Keeping true to my fashionable self, I’ve arrived late to the party. A brief recap for those who have been living on Mars, or who are too concerned with other more important things (but we’ll get to that): Miley Cyrus has been getting progressively provocative in the past year, culminating (so far) in a performance at this week’s MTV Video Music Awards that has touched off a firestorm of commentary. The ensuing conversations have touched on a variety of narratives: Miley is out of control, music is becoming morally bankrupt, pop stars have become empty vessels for sheer commerce, and the cultural relevance of twerking (and debates over what exactly it is), dominate the unfiltered screaming hall that the Internet has become.
In the past few days, especially after the Obama administration’s announcement of an impending military strike against Syria, a new voice has pushed its way to the front risers: why are we even talking about this? How has this become the dominant cultural conversation? Why does our mainstream media push this story as aggressively as they do? The truth, as usual, is kind of simple and kind of sad.
We have no one to blame but ourselves. As the gatekeepers of media crumbled, following the rise of Napster, which arguably shoved American culture into its current form (ultra-customizable, fast, and cheap), we became more and more spoiled, more and more insistent that as consumers, we had the high ground. It wasn’t enough that our parents were gone, now we needed our own, personally-curated party experience. Nothing else would do. The media, and by association artists (because much as we’d like to pretend, artists ARE the media) bowed to the pressure, thoroughly cowed by a new technologically savvy customer base that didn’t really care what they got as long as it was delivered in the method they wanted.
We grew lazy, made fat by our own appetites for novelty and spoiled by our indulgent corporate parents. They fed us a never-ending diet of memes, high concept films, glossy and pre-packaged pop stars and rappers that were barely distinguishable from one another. The crushing blow delivered to the CD industry by Napster turned out to be a blessing in disguise: without the need for album sales, there was no reason to treat signed musicians as anything more than a hype investment: interchangeable parts for use in the groaning arena performance machine. All the gatekeepers had to do now was keep an ear to the ground and adjust the pitch accordingly, which wasn’t hard, since we had long since taken to various social media platforms to register our every thought and whim in the most public manner possible.
This is the fallout of the Internet age: a young girl who was jammed into the Disney roster once she was barely out of puberty, has stripped off most of her clothing and paraded around the room like a child who just discovered her genitalia. The Miley Cyrus “fiasco” wasn’t shocking because of the skin showed, or the ersatz eroticism on display. It was shocking because it was so heartbreakingly cynical and transparent. Every move of Cyrus’ “transformation” has been calculated in order to mine the most clicks and shares. Camille Paglia wrote a great piece about Cyrus’ inability to understand the true value of sensuality and mystery, and while I’m inclined to agree with her outstanding piece for Time, I don’t even think Miley is in this for what she thinks amounts to an artistic evolution. It’s a business strategy. If a product becomes stale, change the name, change the box, change the color. In the age of social media, after all, the on thing an artist can always trade on is the inherent publicity produced via petty outrage.
By that same turn, the news outlets that reported on this shockingly dull spectacle and the ensuing wave of requisite pearl-clutching really don’t deserve the torches and pitchforks they’ve been fending off ever since CNN reported the Boston Marathon bombing 20 minutes after the story broke on Twitter. They’re just keeping up with our demands for up-to-the-minute, curated by the whims of the Internet, cultural osmosis. The fact that people are actually moaning about CNN reporting on this is both infuriating and sad: individuals don’t understand that they are the ones who forced the hands of legacy media institutions into reporting on crap stories, and they seem to not understand that in a world bombarded by electronic stimulus, the story you want is just around the corner. If Syria was really that important to you, you only have to click on the “world news” tab of any major media website. Or use google. Or go to r/worldnews. Or turn on MSNBC. The possibilities are endless, but we’ve grown so obese with entitlement that we can’t even be bothered to change the channel. We’re throwing tantrums because mom and dad caved to our wishes for an ice cream dinner, and now it’s making us sick.
It should be added that the upside of all this is a growing number of independent and underground art scenes that are putting out terrific and challenging work. Like every generation, the good stuff is out there, you just have to find it (it’s just that the likelihood of finding the good stuff without looking is dwindling more and more), and in a lot of cases, you have to pay for it. What a concept.
I’d like to say the denizens of the Internet have two choices, and then make a sanctimonious point about growing up and bettering your consumption habits, but the fact of the matter is, denizens of the Internet have all the choices in the world, they’re just liable to take the path of least resistance in almost every case, and then complain about it.