Four lessons from the talentless, cynical huckster Miley Cyrus

It would be easy to pick on Miley Cyrus, she being the One Who Would Writhe Her Way to the Twerking Throne. It would also be easy, and understandable, to lament her recent—what shall we call it?—performance/lap dance at MTV Music Video awards (say, didn’t MTV stop airing music videos in 1993 or so?). If you’ve seen it, you likely don’t want to again; if you haven’t seen it, don’t bother. Please don’t bother.

Victor Davis Hanson both laments and analyzes in an NRO essay yesterday, “Miley Cyrus and Ugly Sex”:

An older generation used to call the boredom of bad habits “reaching rock bottom”; the present variant perhaps is “jumping the shark” — that moment when the tiresome gimmicks no longer work, and the show is over.

In a moral sense, Miley Cyrus reached that tipping point for America, slapping us into admitting that most of our popular icons are crass, talentless bores, and that our own tastes, which created them, lead nowhere but to oblivion.

After all, what does an affluent and leisured culture do when it has nothing much to rebel against?

A good question. And a question worth pondering, as Hanson ably does. But of interest to me here is what Cyrus had to say about her tasteless tease, and what is says about what so many Americans apparently find important and meaningful in life. Three days after acting like a porn star on crack in a stuffed animal store, the young Cyrus provided this deep insight (warning: tasteless stuff everywhere) into the matter:

I don’t pay attention to the negative. Because I’ve seen how this plays out. How many times have we seen this play out in pop music? You know what happens. Madonna’s done it. Britney’s done it. … Anyone who performs, that’s what your looking for; you’re wanting to make history. Me and Robin [Thicke] said the whole time, “You know we’re going to make history right now.” It’s amazing, I think, now we’re three days later and people are still talking about it. They’re overthinking it. You’re thinking about it more than I thought about it when I did it. Like, I didn’t even think about it, ’cause that’s just me.

Cyrus is going to be roundly mocked by some for these silly comments, but I think she’s provided a modest service for those folks who are scratching their heads, asking, “Why? Wha…? Huh?” How so? Because she outlined, without resorting to philosophical jargon or esoteric analogies (as if she could resort to such), the basic worldview of so many twenty-somethings (and thirty-somethings). And that worldview consists of these basic premises and assumptions.

1. Reality is maleable and words are merely means by which to mold said reality. Cyrus claims to not pay attention to “the negative”, but she clearly is quite tuned in to the negative, as her comments indicate. Yes, this likely reveals that typical trait of most young rebels without a cause: vehemently insist you don’t care what anyone thinks while constantly and obsessively predicating all actions and comments on what other people (especially older people in positions of authority) think or say about you. But I also think she believes, as so many others do, that she is free and clear of any consequences of her acts and actions by virtue of simply saying none of the reactions matter to her. Put another way, she lives on a one-way street, and all the traffic moves from her to everyone else. It helps, of course, that she works in an industry in which any publicity is good publicity. On the other hand, she works in an industry in which performers like herself are as disposable as diapers and are usually treated with less respect than are dirty diapers once their “entertaining” shelf life has expired.

It’s easy to think this “create my own reality” mentality is mostly found in “Hollywood” and the “entertainment industry”, if only we could rid ourselves of those cursed entities. However, this “make it up and live it up” perspective is far more pervasive than that; I would argue it is about as mainstream as can be. It was certainly around when I was a teen in the 1980s, but it has now reached heights (well, lows) that are as mindboggling as they are depressing.

2. History began when she was born. Chronological snobbery has been in fashion for decades, even centuries, but when someone talks about “making history” by feigning sex on an awards show watched by 10 million people, well, history may actually be dead. Or at least choking on the fumes of the post-modern, post-moral limo. It is nearly endearing how Cyrus expresses her amazement that after having apparently made history, people are still talking about her perfomance three days later. What sort of sense of the Bigger Picture can such a person really possess? How thick is the bubble she lives in? But, in fairness to Cyrus, how different is she in this regard from so many younger people (and, increasingly, middle-aged folks like myself) who flit from tweet to Facebook post to e-mail to text to tweet to post, etc., etc.? Constantly. Obsessively. 24/7.

One of the lessons of history should be humility, for studying history provides a sense of persective that can, and should, inform our understanding of the temporal realm and our inevitable entrance into the realm of the world to come. Oh, sure, there is the History channel and some “based on real events” movies, but what is the basic attitude of, say, a 25-year-old toward history and the various currents of wisdom that have endured (at least in some quarters) down through the centuries? Read on.

3. Thinking is out; provoking is in. Mark Bauerlein, in his book, The Dumbest Generation (Penguin, 2008), writes about how the digital age has brought about a new disdain for reading and thinking that is nearly shocking in its brazen insolence. “Earlier generations,” he writes, “resented homework assignments, of course, and only a small segment of each dove into the intellectual currents of the time, but no generation trumpeted a-literacy (knowing how to read, but choosing not to) as a valid behavior of their peers. … Today’s rising generation thinks more highly of its lesser traits. It wears anti-intelletualism on its sleeve, pronouncing book-reading an old fashioned custom, and it snaps at people who rebuke them for it.” While Cyrus was not, of course, talking about reading, she was saying something notable, and obviously negative, about thinking—that is, trying to understand and comprehend the motives and purposes of her performance. Which brings us to the final point.

4. Logic is for losers. This is closely connected to #1 and #3. Note that Cyrus says, on one hand, that she and co-provocateur Robin Thicke (a 36-year-old married man and father!) spoke about “making history”, but on the other hand, she put no thought into what she did. And that those who do “think about it” are, apparently, a sorry lot. Notice also how she cites her predecessors in crimes against morality and good taste (“Madonna”! Britney Spears! What a hall of heroines! She really does study history!), but then acts as if her act was unique, one-of-a-kind, historical. Or consider how she claims to not care what people think when it is obvious to anyone with half a brain and all of their clothes on that if there is one thing she cares about it, it is what people think of her. It might be that she would happily perform semi-nude for an empty room, but I doubt it.

This past year, I’ve spoken to some college students (smart, thoughtful ones), and they have each said the same thing: there is a palpable disdain for logic, reason, and sound thinking among most of their peers. Reason is considered oppressive; logic is deigned outdated; intellectual pursuits are found untried and unbecoming of a generation that has been relentlessly praised for being bright and beautiful just because they are always emotioning with deep passion and feeling with strong feelings. Consider the challenge of evangelizing a large swath of the population who think they are smarter than you simply because they exist and that your Catholic beliefs are stupid simply, um, because they are. (And don’t argue otherwise. Only haters argue.)

Finally, isn’t it a bit strange that no one really talks about Miley Cyrus as a singer? Is it because she cannot sing? (Actually, she can sing, but in a bland and mediocre way, just like thousands of “American Idol” hopefuls.) The only talent involved is getting attention for doing something on television that takes place in strip clubs all across the country every night of the week. Part of the blame, surely, can be placed at the feet of new technologies. I must confess that when I was a young teen, back in the early days of MTV, I thought music videos were “cool” and so much more. Little did I realize what role they would play in creating a flood of “music” that is not even music. But there is plenty of blame to spread around, especially among those of us who consume the crud.

The poet (and critic, composer, and teacher) Dana Gioia noted the following a few years ago:

Everything now is entertainment. And the purpose of this omnipresent commercial entertainment is to sell us something. American culture has mostly become one vast infomercial. … But we must remember that the marketplace does only one thing—it puts a price on everything.

The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us.

Cyrus and Company (the many, many people making money off of her twerking ways) are cynical hucksters constantly peddling stuff, stuff, and more stuff. Their lives are essentially a continual informercial and their wares are themselves: enticing, empty creatures whose cynicism is matched by our consumerism. Having little interest in reality (in what really is), ignoring history and real culture, and disdaining thought and reason, they cannot provide anything resembling a “cogent view of the good life.” But they can provide us with some food for thought, even if it is downright tasteless and impossible to swallow.

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About Carl E. Olson 1201 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.