Much of the media is perplexed by what Miley Cyrus did at the American Music Awards last night. At the Daily News, Jim Farber puns, “You might call it a cat-astrophic performance” and then — you know, just in case we forgot that Cyrus smokes The Marijuana — pronounces that the act “looked like something the singer might have dreamed up after taking a deep toke on that joint she lit up on MTV’s EMA show.” Poor AP music writer Chris Talbott wants to know, “What was that exactly?” and eventually decides there’s “no way can we explain it. Playfully absurdist, it was a moment Salvador Dalí would be proud of.” (I think the artist he was reaching for there was Marcel Duchamp, but whatever.) Rolling Stone‘s Mike Ayers articulates this morning’s broader consensus, calling it a “rather tame outing.” But was it, really?
Believe me, I didn’t wake up this morning hoping to be the person who found any kind of subtext in a cat-bikini-clad Miley Cyrus singing “Wrecking Ball” while a giant kitten lip synced along on the screen behind her. And yet! This performance was a more pointedly — and, in some respects, delightfully — bratty gesture than most of today’s coverage suggests.
For one thing, this moment was not primarily about surrealism or stoner humor. As Todd Martens of the LA Times writes:
No one — or thing — loves cats more than the Internet, and Miley has succeeded in ensuring that “Wrecking Ball” will be the one performance that owns Twitter and YouTube tonight and Monday and quite possibly beyond.
Although Martens clearly didn’t foresee the shitstorm Katy Perry’s racist geisha drag act would cause, he correctly identifies that when we see a giant cat on a sort of retro outer-space backdrop, the primary reference point — and audience being addressed — is of course the Internet.
So what does Miley Cyrus have to say to the Internet, now that she has (once again) gotten its attention? Make no mistake: this was a “fuck the haters” gesture wrapped in the kind of sarcastic apology best expressed by the crocodile tears of a giant kitten. “Wrecking Ball” is one of Cyrus’ most intimate songs, but the AMA performance changed its meaning. Instead of addressing a lover, she’s talking to the world at large: her fans, the press, and most importantly that undifferentiated mass of critics, bloggers, and social media users we have come to refer to collectively as “the Internet.” This is the segment of her audience that has come down hardest on Cyrus over the past few months, with reactions ranging from boneheaded slut-shaming to well-earned accusations of racism in her VMA performance. And this is what she has to say to them — or, rather, us:
I never meant to start a war
I just wanted you to let me in
And instead of using force
I guess I should’ve let you win
It’s no accident that she pointed out into the audience as she sang “You wreck me” — or that the kitten winked and stuck its tongue out at the end of the song, both referencing the most memorable moment from the VMA debacle and ensuring that we knew she was being sarcastic. And it helped that we could actually pay attention to Cyrus’ powerful vocal performance because she decided, for once, not to overload us with imagery or dance moves. The connotations of Miley Cyrus publicly shrugging off accusations of racism (among other critiques) are uncomfortable, to say the least. But while old-media entertainment writers might have needed a foam hand to drive it home, for those of us who make up “the Internet,” it couldn’t have been clearer that she was pointing a middle finger directly at us.