If you still believe Miley Cyrus is just a rebel without a cause, then you’re not paying enough attention.
I’m reading this book right now, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. It’s 446 pages of testimony from the people who engineered the movement that redefined rock, and in between the accounts of drug binges and depraved sex, they talk about music. After seeing the Bangerz tour, this quote from Patti Smith won’t leave my brain:
“Physical presentation in performing is more important than what you’re saying. If your quality of intellect is high, and your love of the audience is evident, and you have a strong physical presence, you can get away with anything.”
Last night, at the Izod Center in New Jersey, Miley Cyrus got away with everything.
Before even setting foot in the arena, the parking lot was already affirmation of Miley’s enormous influence on youth culture. After reading enough thinkpieces where adults argue about the credibility of her act, one almost forgets that her core fan base is teenage girls—but they were out in droves, most of them emulating their idol to a tee.
The situation was initially alarming, and briefly uncomfortable. You’d see a pack of girls not even old enough for driver’s permits show up in an SUV chauffeured by someone’s mother and hop out with lipstick, cut-off shorts, and bare midriffs. I never lost sight of the fact that I was one of the oldest and blackest people at the concert, but I did change my tune on the appropriateness of the attendees’ attire. Conservative media wants you to believe that Miley’s a bad influence because she’s comfortable with her body and sings about MDMA, but as a teen, I was influenced by male artists who said and did much worse and it was rarely questioned.
If anything, Miley Cyrus is liberating. She’s a young woman encouraging girls to own their sexuality (as opposed to the traditional role of being reactive to male sexual development), and that’s cool. Sometimes it’s contrived when dudes are super feminist, and I’m not trying to be that as much as I’m just a fan of progress. Before a single song was played, I saw progress in the audience last night. While scouring the concessions for beer (this was clearly not the type of show where I’d find someone in my row rolling a blunt like I had at Kid Cudi weeks prior), I asked one mom, Kathy Trela, for her take on the entire spectacle:
“I’m totally okay with it. It’s part of growing. My kids danced since they were two. It’s about performing and controlling the audience at the age that she’s at, and if you don’t appreciate art then you won’t appreciate her. I’m an ‘80s girl, so to me she’s our Madonna of the new era. My daughters know it’s a performance and this is not how you conduct yourself on the street. It’s part of being an artist and it individualizes everybody.”
She’s a young woman encouraging girls to own their sexuality (as opposed to the traditional role of being reactive to male sexual development), and that’s cool
I’ve seen a lot of superstars perform, and the crowd always goes crazy when the artist hits the stage, but it’s usually an older, more gender diverse crowd that cheers with a “happy to be here” excitement. There was something uniquely compelling about watching a 21-year-old woman play to a crowd of women who idolize her. There you had a woman who’s been shamed and scapegoated by so many facing a packed stadium of admirers, and she repeatedly expressed gratitude for their support. That’s where the whole Patti Smith “your love of the audience is evident” thing comes in, because then it’s more than a show; it’s a personal connection where boundaries are broken and vulnerabilities are on display, and you can get away with anything.
In Miley’s case, she bounced her ass on a green hooptie. She grabbed her crotch while surrounded by dwarfs and exclusively black dancers. She cried over the death of her dog. She encouraged “two fucking hot girls” to make out with each other during “Adore You.” She ranted about how Bob Dylan and The Flaming Lips inspire her. She spit water on the crowd. Marijuana and promethazine/codeine imagery decorated her stage. None of that would produce a scandal here. This was an environment where Miley could let her guard down and she let us know that, saying, “I’ve been told I’m a little sick and twisted, but somehow this makes me feel better.”
It wasn’t just spectacle, though. Miley Cyrus has hits, and from an objective standpoint, she can really fucking sing. This wasn’t your bubblegum pop, lip-synching extravaganza of yore. Sure, she soared through the air on a huge, aggressively phallic hot dog, but she also belted through those octaves on “Do My Thang” with an impressive degree of professionalism. It was funny, then, to run into this bro who wasn’t sold on Miley’s talents—apparently he’d been subjected to the concert by force—and was being extremely vocal about it in the bathroom.
In a desperate attempt to bond with the boys, this guy at the urinal starts talking, apropos of nothing, to everyone in the vicinity: “I wish it was football season. I wish I was pissing at MetLife stadium. How many of you are here because of your fucking girlfriends?”
And it was like, I get what you’re doing. You feel the need to assert your masculinity in this setting because the performer was on Disney and there are mostly girls and flamboyant gay dudes in attendance and you can’t handle it. But no one cares; grow the fuck up. It was just so lame and basic to me. It’s these dudes in their backwards frat caps and boot-cut jeans who reinforce the paranoia and patriarchy that facilitates the harassment of a woman like Miley Cyrus. If you’re going to do random bathroom interactions, be like the guy at that Cudi concert I was talking about who was in there raving about “Internal Bleeding” to anyone who’d listen. Keep it positive.
Back in my seat, it was all positive. Watching thousands of people lose their shit to “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” and “Party in the USA” reminds you that those songs are massive, important anthems. They’re cultural touchstones. They’re the songs that we’ll be telling kids about the same way some girl’s dad talked to me about seeing Bruce Springsteen 30 years ago. I appreciated how so many parents at the show seemed to understand this, because the way things are framed, they’re supposed to be Miley’s biggest opponents. But no. On the way out, I caught up with another mom, 42-year-old Nancy Page, and she had this to say:
That gives me hope, because the response to Miley’s VMAs performance was a low point. It all stems from this delusional notion that women should be reserved and void of confidence. Fuck that. I have sisters. I want them to go out into the world and demand what they’re worth the way I was always pushed to. When I see Nicki Minaj explaining why she deserves premium amenities, or Rihanna snapping on paparazzi, or Miley Cyrus shocking America at an awards show, I can’t help but think of them as great role models. Justin Bieber gets to wear his brashness as a badge of honor and a mark of resolve, and I simply think bold women should be able to do the same without people freaking out about it.
“I get it. I love it. She’s breaking away from Hannah Montana and being who she was meant to be, not who someone’s making her out to be. She feels like expressing herself. It’s the job we do at home. My daughter knows that when Miley’s rolling around on the bed and touching herself that it’s inappropriate and just for entertainment, but I still love it. Kids know those words are bad and it’s just for fun. You know what’s right.”
I want women to be brazen and audacious because that passive, subservient shit that civilization has been trying to cast on them for centuries is ancient and boring. Build an empire, curse some motherfuckers out, and piss off everyone in the proximity in the process. Miley Cyrus has done it expertly and I enjoyed her show, because I know that after watching her do whatever she wants on the Bangerz tour, at least a few thousand girls will stop letting boys have all the fun and go do the same.
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Ernest Baker is a writer living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.