Artist or Whore? Where is the Line?

By now, we’ve all had a few days to digest Miley Cyrus’ so-called performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. The general consensus among most carbon-based life forms is that it was disgusting, revolting, and/or degrading. Others, celebrities mostly, have expressed shock, while still others have said it was perhaps nothing more than uncomfortable to watch.

I’ll admit, I did not watch the VMAs live. I haven’t for several years as its continued to degenerate into more of a farcical sideshow than a legitimate platform that awards the most creative and talented musicians in the business. But by Monday morning, once my social media feeds had melted down, I had to see what all the fuss was about and prepared myself for something my eyes had never before seen on entertainment television.

At the conclusion of the video clip, I did another search to see if what I had watched was indeed the actual performance that everyone had been talking about. And indeed it was.

My very next thought was, “Uhh…so?”

This is a nation that has had a front row seat to the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera – all provocative self-touchers, most of whom enjoy scantily-clad, sometimes even flesh-colored attire on stage – and yet this performance was considered shocking?

I don’t get it. I really don’t. I’m not endorsing Cyrus’ performance but what did everyone expect, ballet? The VMAs is a sexually-charged event, not some G-rated family atmosphere. From what I understand, Cyrus’ employment of the infamous “twerk,” a move that requires one to bend at a right angle and gyrate one’s posterior, appears to have set her apart from several of her VMA predecessors. But is that really accurate? It seems to me that there’s still this American fantasy permeating like a silent disease throughout our culture that actors who starred in Disney productions are somehow more wholesome and pure than their non-Disney counterparts. As a result, when they come of age and, for lack of a better word, rebel, we just can’t handle it.

But who’s to blame? The Miley Cyruses, Lindsay Lohans, and Britney Spearses (yes, let’s not forget she was once a Mouseketeer) of the world who’ve let us down by delving into worlds of drugs, promiscuity, and celebrity insanity? Or us, the consumers, for demanding that type of erotic entertainment from our young female pop artists?

According to a good friend of mine, “Britney tried to draw the audience into her sexuality and, for the greater part, succeeded. Miley tried to do the same thing and universally failed, not because Britney is attractive and Miley is not, but because there’s a difference between seduction and crack-whorage.”

When it comes right down to it, I don’t disagree that, based on raw skills alone, Britney Spears and some of her contemporaries are probably more talented performers than Miley Cyrus. But where exactly do we draw the line between “being a little slutty and being a classless crack whore,” as another friend put it? Does it simply come down to those who twerk vs. those who don’t? Is Miley’s bad press merely the result of a poor choreographer? Is it the good-girl Disney star image that we demand must be maintained by those who take up that mantle? Or have we become so desensitized to overly-sexualized pop performances that we’ve now resorted to panning those who move and shake one way and extolling those who do so just a little bit differently?

I’ve talked to women who’ve worked in strip clubs, several of whom acknowledged feeling used and abused. The number one reason they gave for being in that line of work was that the money is good. Can we really say that a lot of the entertainment presented in pop music, especially by female performers, is all that much different from soft-core porn, paying its performers handsomely while simultaneously demanding them to engage in orgies with their audiences? Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, et al…sure, their styles vary, and people are wired toward different preferences, but their general sex appeal is the same. Is it not that way with the porn industry and its consumers as well? Supply and demand: the American way.

Look, I’m no prude and I’m by no means anti-sex. I’m a huge music lover and enjoy watching artists of all kinds perform their music, especially those who are not afraid to honestly explore the many nuances of human brokenness, sorrow, enjoyment, and yes, sexuality in their lyrics. I am, however, entirely opposed to women being degraded or choosing to degrade themselves. The shock and revulsion at Miley Cyrus’ recent performance may be warranted, but maybe so too should the performances of many others in the same industry who have mostly been given a free pass because their acts are somehow considered more tastefully done. Perhaps, as another friend of mine put it, what we ought to be doing as a culture is “lumping ‘pretty’ sexual perversion and ‘icky’ sexual perversion in the same category because neither is morally productive.”

Alan Atchison is the Co-Editor of Geek Goes Rogue. He is an Online Editor at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also pursuing a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing. He is currently writing a novel titled Hitting for the Cycle, a baseball-infused story about a couple’s journey toward parenthood amidst infertility. He lives with his wife and daughter in Philadelphia, PA.


About Alan Atchison

Alan Atchison is the Co-Editor of Geek Goes Rogue. He is an Online Editor at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also pursuing a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing. He is the author of the forthcoming novel, Hitting for the Cycle, a baseball-infused story about a couple's journey toward parenthood amidst infertility. He lives with his wife and daughter in Philadelphia, PA.

  • sujovian

    since you linked to the CNN article, I figure it was only reasonable to follow up with this article: http://www.theonion.com/articles/let-me-explain-why-miley-cyrus-vma-performance-was,33632/

    • Alan Atchison

      Haha, that’s hilarious. And true.

  • sujovian

    [Perhaps, as another friend of mine put it, what we ought to be doing as a culture is “lumping ‘pretty’ sexual perversion and ‘icky’ sexual perversion in the same category because neither is morally productive.”]

    I disagree with this, because I dont think “sexual perversion” is black and white. Sure, some things we can universally say are perverted, like pedophilia, but many others are a personal “what works for you”. BDSM, Sodomy, Role Play, partial (or full) nudity etc. whether exercised in public or in private, any or may be interpreted by any individual as perverted or not. And what one person considers “pretty” and another considers “icky” will vary dramatically across the cultural spectrum.

    Miley’s performance at the VMAs appears to have falling into the “icky” category for a much greater segment of the american public than other historically notable overtly-sexual performances on that stage, which is the cause for the reaction. For some viewers, I’m sure all are “icky”, and they’re probably not the target audience for the VMAs. For others, Miley’s performance was “pretty”, or at least “enticing”, and that’s probably the Least Common Denominator viewer the show, the choreographer, Miley and her management were targeting. I think what we’ve all learned is that in this case the performance fell well outside the standard deviation of the cultural tolerance spectrum, and solidly into “icky”.

    • Alan Atchison

      Fair enough, sujovian. Have we met? :P You’re right that individual perceptions are what they are, but I was speaking mostly in broad categories based on the largest common reactions to these individual artists and examining why certain artists are nearly universally viewed in certain ways and other artists in other ways.


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