It is possible that sounds emitted by the mouth of Miley Cyrus bring sincere relief to the dented souls of millions. It is possible that Cyrus is an artist greatly gifted. Don’t ask me. Like any critic beset by a case of advanced midlife, this one is powerless to assess a work like Malibu.
Malibu appears to fuse absolute love with absolute beachfront real estate.
To the older ear, this song sounds just as its promotional video looks, i.e. like the launch of an unbleached feminine sanitary product, perhaps one aimed at the affluent vegan. To the older temperament, its lyric appears to fuse absolute love with absolute beachfront real estate; a conflation either more or less poetic than that of a broken heart with building demolition, per her hit Wrecking Ball. Again, don’t ask me. Not only am I estranged from Empowered Young Women of the West and their tools of vocal expression, I can’t even recall which Hemsworth it is that Cyrus sings about in either/both of these chart-toppers.
I can recall, however, that Cyrus declared her regret for the Wrecking Ball video in which she fellates a sledge-hammer, humps a mechanical crane attachment and wears only boots at a work-site where even the most negligent safety officer would demand protective garments.
“I’m never living that down. I will always be the naked girl on the wrecking ball,” said Cyrus last year. Perhaps the statement was made to distance herself from the director she had chosen for that project, and many others, Terry Richardson.
Cyrus and her young fans could learn that what one believes in a moment to be one’s endorsement for freedom may later be understood as freedom’s negation.
Allegations of sexual abuse had been circulated in media about the photographer and director for years before they were transformed, in some cases by his own media clients, from evidence of a raunchy visualist at work to a villain of of the #MeToo moment.
Whatever her intention, Cyrus’ disavowal of the video and its creator meant that she would not, like the French actor Catherine Deneuve, be understood by the many as a collaborator in this post-Weinstein age. More significantly, it meant that her young fans could, along with Miley, learn that what one believes in a moment to be one’s endorsement for freedom may later be understood as freedom’s negation.
Cyrus will grow and may continue to learn that freedom of the sort she seeks may not be always facilitated by a powerful artist like Richardson, or a powerful political presence like Hillary Clinton. (The latter, after all, devastated Libya, whereas the former only directed Cyrus to perform an unhygienic act with a leotard. ) It is not a simple matter for any woman to recognise true conditions of freedom, most especially if she is young and so often attended by the powerful.
It is good for Cyrus that she no longer regrets posing for Annie Leibovitz. It is good that she regrets dry-humping a wrecking ball for Terry Richardson.
This week, however, Cyrus uttered a different sort of regret. She regrets regret expressed ten years ago.
When the singer was 15, her portrait was taken by Annie Leibovitz and printed in Vanity Fair. Before release of the issue, Cyrus, who was pictured topless, said by statement, “I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be ‘artistic’ and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed. She added “I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about.”
Cyrus’s employers at Disney made some moralising noises, too. Her dad may have chimed in with some achy breaky remorse. Leibovitz said something about the innocence of youthful beauty, and Vanity Fair said that there would never be such a fuss on the Continent, where portraits of newly deflowered tweens are as common as are prom dresses in Michigan, or something. I don’t know. It was one of those things by which citizens of the US measure their culture against that of Western Europe.
This week, on the tenth anniversary of publication, and of the young singer’s apology, the 25 year-old star tells that time to go and fuck itself, adding, in majuscule, that she is not sorry. This is liberated Miley, 2018-style.
It is my view that the photograph of Cyrus by Leibovitz is no more “offensive” than many by Richardson. In fact, this Richardson image of Cyrus assuming the garb and posture of a cocksure young man strikes me as not merely inoffensive but deferential to the subject’s sense of self. It was in 2015 that Cyrus described themself as “gender fluid”, and I can imagine no better visual expression of that declaration than the series of portraits by Richardson in Candy magazine, which you must not visit by link unless you are as accustomed as your author is to genderqueer smut, which is quite.
These pictures were, I surmise, a collaboration. Certainly, they followed an unambiguous statement by Cyrus of gender ambiguity. That Richardson is a cruel predator may be true. That he, or Cyrus, failed to be genuinely “artistic” in the 2015 Candy series is certainly not.
Whether Cyrus is “good” or “bad” for my gender strikes me as a question that will produce no dependable answer.
It is good for Cyrus that she no longer regrets posing for Leibovitz. It is good that she regrets dry-humping a wrecking ball for Richardson. Whatever buoys her spirit, sells her newest self and funds her music—which has, regrettably, never been one tenth as arresting as the best collaborations with Richardson. Whatever. Others can knock themselves out dividing the “good” images from the “bad”. I have neither interest nor expertise interest in measuring the wholesomeness of pictures. Let’s leave that, and the business of moralising generally, to Leibovitz and the Disney corporation.
But, let’s concede that a young subject whose gaze meets a viewer not appeased with a stable gender identity is an image made by far more principled collaboration than, say, that of an even younger woman cowering beneath a sheet as though she has been just cast aside by Bertolucci’s second assistant director and is in urgent need of counsel.
No need, of course, for Cyrus to feel sorry for assuming a tired old pose a decade ago. No point in others applauding or rebuking her. There’s perhaps some point in thinking about the many images of Miley, whose variety even a person indifferent to her music can appreciate, and how they converse with the variety of feminisms in recent years.
Miley has been a victim of photographic assault. Miley has been the “only” feminist iconography required. Miley has assumed the posture of a woman of colour for commercial gain. (Actually, not a bad point.) Miley won’t be slut-shamed. Miley shouldn’t be friends with Terry Richardson. Miley is a publicity whore who got her kit off for Terry Richardson—this last from the Nine network’s astute voice of youth, Pedestrian.
Whether Cyrus is “good” or “bad” for my gender strikes me as a question that will produce no dependable answer. We can ask if Miley is compatible with the most over-represented feminism of the moment and get a straight answer. Or, those of us with little interest in her music or accord with popular ideals, Miley could be a visual artist. Why not? She’s pretty good at it.
A feminist misstep—craving publicity, working with an undesirable artist—is hardly the same as abuse.
Chaps were once permitted to create images without quite so much moral bother. It wasn’t until last year that Vanity Fair cut ties with Terry Richardson. This was done on the basis of allegations mentioned in that magazine a few years back. A 2014 piece gave no hint that the photographer may be banished from this, or any other Condé Nast title—it uses the term “witch hunt” in its headline and concludes with the note “Richardson has not been charged with sexual misconduct”. In 2014, a serious allegation of sexual abuse was no real threat to the income of a male visual artist.
In 2018, such an allegation does pose a threat, if only to that small class of men once empowered by a mass of adoring liberals. I guess you could call that progress. What you couldn’t call progress, though, is the 2018 assessment of an image-maker like Cyrus in the terms of her “feminist” morality. A feminist misstep—craving publicity, working with an undesirable artist—is hardly the same as abuse.
Cyrus’ visual work to date has already outdone Lady Gaga’s and—whatever the weary assessment of Camille Paglia— now rivals that of Madonna. I am quite interested to see the next costume, the next assault on a lens. I am not interested in Cyrus as a source of moral guidance. I don’t think Cyrus is, either.