Let us begin with a story.
Once upon a time, about four weeks ago, I was walking the quad at Illinois State University, looking for a nice, shady tree to sit down next to. This was about three days after Ms. Miley Cyrus and the Fruit Stripe Gum mascot briefly broke the Internet with their VMA performance. The air was all hot and sunny and August-y, the quad sidewalks cluttered with students and chalk pictures and me. I am not a student, though I’ve gotten pretty good at disguising myself as one. The key is to carry a backpack and wear a baseball cap like an eight-year-old boy in 1962, so that it’s perched way back on your head like an athletic yarmulke. There was a stereo somewhere playing a song I didn’t recognize, though it sounded like Ke$ha, so it was definitely Ke$ha.
I was at ISU because I was sick of writing for the day, and when I get sick of writing I like to find a big tree and put my hands on its trunk and watch the big black ants scramble through the wooden creases. I have a vague idea that this makes me a better person. On this day, most of the good trees were either taken by (real) students or surrounded by dirt and wood chips instead of grass, one of the few landscaping practices I have a strong opinion about. (I hate it.) But there was a walnut in the southwest corner that was free, and I sat with my back against the trunk, watching a trio of shirtless men play frisbee.
As I sat there, the boom box started playing “Blurred Lines,” and the three frisbee men immediately stopped their game and began twerking in celebration. One of them was actually pretty good. Like, suspiciously good. Like, I have a sneaking feeling that he watched the VMAs and immediately began twerk two-a-days, practicing for this exact moment, and a dozen or so other moments in the years to come, at weddings and clubs and house parties, knowing he would get himself a cheap laugh at Ms. Cyrus’s expense. Well, mission accomplished, Twerking Guy.
I heard “Blurred Lines” for the first time at a wedding reception, and thought it had a good bass line. Then I looked up the lyrics.
Okay now he was close,
Tried to domesticate you.
But you’re an animal,
Baby, it’s in your nature
Just let me liberate you. (Hey, hey, hey)
You don’t need no papers. (Hey, hey, hey)
That man is not your maker.
Allow me to translate:
Okay now you had a serious boyfriend,
Trying to provide you with a stable married life,
But you’re not human,
So you just want to have sex with me.
Just have sex with me. (Hey, hey, hey)
We don’t need to be married. (Hey, hey, hey)
God is not real, so he didn’t divinely shape you into a beautiful human, worthy of respect and love, with a sexuality that should be treated with a sense of the sacred.
Or something like that. (Hey, hey, hey) Not as catchy, but I think I did a pretty good job of capturing the real message. The last line could also mean, “Your former serious boyfriend is not God, so have sex with me,” a lyric so nonsensical that it’s probably closer to the intended meaning.
At any rate, like Cobra Starship before him, Mr. Thicke is intent on making good girls go bad. Or, to appease my former creative writing professors, the narrator of the song is intent on it, who we should not, necessarily, identify as Mr. Thicke. After all, he’s an artist and a family man, who married his high school sweetheart, a fact he is quick to point out whenever the song comes under criticism for being a form of predatory-male wish fulfillment that’s more than just a little bit rape-y.
Guess what? Saying “I know you want it” over and over again isn’t exactly empowering to women, or sexy. Even when you’re married it only works, like, a quarter of the time.
There’s a story in the Bible about a guy named Amnon, the son of King David, who falls in “love” with his half sister Tamar. And Amnon “loves” Tamar so much that he makes himself sick, because she’s a virgin, and he can’t figure out how to have sex with her without getting caught. People kept track of that kind of thing in those days.
Then one day a friend of his by the name of Jonadab hatches a plan. He tells Amnon to pretend to be ill, and to call his sister in to take care of him. When she arrives, Amnon sends everyone else in the house away, and he grabs Tamar, saying “Just let me liberate you,” or something like that. When Tamar refuses, he rapes her. Let me quote the rest of it to you (ESV translation):
Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her.
And Amnon said to her, "Get up! Go!”
But she said to him, "No, my brother, for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.”
But he would not listen to her. He called the young man who served him and said, "Put this woman out of my presence and bolt the door after her.”
Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves, for thus were the virgin daughters of the king dressed. So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went.
Okay, now replace Tamar with “Miley Cyrus,” Jonadab with “Guy Who Produced the VMAs,” and Amnon with “America,” and you get a sense of how we treat our female pop stars. Whoever picked “Blurred Lines” for Ms. Cyrus to perform is either brilliant, villainous, or both. That song perfectly captures on a micro level what we as a culture often ask our female pop stars to do: Be a good girl… until your eighteenth birthday.
Then you need to put a phallic object between your legs as quickly as possible.
What’s that, you want to use a foam finger? That’ll work. Just make sure you stick your tongue out a lot. It’s in your nature.
And once we get what we want, once that “virginity” is gone forever, then the hate starts to flow, and the hatred with which we hate them is greater than the love with which we had loved them. It’s a cycle we repeat over and over again, and for some reason the VMAs have become ground zero for the sexual transition point, from Madonna to Ms. Spears to Ms. Lil’ Kim.
Which brings us to the “wrecker” of YouTube (w)records, “Wrecking Ball.” (See what I did there?) This song is supposedly about Ms. Cyrus’s breakup with Thor’s brother Gale, and I use “supposedly” here to mean “some people said it on the Internet.” I think it makes more sense to read the song as a cry of dismay from a woman used up and cast aside by America, Ms. Cyrus’s version of Tamar’s plea to her half-brother, the pop song equivalent of ripping one’s robes and putting ashes on one’s head.
Well, sort of.
Because a strict comparison of Ms. Cyrus (or any other female pop star) to Tamar removes all freedom of choice from the women themselves, denies the possibility that they might want to participate in this process. After all, the cycle does earn them a lot of money and fame, the two giant carrots of the music industry.
It’s not a coincidence that “Wrecking Ball” is going to hit number one on the pop charts, for its variety of strategically licked construction materials takes Ms. Cyrus’s VMA performance to a whole new level of… I don’t know what to call it. Maybe “wrecked” is as good a word as any.
Ms. Cyrus has publically asked people to overlook the licking, to (as quoted from Wikipedia) “take their minds out of the obvious and go into their imagination a little bit and see kind of what the video really means and the way it’s so vulnerable; and actually if you look in my eyes, I look more sad than my voice sounds on the record. It was a lot harder to do the video than it was to record the songs.”
And in one sense she’s completely right about that. The lyrics are inescapably sad, the intense sadness of love dying. I’m already learning an acoustic version, and I guarantee I will make myself cry at least once while singing it. Ms. Cyrus doesn’t put ashes on her head like Tamar, but if you do look in her eyes, if you can draw your gaze away from that hammer for just one second, and really, really, look in her eyes, no, not at the hammer, her eyes, then, yeah, you can see the pain there.
Of course, asking people to overlook a naked woman licking a hammer is like… well, like asking people to overlook a naked woman licking a hammer. Also, the lyrics are kind of confusing, confusing and appropriate:
I came in like a wrecking ball.
I never hit so hard in love.
All I wanted was to break your walls.
All you ever did was wreck me.
Yeah, you, you wreck me.
In these lyrics, as in life, Ms. Cyrus is both the wrecking ball and the wall, the swinger and the swingee, the target and the shooter. Unlike the story of Tamar, where we can all hate Amnon and Jonadab comfortably, the story of Ms. Cyrus’s movement from love to hatred is messy and difficult. It’s hard to know who we should blame. We wreck me.
I have a couple Christian friends who are enormous Kelly Clarkson fans, and by that I mean they like her music a lot, not that they are particularly large. One thing that struck me the first time I heard “Wrecking Ball” was how easily it could have been a song by Ms. Clarkson. She actually has several songs like this, breakup anthems about the pain of love betrayed. “Behind These Hazel Eyes” is a near identical parallel, at least lyrically.
But Ms. Clarkson is one of the few insanely successful female pop stars who resisted the pressure to go through the normal sexual boom-bust cycle. She stayed real instead, real in a way that’s not consumable, real in a prickly, rigid way that resists what we would make of her. She’s not a fantasy to be used up and thrown aside. She’s a woman. She plays music. She sings like an elven warrior.
And, most importantly, it is impossible for a trio of shirtless boys on the ISU quad to ridicule her with a single, surprisingly well executed twerk. They’d look like fools if they tried. Which is how it should be.