Roar" atop the hit list to become her first No. 1.

I wish I could say, "Well done," but, well, it wasn't.

It's hard to imagine that a pretty, decent but pretty ordinary song like "Wrecking Ball" would have enjoyed such an easy rise to the summit had it not been for the perfect storm of controversy that preceded it there: first, Miley's much-criticized performance of her previous hit, "We Can't Stop," at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 25, followed by another body-baring turn in the "Wrecking Ball" video, which became an instant YouTube smash more for its soft-core XXX factor than for the song itself. (Quick! Sing one line -- any line -- from it!)

This week, nearly one month after kicking off her Bangerz publicity blitz at the VMAs (the album, the former Hannah Montana's fourth as the "Miley Cyrus" brand, is due October 8), everyone is still talking about her performance there. Leave it to Cher, a singer who was stirring up controversy decades before Miley was even born, to leave me with mixed reactions to her own mixed reactions.

Cher's initial comments to USA Today had me cheering her on because they were so spot on:

"She could have come out naked, and if she'd just rocked the house, I would have said, 'You go, girl.' It just wasn't done well. She can't dance, her body looked like hell, the song wasn't great, one cheek was hanging out. And, chick, don't stick out your tongue if it's coated."

Then after several moments of careful consideration, the irony dawned on me. What a blatant case of the navy-blue pot calling the kettle black! Sure Cher is a certifiable "legend" with the sturdy discography to back up her well-deserved icon status, but she's spent decades baring it nearly all onstage just for the hell of it. She may have had better material than Miley (even when she was shaking her fishnetted ass in front of her 12-year-old son Elijah Blue in the 1989 "If I Could Turn Back Time" video, I was still paying attention to the song), but it's not as if she was the greatest dancer either.

Then Cher went and did a complete back track on Twitter that had me shaking my head as much as I did the first time I watched Miley's VMA performance and her performance in the "Wrecking Ball" video. While I agree that it's not cool for artists to publicly dis each other, a quick "my bad" in 140 characters or less would have sufficed. Instead, Cher seemed to go out of her way to offer hollow props to Miley over the course of five tweets. According to the middle one:

"What I should have said,"I didn't like it that much,but she's Pushing The Envelope,being an ARTIST ! She's Talented,& DIDNT COMMIT A FELONY".

I'm sure Miley would agree. In fact, she's said something along the lines of Cher's "TRUTHFULLY SHE WAS Fkng BRILLIANT..CAUSE...WE'RE STILL TALKING ABOUT IT":

"I don't pay attention to the negatives. I've seen this play out so many times. Anyone [who] performs, that's what you're looking for. You want to make history."

Bottom line: Who cares what you're doing as long as people look, and then talk, and then talk some more? It's the sort of justification one might expect from a 20 year old, someone who has only lived in a world where anyone who has a video camera and a YouTube account can be a celebrity (talent: optional). Kids of a certain age treat it almost as a birthright, and since Miley's dad, "Achy Breaky Heart" singer Billy Ray Cyrus, was famous for a minute in the '90s, it's double her birthright. So what if you can't act or sing? If someone like Britney Spears can become a superstar with limited raw talent, why can't we all?

On American Idol we've watched the likes of William Hung become stars (for all of 15 minutes perhaps, but that's longer than most of us get) by staging egregiously bad auditions. Rebecca Black nabbed a YouTube sensation, a spot in a Katy Perry video and months of media coverage for singing a bad song ("Friday") badly. But who cares if the song sucks? At least it got us talking. In Miley's eyes, if a "performer" provokes people and gets them talking, then said performer has done his or her job, right?

In Miley's defense, she said "performer," not "artist," though I'm certain that she considers herself to be the latter, too. I keep reading comments by people other than Miley and Cher who take the banal "It is what it is" approach -- She made us look! -- justifying low-brow means to the same low-brow end (the attention of the masses), all in the name of celebrity, which should never be confused with artistry.

Yes, the best art provokes and creates a dialogue, but not in lieu of or at the expense of artistry itself. Aside from the nicely sung verses of "Wrecking Ball," I haven't seen or heard anything approaching art in anything Miley has done in 2013.

That's a lot less than I can say for someone like Adele. Just a few years ago, Adele became the biggest female singer in the world with neither a whiff of controversy nor a single exposed cheek other than the two above her neck. All she did was shut up and sing. Miley's one-time BFF Taylor Swift might date famous bad boys for material, but when she scored her own first Hot 100 chart-topper one year ago with "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," it was all about the song (love it or hate it -- and I still hate it). Swift's career, shockingly, remains free of scandal, controversy, or spare, bare body parts, and we have been talking about her for several years straight now.

Here's the cold, hard truth about celebrity: If you're willing to make an ass of yourself, or go to prison, anyone can get people talking, or, as naive Miley put it, "make history." Dzhokhar Tsarnaev got on the cover of Rolling Stone by blowing up the Boston Marathon on April 20. Aaron Alexis entered the annals of the notorious by shooting 12 people to death on Monday in Washington D.C. Either one of them could rip a page from the fictional celebrity diary of General Hospital's serial-killer artist Franco (a character originally played by James Franco and now played by Roger Howarth) and call their murderous actions "art," justifying it by saying all those people died for their "art," but it's still cold-blooded murder.

I'm not saying that anything Miley has done comes even close to approaching the heinousness of those crimes (like Cher said, she didn't commit a felony), but my point is that getting people talking and making history is not hard, nor is it always admirable. Getting people talking and making history for positive reasons, purely on the strength of what you create, is.

One of my Facebook friends called Alexis my twin on my Timeline (presumably because my Facebook friend, who is also black and thus presumably could get away with making such a race-based claim, sees some physical resemblance, though I'm hoping it was an in-joke that I just didn't get). That's certainly not the kind of attention I desire. Nor would I want to get people in Rome looking at me and talking about me and remembering me by walking through Piazza Venezia, down Via dei Fori Imperiali, past the ruins, right up to the Colosseo in the nude. I could call that sort of street performance "art," but ultimately, it would just be me walking around Rome without any clothing on.

The real work of art would be the Colosseo, which has been attracting people and getting them talking for centuries. It's history that's made history without ever resorting to twerking, sticking out its tongue, or taking off a stitch of clothing.

A few days ago, my friend Lori compared Meryl Streep, whom she recently encountered in an elevator in New York City, to a Roman ruin, for her natural, vintage elegance. Miley may have millions of YouTube hits and, now, a No. 1 hit to go along with all of our attention, but she and the rest of Generation Y are going to have to work a lot harder -- which will begin with not trying quite so hard -- to approach even a fraction of the elegance and artistry of a Meryl Streep, or a Roman ruin.

No comments: