Twenty-Year-Old American Woman Smokes Marijuana in Amsterdam. It doesn’t exactly sound like front-page news, but boy is the media going nuts over the fact that Miley Cyrus puffed on a joint during her performance at Sunday’s MTV Europe Music Awards. Here are some of the actual headlines: “What a Dope! Miley Cyrus Puffs Marijuana Onstage at MTV EMAs in Amsterdam”; “Miley Cyrus shocks yet again as she lets it all hang out and smokes ‘joint’ on stage at MTV Europe Music Awards”; “Pothead Miley Cyrus Lights Up Marijuana Joint Onstage.”
By Monday afternoon, the narrative had progressed to “Miley Cyrus responds to pot-smoking controversy following EMAs,” in an Entertainment Weekly piece that both recorded the singer’s subtweet about her performance (“sometimes in life you just gotta decide to not give AF”) and reported how thrilled the conservative Parents Television Council was with MTV’s decision to edit the smoking footage out of the EMAs’ stateside telecast. Of all the things Miley Cyrus has done at awards shows this year, puffing on a joint is apparently the only one offensive enough to merit censorship.
It’s not that I’m surprised to see the media flip out over the fact that a young, female pop star is doing the same thing non-famous young people (and older people! and very likely many of the journalists who are characterizing Cyrus’ behavior as “shocking” or a “scandal” or a “controversy”!) do all the time. What’s worth examining is how the scolding tone of the coverage surrounding this stunt compares with the softer set of headlines that popped up yesterday morning about a different world-famous 20-something singer’s marijuana use: “Lady Gaga opens up about drug addiction: ‘I have to be high to be creative'”; “Lady Gaga Says She’s Addicted to Marijuana: Is It Possible?”; “How Lady Gaga quit her 15-joints-a-day marijuana habit.”
Lady Gaga’s story, which arose out of comments she made in a recent interview with Z100’s Elvis Duran, would seem to be easier to sensationalize than Cyrus’. “I have been addicted to [marijuana] and it’s ultimately related to anxiety coping and it’s a form of self-medication and I was smoking up to 15-20 marijuana cigarettes a day with no tobacco,” Gaga told the radio station. She also said that while she recovered from a hip injury, she “was living on a totally other psychedelic plane.” Even more dramatically, Gaga claimed, “I have been addicted to various things since I was young. Most heavily over the past seven years.”
In fact, the tone most stories have taken towards Lady Gaga’s admission is sympathetic. The People report is representative of how most outlets have chosen to cover the news, closing on a positive note with Gaga’s plans to overcome her “addiction” and a hopeful quote from the Z100 interview: “I do put that pressure on myself; I have to be high to be creative. I need that, that’s an error in my life that happened for over 10 years. Can I be brilliant without it? I know that I can be and I have to be because I want to live, and I want my fans to want to live.”
Of course, there’s a difference between lighting up in front of an international audience and smoking a joint — or 20 — in the privacy of your own home, and clearly Cyrus courted the publicity that followed her EMA performance. If you actually still believe that marijuana is more harmful than the alcohol and cigarettes kids see their idols consuming on a daily basis, you could even argue that her onstage indulgence makes Cyrus a singularly poor role model.
But the fact is that the media was losing its shit over Miley smoking weed in Amsterdam — where, lest we forget, it’s legal — long before she did it in front of MTV’s cameras. Back in September, everyone was all wound up about the idea of her spending seven hours in one of the city’s famous coffee shops. (What, have they never lost a whole night in a bar before?) And earlier this month, the tabloids were chasing the rumor that she smoked a blunt at a Halloween party: “Only Adam Lambert really knows for sure if that lit cigar he passed Miley Cyrus at his Halloween party contained the devil’s weed,” TMZ teased in a post bearing the hilariously overblown title “NEW CLUE IN WEED MYSTERY… Courtesy of Adam Lambert.”
There’s just one reason that the press is simultaneously hyperventilating over Cyrus’ enjoyment of marijuana and sympathizing with Lady Gaga’s self-described addiction to it, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the relative seriousness of each woman’s drug problem. Like just about everything else that falls under the dubious heading of “celebrity journalism,” it all comes down to how each star plays the media game, and the press’ complicity in constructing and maintaining these identities. Lady Gaga is a paragon of control, and when she wants to discuss her drug use, she does it in an interview that allows her to shape a narrative of addiction and redemption. Miley Cyrus is (or, more accurately, has become) a provocateur, pushing buttons to keep her name in the headlines. Don’t believe everything you read about either one of them.