I don't think anyone will be shocked by this admission, but I'll make it: I don't like Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus very much. (Aside from that Notorious B.I.G. mashup from a few years ago.) They are not really gyrating in my demographic's direction. But Britney Spears has a new single out--finally--and I was a little surprised when her millionth attempt to shock and titillate, "Work Bitch," finally helped me understand what's so creepy about The New Miley Cyrus.
... Which is not to say it's any good. She's sing-talking in an unplaceable commonwealth accent, for some reason, and if you're not already drunk and dancing when it comes on I'm not sure it will compel you to start. (Dancing, I mean.) But it explains the distinction between them perfectly: Britney Spears is convincing when she makes these calculated attempts to kind-of-offend people. It sounds like she wants to do it because that's just what she likes to do.
Everything about Miley Cyrus' bad-girl turn has looked not just calculated but false, and weird--whether she's grinding on a foam finger or hanging naked from a wrecking ball, she always looks a little like someone has a gun to her head and is shouting "More! More twerking!"
It's not that I believe Miley Cyrus would rather be Hannah Montana for all time--I'm willing to take as read that she likes drugs and not stopping and being naked. I'm just not sure she really wants to do any of that on stage.
In general, popular culture will nod approvingly at your oversexed, blandly Dangerous publicity stunt so long as it seems like you were excited about doing it. That's what made Madonna so palatable to the non-700-Club set: She was visibly interested in writhing around on the ground and being a material girl and burning crosses and releasing an S&M-y book about how ugly the early '90s were.
Her life was oriented around being famous and provocative because that was clearly what she was into doing. If record companies and book publishers and Pepsi hadn't been paying her to do it, she probably would have done it for free until someone had.
Is there any of that... ambition, I guess, in what Miley Cyrus is doing? That self-confidence? "We Can't Stop" is the rare party-anthem title that doubles as an introduction to your Narcotics Anonymous group. The whole point of the song is not that it's fun to have a debauched house party, but that You Can't Tell Me To Not Have This Debauched House Party, Dad!!!!!.
Even as a completely manufactured, teenaged, virginal sex object, Britney Spears' position in all that creepy innuendo wasn't about trying to shock people--it was about trying to seduce them. It was "Hit Me Baby One More Time," not "Hit Me Baby Because After All I'm An Adult And People Can Hit Me Even If You Think That's Gross."
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If Britney Spears weren't famous--well, she would probably go try to be famous again. When her songs tell stories of raucous clubs and drunken revelry it's never really convincing unless she's playing the part of the performer. She wants to be in front of the people who can't stop; she, herself, is a professional, a stopper.
This wasn't always the case, obviously--her own VMAs stunt, with the big python, was depressing in the same way, and the drugs and the Federline stuff--but at this point there's nothing about Britney Spears' life that is itself dangerous and antisocial. She's a businesswoman, only when she goes into the office she spends all day trying to figure out how much whipped cream is too much, edible-bra-wise.
But Miley Cyrus' dead-eyed boundary-pushing just doesn't feel sincere, or sincerely calculated. It's just a half-hearted move along the career trajectory she's been slated for from the start. First she was supposed to do Hannah Montana, then she was supposed to do a crossover album that was a little sketchy, and then she was supposed to do the really sketchy one. It's a job, like what Britney Spears does, but it doesn't seem nearly as vital to her conception of herself. It's not a career.
Basically, as she ages out of all that Think of the Children press--and depending on how much money is Enough for her--I think she's more likely to become the J.D. Salinger of Twerking than the next host of The X-Factor. ("I thought what I'd do was, I'd pretend I was one of those naked deaf-mutes who sits on top of wrecking balls. That way I wouldn't have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody.")
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Music, I think, she's absolutely capable of stopping.