Who in the world thinks it’s reasonable to intercut close-ups of a destroyed woman crying with shots of that same woman licking construction tools and writhing naked on a wrecking ball? That was my first thought as I watched Miley Cyrus’ new “Wrecking Ball” video yesterday afternoon, as my Twitter feed exploded with wisecracks of the “Ugh, Miley” variety. But it all started to make sense when I realized that the clip was directed by one Terry Richardson.
Now, I get that we’re in a Miley-hating moment — that we’ve been watching her clueless variations on twerking for months now, that she just won’t freaking stop with the twerking already, that not only does her twerking get more offensive with every new performance, but she also seems to sincerely believe that she was “making history” by twerking at the VMAs. I understand all of this, and believe me, I’m not thrilled with Miley, either. (I do wish that her many critics would stick to calling out her cultural appropriation, rather than veering into the realm of slut-shaming, but that’s another conversation.) And yet, I think we’d do well to remind ourselves of who the real villain of the “Wrecking Ball” video is. That’s right: Terry Richardson.
It isn’t just that I simply dislike Richardson more than I dislike Cyrus, although I can’t deny that’s part of what motivates this post. But let’s look at the photographer/director’s past, as conveniently summed up by the L.A. Times: “Who’s he? Just a controversial figure in the fashion world who’s been repeatedly accused of exploiting kids and inappropriately touching models.” Oh, is that all?
While it’s possible to separate even the vilest human beings from the sometimes-worthwhile art they make, everything Richardson does is suffused with the teen-porn aesthetic that allegedly also dictates his behavior. From his notorious Glee-girls-in-their-underpants photo shoot for GQ to his bathtub romp with Lady Gaga in the video for her song “Cake,” it’s not the sexual content of his work that makes us recoil — it’s the contextual details that make it all feel exploitative. And in the case of “Wrecking Ball,” that skeeviness manifests itself in the visually dissonant pairing of Miley Cyrus having a tearful breakdown and Miley Cyrus treating a wrecking ball (in case you haven’t noticed, Terry is also a real master of the obvious) like a stripper pole. There’s no way to watch the video and not feel a little bit dirtier for having sat through it, and that’s the sum total of what Terry Richardson has accomplished in his career as an artist: he turns us all into perverts.
This isn’t to say that Cyrus doesn’t bear some of the blame for hiring Richardson, or for letting him fly his creep flag with impunity. In fact, it confuses me why so many seemingly intelligent, right-thinking people — Louis C.K., even! — put up with him. Sure, his trademark white-wall/pouty-face/underwear shots might give a boost to artists like Sky Ferreira, struggling to break through to mainstream pop stardom, but do Gaga (who even collaborated on a book with Richardson) and Beyoncé really need to indulge this guy? No, they don’t, and neither does Miley Cyrus. Criticize her if you wish, doubt her decision-making skills all you want, hate her if you must, but let’s lay the blame for the “Wrecking Ball” video on its true and obvious culprit.