Like many other artists and musicians, I was saddened to see the tarted-up performance of Miley Cyrus on last night's VMAs. Like so many other young female vocalists who are breaking out of their adolescent persona, Ms. Cyrus chose (or was advised) to exploit her body for notoriety. Nothing novel in this, right? Not only is it almost expected in our hyper-sexualized culture, but it is also the norm since Madonna (think Brittany, Janet et al.)
And while I might wish that other young female performers embraced the career arc of Taylor Swift - who even in her exploration of her bad girl side never chose to degrade herself in public - why are we shocked? When marketing agents advise middle of the road super stores to sell leopard print bikinis to 6 year old girls - when we have lived through generations of seeing alluring and half naked women draped over automobiles to boost sales - when pop culture celebrates rape and degradation as a form of entertainment - when airlines like Korea Air serve up soft core pornography as an invitation to fly - why are we surprised when a young female singer shakes her booty in a nude bra as part of her dance routine before millions?
Three thoughts run through my mind:
+ First, who among us has not shared some form of breaking the rules as we come of age? It is not only natural, it is necessary for us to learn boundaries. Tightly controlled teens often go wild when they leave home for college - or the military - or move into their first apartment. Kids get drunk - and mostly learn from their hang overs. Highly chaste teens get laid - and start to sort out just how much of themselves they want to give away in the future. Young men and women try on outrageous hair styles, clothes, speech patterns and all the rest as they experiment with identities. So, I am not at shocked that Ms. Cyrus wanted to experiment with the scandalous as she tries to find a new style beyond pop fluff-chick with a country twang of her first incarnation. Clearly, she's not daddy's little girl anymore but who she will become remains uncertain.
+ Second, young female performers recognize that they possess an exciting albeit dangerous energy when they become overtly sexual on the stage. They have a power over their fans that is palpable and for young women who have not had much control over their lives this can be intoxicating. Who wouldn't want to use this new found power? At the same time, ruthless managers and bottom line confidants eager to cash in as quickly as possible often exploit the beauty and innocence of these young performers in a way that doesn't happen to young men. And without a grounded guide to shepherd them through these high times, all too often these young women find themselves eaten alive and then spit out as trash. We may all be tempted into Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame, but at what cost to our souls?
+ Third, while I would never advocate censorship - the cost and responsibility of living in a mostly free society is too precious to put into the hands of Big Brother or Sister - I do fret over how the two-thirds world will respond to yet another example of American excess. Janet Jackson's nipple, Brittany and Madonna's kiss, Miley Cyrus and her tongue: we really can do better! I long for the artistic ambassadors like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Or Bruce Springsteen. Or Cyndi Lauper. Not long ago I was speaking with a visitor from Pakistan who said something like: we do not want to raise our families in a culture like yours where young girls are turned into whores and young men become animals. I noted, of course, that while the United States did not have a monopoly upon misogyny - think of the horrible gang rapes in India or the honor murders in Pakistan - his point was valid. Too often what passes for culture in my beloved America looks like a violent, sex-crazed movement of ignorant, mean-spirited, fat and intolerant people jumping from one addiction to another interrupted only by a drug induced sleep.
So, today I pray grace and a touch of maturity might come to Ms. Cyrus - and a ton of other young female artists - sooner rather than later. Not only for the sake of their hearts, but for the advancement of their art. I really think Taylor Swift knows how to do it.
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