Unless you’ve been on a media cleanse, the details of Miley Cyrus’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) are probably something you wish you could erase from your consciousness. She emerged onstage from the abdomen of a giant teddy bear, waggling her tongue and gyrating lasciviously. She humped and gestured crudely at the bodies of her black female backup dancers. Watching her nude-coloured pleather bikini and her antics with a giant foam finger, even the pop stars in the room, for whom outré spectacles are a job requirement, seemed embarrassed (Drake averted his eyes; Taylor Swift covered hers). And in one grotesque swoop, the Miley Cyrus of 2013 severed ties for good with Hannah Montana, the squeaky-clean Disney character that made her famous.
A highly publicized scandal is a rite of passage for any alumnus of the Disney talent incubator. Shortly before the VMAs, Lindsay Lohan—whose breakthrough role was in Disney’s Parent Trap remake—sat down with Oprah to discuss her latest stint in rehab. Former Disney Channel star Demi Lovato, most recently a judge on The X Factor, took a time-out to manage a host of post-adolescent struggles, including self-mutilation and eating disorders. Selena Gomez, arguably the most well-adjusted of the lot, starred as a girl gone wild in this year’s Spring Breakers, directed by indie provocateur Harmony Korine. Like so many former members of Club Mickey, all have toiled to shed their Magic Kingdom halos.
Cyrus has arguably rebranded herself more effectively and efficiently than any of them. Within 12 hours of the VMAs, her grimacing face and twerking posterior dominated not just entertainment websites, but news outlets around the world. Kanye West, a man who rarely passes up an incendiary marketing opportunity, reportedly reached out to her to collaborate on a remix of his racially and sexually charged track Black Skinhead.
Cyrus has graduated from performer to meme, and through that process, she’s exposed some essential ugliness about pop culture and how we consume it. There was lots to loathe in her performance—her use of black women’s bodies as stage props, that repulsive foam finger. Critics rushed to slam her for a host of valid sins, including, as New York magazine’s Jody Rosen put it, for putting on “a minstrel show routine.”
But lest we forget, Cyrus isn’t the first artist to showcase crudeness onstage. Before Miley, there was Ke$ha, the chart-topping dance-pop urchin who happily drank her own urine on a reality-TV show, and Lady Gaga, who just files her demonstrations of sexual licentiousness under performance art. Before Miley, Gwen Stefani corralled a harem of Harajuku girls—an entourage of Japanese women whose sole purpose, it seemed, was to look cute, giggle occasionally, and bolster Stefani’s globetrotting fashionista cred. And, of course, there’s Justin Bieber, whose entire persona is rooted in a carefully curated pastiche of black Southern culture, from his argot to his swagger.
What sets Cyrus apart is her wilful ignorance. Utterly clueless, she told the (black) songwriters behind her current hit, We Can’t Stop, she wanted to make an album that “just feels black.” In the video, she shakes her ass for a crush of admiring black women. Long before the VMAs, she was drawing on “ratchet culture”—vernacular for poor, black culture—bristling when she was criticized for it. She’s blissfully unaware and artless in her thievery. In this, she could be any number of kids on Tumblr, grinning with grills and twerking their hearts out.
Cyrus may have sloughed off the Disney-sanctioned version of femininity for another cartoonish form of womanhood, but she’s fumbled the execution. It’s this that many of her Twitter critics took exception to. “Jesus have some self respect. There’s called being sexy, then just darn ugly,” one wrote. In the court of public opinion, that’s how Cyrus truly tanked: It’s not that her act was too sexual, or too racist, or even too absurd—it’s that she didn’t look good doing it. And yet that may be the point. For a former Disney princess, being unpretty may be the best way to bury the past for good.