In an industry that converts any potential expression of rebellion into a toothless commodity of spectacle, Miley Cyrus, with Dead Petz, by fully embracing herself as an absurdity, performs a synthesis of self-expression with the very conditions that prefigure the impossibility of such, to produce something both entirely absent and violently immediate, both impossible and real; a silent, voiceless cry of pure defiance.
Taylor Swift came under fire recently for a tweet ‘war’ with Nicki Minaj; Nicki Minaj tweeted condemning the elevated status and recognition white women receive in the music industry. Taylor tweeted back, claiming that Minaj was “pit[ting] women against each other.”. This reaction is deeply problematic in a boring and predictable way. Swift is essentially representing a long history of an assimilationist upper-middle class white feminism; black voices can be counted as ‘feminist’ only if they do not undermine white empowerment as primary. Anything else would be a dangerous breach of solidarity.
Of course, it was really just a couple of passing comments on twitter, and is just as much a vacuous spectacle as every single other media reaction to the actions of celebrities; if you want real feminism, read a fucking book or throw a brick at parliament or something. But still, unlike most previous generations though history, the idols we worship are actually living godheads in a real sense, and commenting on and interpreting their mad whims is an important job for any cultural theorist who wants to engage with culture as it actually stands. plus it’s fun.
The question becomes then; why has Taylor Swift become such a celebrated cultural icon? and more vitally, one that is openly identified (by herself and others) as feminist? I hazard; partly as a backlash against even more insipid forces. (“she wrote 6 breakup songs? does that mean she has had relationships and/or the sex act six times? is this an appropriate role model for our daughters??”) But also because she speaks a positive message of sisterhood and self affirmation which is hard to oppose, even if it remains mostly empty rhetoric. Thirdly, -and this is perhaps key,- is that Swift, rather than playing into the media’s portrayal of her, maintains some form of authentic existence outside the circus of idols. Blank Space was seen as a challenge to the farce of scandal surrounding her, the simulacra of ‘Taylor Swift’ as a fictional entity. In the video she gives a very human face of manic obsession and a more real sexuality than is generally admitted into the empty choreography of music videos. Perhaps it could be seen as a deconstruction of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope; this is the ultimate conclusion of an existence that is a manic and hyper-real dream; a force of pure chaos and unrelenting destruction. (or you know, standing on horses and smashing cars.)
As is oft pointed out, there is a dialectical difficulty here. Pop icons such as Taylor are at once a platform for delivering an empowering message celebrating female sexual expression and empowerment. (and more generally, giving an articulation to a (potentially genuinely radical) youth culture.) However, at the same time, this is sold as a consumer product within a deeply gaze-based industry, and then again as a product of pure spectacle for media controversy, one that entirely infantilises whatever positive messages the original held. Blank Space, by bringing these simulations to light, Taylor-as-product-of-gaze and Taylor-as-media-infant, can work in part to unmask these pernicious lenses.
However, none of us really know Taylor Swift, or really care about her as any more than as a product of spectacle. Celebrities are zoo animals; sad creatures masturbating in cages. Sure, they can be self aware about this, but we only actually care as long as they keep wanking, so that we can watch transfixed and then abhor them for it later. for all intents and purposes, the difference between ‘the image’ and ‘the real’ is negligible when situated within a media-based social ontology.
Similarly, while Blank Space brings such institutional forces to light, it does not in any way succeed in undermining the logic it is situated within. Taylor remains just some fantasy image, lost in a castle in the centre of a labyrinth, for the silent male protagonist to give meaning to through his witnessing. the Spectre of Taylor turns this on its head only by revealing herself to be ‘a nightmare dressed like a daydream’; the dream, -the fantasy, the image,- is inverted, sure, but an image it remains. If this is feminism, it is a deeply pernicious kind, one that fails to question the gender categories thrust upon it, and in the end, simply reifies them and remains firmly confined within them. She laughs at herself as a product of her cage, but makes no effort to leave it.
This is the challenge; the celebrity idol is only able to speak through the mouthpiece of the industry that created it. To truly undermine the hegemony of the patriarchal, capitalistic consumer culture that it is situated within would require a radical form of self destruction. This is Taylor Swift’s limitation; by providing a narrative of body positivity and self empowerment for some minimal cache of petit white girls, this ‘empowerment’ remains a product to be sold by an industry dead set against any genuine systemic alteration, any actual liberation. Swift merely functions to repackage and re-encoding the same oppressive forces under a mildly different veneer. This is why Taylor is entirely wrong for attacking Nicki for trying to undermine her own self celebration; a truly radical perspective should invite attempts to dismantle the entrenched self affirmation of a narrow set of cosmopolitan white feminists. She cannot just invert the image of the image of ‘Taylor’ within Blank Space, no, Taylor needs to radically invert the forces of her own existence. The real Taylor, must, in turn, become something monstrous, challenging, and ultimately, un-assimilable. To truly challenge her place in the industry, she must aggressively, wholeheartedly, and authentically destroy herself. And this form of immanent deconstruction of both the facsimile and the real (because, again, here, the two are the same,) is Exactly what the force known as Miley Cyrus provides.
For a fair few of my male friends in Highschool, Hannah Montana was a perfect object of desire, an icon of sexual fantasy par excellence. After all, she was the same age as us. and hot. And hell, even a couple of her songs were alright. Now, as she runs around stage wearing nothing but a 12 inch strap-on, -which is, lets face it, all our 17 year old selves ever dreamed of :^),- the same crowd finds her entirely repulsive. and this should definitely be seen as testament to her success. When entertainment news tries to discuss her ‘embarrassing nipple-slip’, to shame and objectify her, it comes across as entirely laughable; her existence is one of pure absurdity, and is not encodable into a patriarchal ordering (or any sensible ordering of any kind for that matter)
Of course, her behaviour is still infantile, and it is still a spectacle. But gone is the call that this behaviour be enshrined as a hallmark for authenticity. rather, it is a challenge; where the Swift of Blank Space embraces the dualistic divide between her and her ‘nightmare’ mirror self, Cyrus, -like a true Hegelian,- synthesises the duality between her sexuality as self expression and her sexuality as spectacle, into something dialectically contradictory; and end logic of patriarchal sexualisation that the patriarchal gaze is itself repulsed by. Rather than dividing her true self and her reflected self, Miley becomes the mirror, and points society’s gaze back upon itself.
Swift advertised Bad Blood with the tweeted message that she “loved all girls”, while the video is merely a four minute meaningless assimilation of other artists into her label, and a tongue and cheek threat to any that defy her. Is it really tongue and cheek though? She has infamously copyrighted ‘Party Like It’s 1989’. A phrase, an identifier, that existed prior to her, has been coded into her. The threat in Bad Blood is very real; she is returning from the mount to bash the heads of any that choose to align with false idols. (Selena Gomez plays the golden calf)
If Swift is the king of the pantheon, then Miley is the black sheep, the trickster god, the Loki. On Swift’s accumulation of “musicians, actresses, models and entrepreneurs” into her liturgy, Miley comments “I’m not trying to be in the squad. None of my friends are famous and not because of any other reason than I just like real people,”
And there is credibility in her claim; Jesse Helt, a homeless man, -at the time escaping parole,- collected Miley’s video music award for wreaking ball at the 2014 VMA (by her design of course), making a speech about homeless youth to the hollywood suited elite. I won’t try to oversell the egalitarian act of Miley’s plug for her personal charity, but the stunt does still represent a much more real decoding of the hierarchal power politics of status in a celebrity culture than Swift’s self-applause of her own alpha-status. (Really though, this is the VMA’s; where Kanye West announced his plan to run for president. Trying to give sober analysis to such a transcendental spectacle will always be lacking.) To own ones status as lord of an institution of pure corruption and evil is not feminism. The only truly progressive, condonable act here is one of self dismantlement and blind destruction.
Some have applauded Miley as truly representing ‘herself’ now, rather than the facade of Hannah Montana. I believe this is the wrong reading. Her current self is not authentic; neither is it inauthentic. It is recognition that the very impossibility of authenticity to exist within the capitalist regurgitation of an empty and homogenous spectacle pop-celebrity culture. When she sticks the microphone to her crotch and masturbates on stage, she is not representing her sexuality; She is Diogenes, taking a shit in the theatre, and then wandering the crowded marketplace to issuing the challenge “I am looking for a man!” She is the Ontological Anarchist, acting in immediate insurrection; the Poetic Terrorist feeding an unapproachable chaos into a structured economic ordering that cannot properly parse it, forcing an inexplicable and impossible intensity of existence unto a bland and disinterested ‘sensible’ audience that finds it entirely discomforting and incomprehensible.
In perhaps the most personal and heartfelt track on Dead Petz, BB Talk, Cyrus identifies as a monkey emoji and the desire to smell armpits. On the track most resembling a manifesto “dooo it!“, -the title itself an issued imperative,- Miley sings:
“Why there is trees? (do it)
And what the fuck is love? (do it)
And what is flying saucers
Watching from above?
(Yo, fuck, man)”
“why do pigs run?
And why them motherfuckers
Putting bullets in they gun?
Violence is king
But peace is the way
Someday we’re gonna see it
So here’s what I’m saying:
Peace mu’fucker (do it)
So peace mu’fucker (do it)
Why they put the dick in the pussy?
We live in an antropodecentric age; no human is truly human. People are the product moulded by educational and social institutions, to be passed on as a tool for market forces. True agency in this era is only held by elaborate factories, sprawling bureaucracies, and invisible hands. People are more akin to Deleuzian machines; a mouth that shits, a rectum that eats. We are empty producers and empty consumers, the act of consumption itself abstracted from any purpose into an autotelic process; consumption is not for a reason, it is an ends-in-itself. This is even more true in the production of art and culture; what should be the highest expression of the human spirit. How is the expression of the human possible by a ‘pop star’, perhaps the most artificial being of all? How is the expression of the human possible in an age where humanity is dead? Miley realises this, and traverses into the only place humanity can still be found: the meaningless, the inexpressible, the absurd. The absolute, ungrammatical total incoherence of Dooo it! does not compromise it’s importance as a manifesto, its legitimacy as a cry, and its expression of the existential condition of its age.
Miley seeks to revive the revolutionary edge of absurdism; the poetic, in Joyce’s sense. Those that see her ‘playing it up for the camera’, as ‘being controversial for the sake of controversial’, -that see, bluntly, her total inauthenticity,- and whom further challenge this as compromising her status as a ‘genuine’ pop-idol, are entirely missing the point. It is her total inauthenticity, her status as a meaningless product of consumption, of drug abuse and self destruction, that makes her a true voice of our age. Success for the pop icon is banked on speaking to a teen market, and a message that is a nihilistic reverie, -at once an absurd laugh and a cry of anguish,- seems to be what’s hitting the mark; the self-expression of those without a self. the self expression of those without even the possibility of meaningful voice, reduced to machines, automaton fed to cold indifferent economic forces, the self expression of digital nomads, without bodies, the self expression of those with no mouth, but must scream.
“I’m on a trip, no luggage, no ticket
I’m looking in the mirror and I’m the only thing missing”
For a generation told to go on consuming and fucking in blind silence, the question becomes imperative: “Why they put the dick in the pussy?” to which the only answer can be one of pure, inarticulate, radical defiance: “fuck you.”