Monday, August 26, 2013

Miley, you're no Madonna.

When I was 21, I realized the existence of Madonna, and my life was forever changed.

It was 1984, and I was spending my days at Drake University, learning how to be a journalist, and spending my nights also at Drake University, learning to drink cheap wine and have deep, deep discussions about Prince’s “Purple Rain” lyrics while lying on my friend Brett’s unvacuumed carpet. All told, it was a good time. And it became even better thanks to MTV and a video for a little song called “Borderline.”

I remember watching it in the bar in Drake’s student union and actually developing goose bumps; there she was, looking the way I wanted to look, and sort of did look, I thought at the time: obviously Italian. Check. Wearing a lace headband in wavy hair with dark roots. Check. Rocking a jean jacket and neon pumps. Check, and check.  I developed my first girl-crush, and I went all-out. In fact, the following year, when I received a big award at my school’s journalism banquet, I dressed exactly like her, and I wasn’t even trying to be ironic. (Watch the “Lucky Star” video, and you’ll see my outfit.)

Therein lies the problem: When classmates think back to the 1985 version of me (I don’t know why they would, but if they did), they’d think not of my work or of my editing award, but of the fact that I took the Madonna thing over the top and really sort of disrespected what was a dressy, serious event. Of course that embarrasses me.

Thankfully, though, the journalism banquet wasn’t nationally televised, so my faux pas was confined to one room and maybe a hundred people. Miley Cyrus wasn’t so lucky last night; her antics on MTV’s Video Music Awards were broadcast round the globe, and if she can manage to retain some semblance of a career after that debacle, I’ll be surprised.

As I watched, I wanted to tell Miley these things: Put some clothes on. Quit twerking; twerking is not sexy. It's gross. Get the foam finger away from your crotch. And realize that one day, you’ll be 50.

A meme went around Facebook recently that informed people of a certain age how lucky they were that social media didn’t exist when we were Miley’s age. Point taken. But it exists now, and Miley – or for certain, someone in her entourage – should have had the presence of mind to say, “What you’re planning is a really bad idea.”

Most 20-year-olds know only two things: They’re not going to grow old, and they’re not going to die.  So to some degree – a small degree – you can excuse Miley for perhaps not thinking about how her old-lady self will one day view her youthful grossness.

But then, other performers her age get it. You don’t see Selena Gomez licking back-up dancers. Katy Perry manages to keep her lady parts covered. And even the much-maligned Taylor Swift’s only transgression to date, which also occurred last night, involved her mouthing the words “Shut the f--- up” while her most recent ex was onstage. (Necessary? Probably not, but I did laugh – first, because one doesn’t expect Swift to have a potty mouth, and also because the guy does seem like somewhat of a tool.)

And even if Miley didn’t think things through, what about the show’s producers? Chances are she was no more refined in rehearsals. Sure, we’re all supposed to understand that she’s all about ditching her Hannah Montana image, but she could have chosen a classier way to emphasize that point; Justin Timberlake, after all, survived the Mickey Mouse Club with his dignity, and his pants, intact.

One could argue that Miley didn’t corner the market on risqué get-ups last night; after all, Lady Gaga was in the house. But Lady Gaga can raise eyebrows all she wants because in the end, the woman can sing.

And that brings us back to Madonna.  She can’t sing, and she’s not even a great dancer, but she has whatever “it” is – the thing that makes her an entertainer, the thing that bores her fashions and her hairstyles and her comments into people’s brains.  The thing that’s made her one of the world’s wealthiest women and allows her to occasionally make stupid statements and go without pants. She’s endured for 30 years, and she’s likely not done yet.

But, Miley, you didn’t channel Madonna last night. You may have been trying to, but what you did was try to play the oldest game in the book: offer your flesh in place of the talent you don’t have. And you didn’t even do that effectively, because the flesh you displayed looked pale and tired and rubbed raw by too many bong hits, bottles of Jack, convenience-store burritos and all-nighters.  

I can’t fathom where Miley’s parents or managers are in all this. But if she were my child, I’d do my best to wrap her in a blanket, take her home and feed her soup. I don’t know what I’d do after that, but I do know that as I watched Miley last night, Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” ran in a loop through my brain.  At worst, we can regard her performance as lewd and horrific; at best, we can hope someone responds to it as the cry for help it almost certainly was.

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