Culture

Miley Cyrus: Punk of the Year? Almost. (Seriously.)

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I knew nothing about Miley Cyrus before she twerked her way into my consciousness the day after her duet with Robin Thicke on the MTV Video Music Awards.

Frankly, I haven’t been able to tell any male or female performers under age 30 apart for at least ten years now.

All the guys are identical blurs of scruffy facial hair and skinny suits.

The girls are even harder to distinguish, with their character-less faces and clone-ish hair cuts.

The morning after the show, I kept puzzling over the ubiquitous photos of Cyrus in her ugly rubbery two-piece, with her tongue stuck out and her hair just… weird.

I’d seen that get-up before, or something like it.

But where?

Google let me down. I dug through dusty stacks of old books before I found it, in Cool Cats: 25 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll Style.

The book came out in 1981, so the photo I was looking for is at least that old, obviously. I’d file it under “very late 1970s.”

Nina Hagen (by Anton Corbijn)

Nina Hagen (by Anton Corbijn)

It’s not an exact match, of course, but what struck me was that both women look decidedly unsexy while wearing what would normally be considered an alluring get-up: bra and panties.

They’re less “slut” than they are “slattern” — from the (appropriately enough) German “to slouch.”

(Alas, this photo doesn’t show Hagen sticking out her long tongue, one of her trademark moves; again, with her the gesture is more mocking and bratty than erotic.)

Cyrus’s strange choice of footwear — chunky white lace-ups that look like orthopedic shoes for geriatric golfers — was the giveaway. Even punk tomboy P!nk wears the sky-high stripper heels that female celebrities seem required by law to toddle around in.

Instead, between those ugly shoes, her clumsy “dancing” and her shaved WTF hairdo, I “read” Cyrus’s performance as a goof on the stereotypical sexiness female performers are supposed to exude, not — as so many critics moaned —  a new low in the coarsening of the culture.

Of course, if that was Cyrus’s intention — and I realize I’m projecting my own “stuff” onto her — her choice of song was inapt. If only she’d stomped out singing about fame or her father or the Arab “Spring” — anything but the all-too-easy subject of sex. I detect a lack of nerve on Cyrus’s part regarding subject matter that will probably be remedied sooner rather than later.

No less a personage than Courtney Love (my contemporary) seemed tuned into my wavelength:

You know, that hillbilly Miley Cyrus is sort of punk in a weird sex way.

In her day, Love also pulled off the remarkable feat of dressing provocatively — in her case, the Lolita look — while turning off more male viewers than she turned on.

Perhaps we’re both thinking back fondly to the dawn of punk, when performers like Hagen, Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, Sinead O’Connor, Pauline Black, Lene Lovich, Poly Styrene (a chubby mixed-race girl with braces) and especially The Slits gave girls permission to dress as what I’ll call “sexless symbols.”

Dan Ozzi wrote an article about this new way to look at Cyrus, the title of which I’ll shorten to “Miley Cyrus is Punk”:

Lest we forget, before punk rock was cool and socially accepted, before it was known best for Green Day and guyliner, it was a genre comprised of outsiders. Musicians looking to escape the soft, passionless landscape that pop music of the time embodied.

It’s  true that it’s impossible to be a “transgressive” artist if all the traditional taboos have already been broken, and few are brave enough to shatter the ones that remain: all the leftwing truisms about class, race, war, religion and economics.

Cyrus’s award show performance launched so many op-eds because folks were clearly trying to come to grips with something so unfamiliar, they were having trouble articulating it.

They weren’t shocked by her “sexiness” so much as by her brazen public “unsexiness.”

In a world in which women spend billions of dollars a year trying to look like cookie-cutter bimbos, Miley Cyrus is a semi-refreshing change.

If she’d read Sinead O’Connor’s critical open letter more carefully, Cyrus might discover that the two have more in common than she realizes.

After all, dissing your elders is the punk thing to do.

The logical next move, if she really wants to do something “radical,” would be to take a few lessons from O’Connor and her contemporaries about how to combine sexuality, humor, brains and musicality.