Like She’s Under Inspection (‘Cause She’s Hot Like That)
|May 1, 2012||Posted by Jess under Celebrities, Ladytexts, Music, Tweendom|
I always meant to write a blogpost about Miley Cyrus’s “Can’t Be Tamed” music video, which is one of the most loaded videos I’ve ever seen in my life, but various distractions cropped up, as they do, and before I knew it two years had passed and I’d given up. After all, what was there to be said that hadn’t been said before?
Then the other night, while caught in a YouTube loop, I stumbled across an earlier video by Miley, “Fly On the Wall,” from two albums prior. And…whoa. Apparently Miley is all about the loaded videos.
Let’s start with “Can’t Be Tamed”:
It was maddening to be inside – to be swallowed whole – so long. He had an image of himself, stuffed, behind glass, but somehow still alive, crouching over a fake campfire, feeding meat to a lifeless child. Museum silence became a source of torment, a kind of noise; he needed birdsong, breezes, trees.
– Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo (1992)1
[If you can’t or don’t wish to watch the video, here’s the gist: a wealthy, mostly-white crowd, including women wearing decorative cages on and around their heads, gathers in a museum to see “a creature so rare it was believed to be extinct…Aves cyrus!” A curtain rises over a giant cage to reveal Miley, dressed in a skimpy black feathered leotard and huddled in a nest. The crowd is delighted, until Miley reveals her giant black wings and a flock of fellow birdpeople in the cage with her, and the crowd begins to back away in fear as the song starts. Choreographed dancing, singing, and general writhing ensue. At the end of the first chorus, Miley leads the birdpeople out of the cage and through the museum, where taxidermied animals are displayed. Shots of more dancing are interspersed with Miley in a strapless silver leotard lying on a carpet made of peacock feathers and Miley partnering with various dancers to simulate aggressive sex. They eventually return to the cage and as the song ends Miley is left in it alone, wings spread and expression defiant, the museum in ruins around her.]
Whew, there’s a lot going on there, isn’t there? As this great post by Lindsay Hogan puts it, it’s “a significant rhetorical contribution to Cyrus’ cross-over star persona.” The post mainly discusses the video in the context of Miley’s attempt to transition from child star to “legitimate” (ooh, there’s a loaded word) adult performer. Certainly the video, which is more overtly sexual than anything Miley had done before, was Miley’s way of announcing her impending adulthood to the world (she was 17 at the time). But I’m not going to analyze it from that angle here; I think the context (Hannah Montana going into its last season, her older boyfriend moving into her father’s house, her Vanity Fair “scandal”) is less relevant now.2 I only mention it because it was such a huge component of why this video was made and how people perceived it.
What I’m more interested in now, two years later, are the ideas of spectacle and freedom at play here. It’s impossible not to read Miley’s position in the cage as Miley negotiating her own celebrity – and criticizing the hell out of it. She’s being displayed for the benefit of foolish, privileged cowards in a cage in the center of a museum full of dead things. That’s not a nice metaphor.3
Miley plays it off as defiance, though. After initially shying away from a photographer’s flashbulb, she backs the crowd away with her wings and her flock, and escapes her cage. She tears through the museum, standing on the exhibits as her cronies break the glass in front of a grizzly bear display, a permanent pouty glare on her face. The lyrics of the song, which are ostensibly about how ain’t no man gonna tie her down, map easily onto the context of the video: “I wanna fly, I wanna drive, I wanna go/ I wanna be a part of something I don’t know/ And if you try to hold me back I might explode…”4
And yet she never flies; she never even attempts it. She never leaves the museum. The glass in front of the bear is broken, but the bear is dead; the glass was never what was holding it back. And though Miley is perfectly capable of escaping her cage, by the end of the video, she’s back inside it. Alone.
Analyzing intent is always a murky prospect, but I don’t think we’re supposed to notice that. I think the video is supposed to represent uncomplicated defiance, rebellion, and escape. Certainly I doubt that Miley herself reads several levels into it, just because 17-year-olds are not big critical thinkers, myself at that age absolutely included. Hell, it looks like the kind of video I would have made at 17, all awkward trying-too-hard sexuality and unintentionally appropriative cultural references.
But at the end of the day, “Can’t Be Tamed” strikes me as sad. The video makes it very clear that there is no escape for the Aves cyrus; there’s no outside world, and she’s the last of her kind. And beyond the literal trap, she’s caught in a recursive viewership loop; even as the video critiques the spectacle of a teenage girl dancing for your amusement, it invites you to click the play button and watch it again.
In that vein, let’s talk about “Fly on the Wall”:
[Again, in case you can’t or don’t want to watch: in an opening reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Miley and her boyfriend leave a movie theater cheerfully discussing the movie. Suddenly he – apparently unwillingly – turns into a paparazzo and starts taking pictures of her. Miley screams and flees into a parking garage as the song begins. Shots of Miley fleeing a crowd of male paparazzi alternate with shots of Miley singing directly to the camera with a playful, defiant expression on her face. Finally they corner her and advance; Running Miley shows real fear while Singing Miley says “Come a little closer” and beckons with one finger. Suddenly the paps break into a choreographed (and awesome) dance, which Miley watches with utter bafflement until her boyfriend pulls up in a car. She gets in, and as they drive off she tries to explain her bizarre experience, unaware of the camera on the dashboard that is broadcasting her monologue to a gossip site under the headline “Miley Cyrus Bugs Out at Paparazzi!!!”]
Like I said at the beginning of the post, I didn’t even know there was a video to this until a couple of days ago, and it just blew me away when I watched it. It’s about a year and a half older than “Can’t Be Tamed,” and in a lot of ways is easier to pick apart because it’s not open to quite so many readings; it’s far less sexual, it’s not being used as a tool to declare adulthood, it doesn’t tie into the same kind of historical background (though I’d love to read an analysis of this video against “Thriller” and the ensuing celebrity narratives of those two stars).
What struck me the most about “Fly on the Wall” is not the primary narrative of Miley fleeing the paparazzi, though there’s a lot to unpack there, especially the end (more on that in a minute), and the fact that she literally doesn’t have a soul she can trust or turn to. What I noticed the most was “Singing Miley”; specifically, her gaze. Miley’s eyes are locked on the camera the entire video, often in closeup. It reads, to me, like an accusation. The song, which is mostly about a nosy boyfriend, is even less connected to the video than “Can’t Be Tamed” is, but Miley still throws the lyrics in the viewers’ faces: “Don’t you wish that you could be a fly on the wall?…All my precious secrets, yeah, you’d know them all.”
And yet – it’s playful. Miley’s smiling. Even as the in-narrative Miley backs nervously against the fence, overwhelmed by a phalanx of big, brutish paparazzi, Singing Miley bends over, crooks a finger, and coos, “Come a little closer.”5 She’s not telling the boyfriend of the song’s lyrics or the paparazzi or the viewer to go away. Wouldn’t you like to know all her secrets? Come a little closer; maybe she’ll tell you.
And then. And then the paparazzi start to dance as Miley hits the high notes, and that’s when this video really blew my mind, because who’s watching who here? Who’s performing for who? When we think we’re chasing Miley, trying to track her every move, is she just laughing at our desperation? Is she the one really pulling the strings?
But, like “Can’t Be Tamed,” the video can’t end with Miley triumphant. She’s tricked into revealing those “precious secrets”; even when she thinks she’s safe, she’s always being watched. By us.
This might be a good time to point out that Miley was born the year “Achy Breaky Heart” became a worldwide hit. She has literally never known a single moment out of the limelight.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that her most famous role, Hannah Montana, was literally predicated on the idea that fame is so oppressive you need to lead a double life to manage it. I could write a two-hundred-page manifesto on the massive issues at play in Hannah Montana, but one of the central themes of the show was a consistent, ruthless, possibly inadvertent lambasting of fame, fandom, Hollywood, and what life in a fishbowl does to a person mentally and emotionally. And yet by linking Miley so closely with her character – even going to far as to change the original name of the protagonist from Zoe Stewart to Miley Stewart, along with having Miley tour as both Hannah and “herself” (but is she Miley Cyrus or Miley Stewart? is there a difference?) and literally presenting Miley as a Hannah Montana-branded product with the Meet Miley Cyrus album – Disney ensured that Miley can never do what her character does. She can never take the wig off. She can never escape.6
Miley is far from the only creative force behind these videos; they’re shaped by directors, producers, and God only knows how many other managers and image consultants and Hollywood people-sculpters. I don’t know why Miley never leaves the cage in “Can’t Be Tamed.” I don’t know who told her to smile in “Fly on the Wall,” even as she’s running scared.
But both of her songs about invasive, controlling boyfriends turned into videos about invasive, controlling…us. And overall, her body of work starts to paint an indictment of the whole fame machine, of the way we trap and consume young starlets even as they act out narratives of being trapped and consumed.7 Is it deliberate? If it is deliberate, who is crafting it? Miley herself? Or just another set of Hollywood types using her to show us how terrible using her is?
I don’t know. All I know is that I hope she’s happier than the stories she’s telling are.
- As I mention below, this video, perhaps inadvertently, evokes the historical display of minorities in museums and traveling shows by white people; one such example was the Congolese Mbuti pygmy Ota Benga, the subject of this quote. The quote reminded me sharply of Miley’s video, so I included it. Still, it’s ironic that this book serves as an indictment of Benga’s exploitation while giving him thoughts and feelings that may or may not have been his in life – an irony that dovetails nicely with this video’s critique of exploiting young girls for entertainment while…exploiting a young girl for entertainment. ↩
- It’s still relevant as part of a larger discussion of how female stars feel the need to offer themselves up as explicitly sexual objects in order to be perceived as “grown up,” and also of any timeline of Miley’s career, but that’s not what this post is. ↩
- As touched upon with the Benga quote, there’s also a racial (and ablest!) component, since it wasn’t all that long ago that white Europeans and Americans displayed minorities and so-called “freaks” in museums and sideshows, but if Miley knows any of that, I’ll eat that one lady’s cage hat. ↩
- Incidentally, those lyrics express teenagerhood more sublimely than practically anything I’ve ever heard in my life. ↩
- The whole thing reminds me of nothing so much as Britney Spears’s “Piece of Me,” which is a great song with an unfortunately crap video. Still, Miley has acknowledged her connection in pop princess history to Britney multiple times, and Britney’s coquetteish-yet-simultaneously-defiant “Now are you sure you want a piece of me?” certainly wouldn’t feel out of place here. ↩
- I don’t pretend to have any particular insight into Miley’s songwriting, but if the fiercely angry “Robot,” off Can’t Be Tamed, isn’t a response to what Disney’s done to her, well, it sure sounds like it. “Stand here, sell this, and hit your mark…Who am I to decide my life?/ But in time it’ll die, there’ll be nothing left inside/ Just rusted metal that was never even mine…Stop trying to live my life for me/ I need to breathe; I’m not your robot.” ↩
- Even Miley’s first-ever music video, “Start All Over,” plays with the idea of gaze in between all the product placement as we watch Miley photographing her dream. At about 1:50, in what to me is the most striking image of the video, a pair of movers carry a flatscreen television in front of Miley and we see her dancing – on the TV screen from the waist up, “in the flesh” from the waist down. The effect of the slightly spatially and temporally disjointed sections of her body is downright alienating. How much of Miley is real? How easy is it to break her up into pieces that aren’t? Remember, this is the album where Hannah Montana “introduced” us to Miley Cyrus. ↩