There were many “moments” at last Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, but one stood out. Let’s call it the tipping point.
Miley Cyrus, the 20-year-old pop star, ex-Disney Channel princess, and aspiring Gene Simmons impersonator, was doing what so many VMA performers had done before her: floating an absent half-performance atop a confounding clamor of backup dancers, backing tracks, and pulsing lights.
To the tune of “We Can’t Stop” — a 3½-minute wallop of mollycoddling, party-starting, tongue-wagging pop insouciance designed to airlift the Hannah out of Montana — Cyrus paraded down the catwalk flanked by a gaggle of black female backup dancers, some dressed in burdensome teddy bear costumes. At one point, she excitedly slapped one of their rear ends as though she were selecting a frozen turkey. It was weird and discomforting. Rihanna sat stonily in her seat, unimpressed.
Abruptly, the medley shifted into Robin Thicke’s song of the summer, “Blurred Lines.” Cyrus swiftly moved from making playthings of her dancers to making one of herself, tearing off her teddy bear bustier to reveal a skin-tone bikini, tipping over and wriggling at the waist (in what was intended to read as expertly executed twerking), and eagerly grinding herself into Thicke’s swiveling, married, nearly-twice-her-age crotch. (That he had apparently borrowed his suit from Beetlejuice only heightened the routine’s creep factor.)
One thing about Outrageous VMA Moments (the telecast’s raison d’etre for going on 30 years) is that they don’t just cross lines, they spotlight them — they’re divisive. Whether it’s Madonna’s floor-humping, button-pushing 1984 debut of “Like a Virgin” (or her 2003 face-sucking session with Britney Spears, for that matter), or Nirvana’s self-destructive run through “Lithium” in 1992, or Kanye West’s Swift-squashing interruption in 2009 — “controversy” at the VMAs tends to at least give viewers a chance to end up on one side or the other.
This time, there doesn’t seem to be much of an argument. Young people hated it. Old people hated it. Pop lovers, hip-hop heads, fashionistas, feminists, parents, critics from all walks came together in a frothy weeklong aftermath of not just Miley-hate, but full-on disdain for the network itself. It was actually kind of inspiring.
MTV reaching peak lame could turn out to be a good thing. For once, we all seem to have landed on the same side, and there might be enough of us to (finally) demand something better from our pop stars. Failing that, there’s still comfort to be had in knowing what lines need blurring, and which ones need to be made clearer.