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2013 in Music: The Year Virality Trumped Nuance

There have been plenty of wonderful things about music this year. These albums. This photo. The emergence of new talents like Majical Cloudz and Savages, and the unexpected return of established ones like David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine. Angel Haze’s 30 Gold series and her subsequent schooling of her record company. The continuing absence of the Black Eyed Peas. But if there’s been one abiding image this year, it’s been that of Miley Cyrus and her remarkably gymnastic tongue.

Pop stars inciting studied controversy isn’t a particularly new idea, of course — Madonna’s always been a master of it, and before that, everyone from John Lennon to Frank Zappa knew the value of a catchy, parent-inciting quote. The difference is that whereas in the past, pop stars were reliant on the news media for coverage of their antics, these days there’s a ready-made device for focusing and magnifying controversy to absurd proportions: the churning rage cauldron that we call the Internet.

This is really the first year we’ve seen A-list pop stars so deliberately trolling everyone. The most relevant name here, of course, is Miley Cyrus, the trollgaze queen of 2013. Rarely has a star so quickly and deftly made over her public image — it took the likes of Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears years to completely shed their child star cuteness. Others are still struggling to manage it: Justin Bieber’s been trying to be taken seriously for years, but for all his antics, he still gets caricatured as a precocious prepubescent who’ll never grow up. (Of course, it’s different for boys.)

Cyrus, though, went from wholesome good girl to tongue-wagging party animal in the space of two videos and one memorable live performance, leveraging the attention she got for “Can’t Be Tamed” in 2010 and turning that persona up to 11. No one looks at her and thinks of Hannah Montana now — they think of twerking, foam fingers, and Robin Thicke in a silly suit. As a PR strategy, it was genius, and it began and ended with the Internet. Cyrus’s VMA performance spawned a whole lot of thinkpieces (including, yes, on Flavorwire), but more importantly, it catalyzed a gazillion Tumblr posts and arguments about cultural appropriation and racism and slut-shaming and all the other identity politics issues that people on the Internet just love to argue endlessly about.

And say what you like about Miley, she’s not stupid. Her entire year was a sort of ongoing performance aimed at driving the Internet into a frenzy — from the oh-so-retro ’80s-inspired cover art for Bangerz through the eminently GIFable imagery to the hashtag that appeared in one of her song titles — and boy, did it ever succeed. The self-awareness was palpable, and by the end of the year, Miley was toying with the whole thing, performing “Wrecking Ball” at the AMAs in front of a giant projection of that most omnipresent avatar of Internet culture: a cat. As our Judy Berman observed the day after, “Much of the media is perplexed by what Miley Cyrus did at the American Music Awards last night,” but it didn’t matter, because that’s not who she was talking to. She was talking, as Judy pointed out, to the web: “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.”

Miley’s not the only one to have stoked the fires of Internet rage — in an excellent essay at The A.V. Club, Evan Rytlewski called 2013 “the year of endless controversy,” citing Lily Allen, Robin Thicke, Kanye West, Lorde, and numerous other artists who’ve been the subject of seemingly endless online shit-slinging. He’s right, of course, and it’s worth thinking about what this all means, and what it says about us an audience. A lot of the commentary about Cyrus this year wasn’t exactly positive — her VMAs show got accused of everything from exploitation to minstrelsy to being nasty to little people, debates that are all still going on today.

The idea of any publicity being good publicity is as old as the idea of publicity itself, and obviously has particular relevance in the case of a pop star trying to shed a squeaky-clean image for something raunchier. Even so, it’s rarely been truer than it is today. A couple of weeks back, The New Inquiry’s Rob Horning wrote a fascinating essay on the concept of the viral self, suggesting that the one fate that everyone tries to avoid online is being ignored:

Having feelings is pointless if your performance of them is not as viral as the occasion that prompted them. Virality thereby becomes the horizon beneath which occurrences no longer figure socially, no longer count for anchoring identity or asserting a self. If a retold experience doesn’t continue to circulate, the experience and the original retelling of it amount to nothing. They are not even false; they simply don’t matter.

This need to be noticed by its very nature encourages extremism of opinion, because shit, it’s always the people who shout the loudest who get heard. The way content is shared on the Internet also encourages hyperbole — it’s not enough to be mildly peeved about something, you have to be OUTRAGED. There’s no point in thinking something’s rather nice, it has to be INSPIRING. There’s no point in writing a list of ten things you like, it has to be THE BEST THINGS EVER. (And yes, again, we’re as guilty of this as any other website.)

None of this really encourages nuanced engagement with subject matter, but then it doesn’t matter, because a week later whatever everyone was arguing about was over and there’s something else to be outraged about. As Horning suggests, “the point of viral content, in part, is … to be the person who responds correctly to [it] and who tells someone else about [it].” There’s no narrative, really, just a heap of broken images. (Douglas Rushkoff explores this idea of death of narrative further in his excellent book Present Shock, which was one of my favorite books of the year, suggesting that the always-on nature of culture undermines the construction of grand narratives, reducing life to a series of disconnected experiences.)

The thing is, though, that this also manifests in fandom, because in a space where we literally define our presences with likes and dislikes (or, arguably, just with Likes), there’s little room for ambivalence. We inhabit an Internet of stans and haters, of fan communities that have thrived to the extent that they’re their own virtual cultures occupying their own virtual corner of cyberspace: the Beliebers, the Little Monsters, the Directioners, the Beyhive. These cultures are born of the Internet — as One Direction’s manager told Rolling Stone last year, “These guys live online, and so do their fans” — and they’re central to the online identity of the people who identify with them.

After all, the Internet allows us to choose the faces we present to the world, and in these cases, the definition comes entirely in terms of fandom. Again, this isn’t new — there have always been überfans, from the girls who passed out at the sight of The Beatles to the sort of amiable trippers who followed The Grateful Dead around the country. But these days, the Internet both makes it both easier for fan communities to congregate — it doesn’t matter if you’re in South Central or in the middle of nowhere, like-minded souls are only a click away — and, again, measures your standing in such a community is measured by the strength of your devotion. There is, again, little room for ambivalence.

On a personal note, the inherently polarized and polarizing nature of the Internet was amply demonstrated over the last week or so in the reaction to a piece of work that entirely sums up the entire concept — the piece I wrote about Beyoncé’s new album, which was an, um, adventurous mixture of first impressions on the record and general impressions of its creator’s feminist ideals. I’ve always had strong opinions, which is one of the reasons I got into this line of work in the first place, but the need to have something to say has never been stronger. It can lead you astray, or at least lead you into painting with broad strokes where finesse is needed.

So, too, the reactions, both from fans and from peers — a couple of prominent feminists were as extreme in their condemnation of me on Twitter as I was of the album I was writing about, and in both cases, once the initial blast of heat dissipated, we had quite pleasant and worthwhile discussions about the issues raised. It’s a somewhat surreal experience to be having a friendly discussion with someone who an hour earlier was telling the world that you were a recidivist avatar of white privilege who actually needed to die. But such is the world of the Internet.

And this world is exactly what Miley Cyrus, bless her, waded into. She’s a child of her generation, clearly — I don’t know if she consciously thinks about all this stuff, although I would wager a decent amount of cash that she’s a whole lot smarter than her detractors make her out to be. She played the Internet like a violin this year, and she’s reaped the rewards. Her fans love her to death; her haters hate her in a very vocal manner; and everyone else has some sort of opinion. She’s the perfect viral content: the walking meme it’s impossible to ignore.

Oh, and the music? For better or worse, it’s very much beside the point.

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