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Monday, August 26, 2013

Miley Cyrus and Charlie Chaplin

I'm a Miley fan from way back. I remember watching "Hanna Montana" on TV with my kids, and laughing aloud at the skills of an incredibly gifted comic actress. I think she and Raven Simone are the funniest of the Disney pack.

 Last night, humanity lost their collective minds at what they consider to be the latest proof of the End Of Days; Miley's twerk. Judging from the internet messages friends and relatives are sending me, the importance of the Twerk Heard Round The World rivals, no, surpasses the severity of the Fukushima meltdown which has the world's military forces currently united to avert the end of life as we know it. To demonstrate I have my priorities in order, I shall now elaborate on the subject of the controversial Cyrus Twerk, mainly because I want the page hits.

  The dance number Miley performed at the VMAs was a reprise of her performance in the nominated music video WE CAN'T STOP The refrain of the song is "WE CAN DO WHAT WE WANT TO." The video is clearly intended as comedy. Miley Cyrus is a very successful and hilarious COMIC. The video features dancing bear costumes, Miley making out with a mannequin, a guy eating money in a sandwich, and all sorts of funny stuff like that. In the video scene where Miley twerks, she is being mocked by a group of well-endowed black women who shake their heads derisively. The casting of this shot highlights the fact that Miley lacks the key piece of anatomical equipment necessary for an effective twerk. It also points out that Miley is not Black, and that she looks ridiculous trying to act like a Black girl, with her silly-looking hip-hop grill and ghetto gestures. She's DELIBERATELY being crazy and silly in the video, she's famous for being FUNNY! The video illustrates the sentiment, "I CAN DO WHAT I WANT TO."

I suspect that it is the message, not the Twerk, that people are so terrified of. I recently watched a much-maligned work of another great comedian, Charlie Chaplin's film, "Monsieur Verdoux". I was spellbound by this film, and consider it to be one of Chaplin's best.

Bear with me, I'll get back to Miley's buttocks soon enough.

Watching "Monsieur Verdoux", and then reading about how the critics and public attacked this film and Chaplin when it was released, a thought occurred to me; Many artists have a similar creative arc. Early success followed by public vilification. It also seems to me that I usually prefer the latter-day work to the more popular early work of these artists.

Artists go through phases. At the beginning of our creative career, we need public approval. We need to get that first job, a foot in the door, a career launch. Popularity is a priority. Chaplin's "Little Tramp" films were a celebration of the working-class people who bought movie tickets. The films were designed to entertain an audience that was struggling with economic collapse and in desperate need of reassurance and laughter. Chaplin's Tramp was a poor working stiff at the mercy of evil bankers, landlords, and supervisors. He always outsmarted the villains and triumphed, which warmed the hearts of the downtrodden audiences facing similar struggles in real life. Miley's "Hanna Montana" was a formulaic Disney product, full of everything Disney does best; crowd-pleasing popular entertainment designed for the broadest audience possible in order to collect millions of dollars in revenue. (Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse was actually patterned after Chaplin's Tramp, which set the template for all Disney product which followed.)

This brings us to the next phase of an artist's development, the section I find most fascinating, and it happens at different ages for different people. There comes a point in every successful artist's career when he no longer needs to be popular, because he is no longer driven by the need for money. The artist has had a success, has made a reputation, has a fan base, and often some sort of royalty income or ownership of back catalog of popular work. Money is no longer a motivation. The artist continues to work, but is now solely motivated by a desire to create art, or a need to express one's self. For Chaplin, the turning point was "Monsieur Verdoux". Chaplin had more money than he needed, and he owned all of his classic films. He never needed to work again if he didn't want to. He could have made any film he wanted. HE OWNED THE STUDIO! Chaplin chose to create a new, villainous comic character, in many ways the opposite of the Tramp. The film is a showcase of his craft, his skill in disappearing into a character. Chaplin is not trying to be liked, not trying to please. He is demonstrating a supreme level of technique, showing you what a talented artist he is. Audiences rejected him for it.

Miley's declaration, "I'LL DO WHAT I WANT" has a similarly chilling effect on the public at large. How dare she cease to be a performing monkey whose sole desire is our approval? Why doesn't she want to be popular? BECAUSE SHE HAS ALL THE MONEY ALREADY! SHE'S DOING THIS FOR FUN! BECAUSE SHE ENJOYS BEING AN ARTIST! If you like it, great, if you don't, she's still gonna eat.

One of my favorite scenes in "Easy Rider"; the biker protagonists wonder aloud why folks seem to dislike them so much. Is it the long hair? The rock music? The sex? Finally one character yells, "They hate what we REPRESENT! FREEDOM!"

People who don't care about being liked scare the crap out of folks. They are also the most effective. I am always most interested by an artist who works only for the art. I'm much more attracted to an artist's true self-expression OF ANY KIND than I am in someone who just wants to be popular.


Scott Simmons (Secret-HQ) said...

It's Rick Nelson playing Madison Square Garden all over again. ("Garden Party" at YouTube)

Kieron Dwyer said...

Now you make we want to go watch all of Chaplin's films, damn you. I'll skip the Hanna Montanas, though

Kplan said...

I can't believe you made me watch that video. And b/c of so many things you've created, I did.

But while there's definitely a sense of satire in the video, no doubt, you're ignoring the obvious overt sexuality of the video and the intent of the song itself, neither of which are comedy-related.

I think you're making HUGE jumps in logic to explain what the VMA perf was: a continuation of her rebellion to try and squash what's left of the Disney-fication of her. And I can't say I blame her. Her performance was clearly over the top and meant to be outrageous. But I think it was meant to shock, not disgust. And it did more the latter and far less the former it seems. But comedy it was not.

And to believe she was performing comedy would have to mean she is of a genius level of an Andy Kaufman. And that's hardly likely.

Kyle Baker said...

The point of the song is that she can do what she wants! She is a teenaged girl. When I was a teenager, all I wanted was to party and fuck. I think that is the message of all Rock and Roll, but I might be wrong because I'm old. I think the song is about teenagers wanting to get high and have sex. And I think it's funny. Like Punk Rock was for me. Kids saying "FUCK THE WORLD!"

Kyle Baker said...

This is what I used to think was cool when I was her age: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWRV4qW9e3k

Martín Casanova said...


Jim said...

In many ways I think it was still an attempt to achieve success just in a different venue. She is too young to be going through the phase that you are talking about in my opinion. She is saying fuck you to her Disney image and doing the rebellion thing typical of most teen-agers. Although that phase can be fascinating as I remember people like Giffen, Frank Miller and Sienkiwicz(sp) pissing off comic fans when they dared to change how their style. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Miley is just the puppet of an obsessed designer Marc Jacobs. Jacobs controls Miley and told her to act like that at the VMA. Marc Jacobs is a manipulator who wants to lead everyone! He controls Kanye West, Lady Gaga, etc. Read the truth behind Miley's shocking performance on: http://styleangelique.blogspot.hu/2013/03/marc-jacobs-thief-of-century.html

Don Thomas said...

You are a sad human being. Please find a way to pull back from the stupid. Miley Cyrus in no way needs your emotional support and outrageously ludicrous defense of her. Especially when it comes to an offended public which she intentionally offended.

You seriously think Miley Cyrus and Charlie Chaplin are comparable? That's hilarious. She's not even a comedian. You seriously think without the benefit of a large room of Disney writers she could have EVER came up with a single funny word to utter that you so fondly remember from your all so precious childhood?

There is a huge difference between he who is a force in the making the foundation of the very system itself, and a corporate stooge who eventually grew too adult to play the role the corporation had assigned to her.

She wasn't much to begin with, don't make her out to exponentially more than anyone on the planet, except maybe the deluded, could possibly imagine.

Jason A. Quest said...

Since it's really too soon to tell, let's assume that this is Miley Cyrus entering her Doing What I Want To Do period, and not just another entertainer melting down following persistent media attention, in a desperate ploy to keep it. Which means that Miley's DWIWTD involves acting out and getting people to freak out over how "adult" she is, like so many other people her age would do if they didn't have to worry about the consequence (and many do regardless).

But that doesn't make it interesting (or psychologically healthy). In the case of Charlie Chaplin, DWIWTD came when he was a mature and experienced artist with something insightful to say to his audience. In this case ... perhaps not so much.

SAMURAI36 said...

I don't expect this sector to get the following perspective; its one that seems all the more amiss on this crowd, the more that individuals such as myself speak on it.

That said, the grievance that many people have a out Miley, is that she's using her newfound "fascination" with urban culture (re: boredom of her own culture), from whence "Twerking" comes, to make a mockery of said culture.

It's not funny, nor is it appreciated. Consider this: if a bunch of rappers came on an awards show, dressed in Stetsons & cowboy boots, with girls parading around in Confederate halter tops, do you think it would be a question of if there would be an outcry, or how big the outcry would be, from the country music sector?

small change said...

Miley Cyrus does not "represent freedom" - it's lowest common denomenator nepotism. It represents Walmart, selfishness, ego.

The video you call comedy I find incredibly offensive. For one, the cyrus family does not have a kind history with african americans so to mock with the dance moves and gold teeth isnt funny- its racist. Sorry but I was really offended. It made me feel the same way when I watch some step n fetch it movies from the 30s. its the same sentiment, just disguised. it mocks my race and gender. a rich southern girl mocking black people. it doesnt matter whatever vapid stupid statement is trying to be made. the symbolism is plain enough.

You just can't support this type of crap and still claim any morality. its a rich girl making money for other rich people, presenting an arrogant ignorant person as a role model. Its strawman argument just to justify a position. as a woman a minority and a musician - to support this is just as bad as paris hilton, kardashians, or any other woman white men pretend is a singer when its masturbation bait.

Its not art its a commercial. My kids like bad music but I dont go comparing it to charlie chaplin!

DA WORD! said...

So Youre Saying Miley is looking silly for acting like a Black Girl? #Stereotypical

Anonymous said...

Awesome. Haven't heard the Beatnuts in a while.

The part of the "controversy" that I find most amusing is the feigned outrage at her promotion of psychedelic drugs. It's no longer 1965. This country would be a better place if all 14 or 15 year olds were dropping tabs of acid and ecstasy. And so what if people think she's "promoting sexual behavior." I'm a big fan of the feminist movement, but the one flaw it's always had is acting like women are not sexual beings. They are no different than men, and todays girls are happier because they know multiple sexual partners is healthy and empowering. Men don't settle down until they've tried every flavor of girl and every position and every filthy kink they can think of. Women should do the same. It's why men rule society, we don't try to be good little robots. Try some amyl & anal... it could change your life, ladies! The Hannah Montana crowd would be improved by some vile lizard sex.

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geinikankan said...

I was actually looking too look at some of Mr. Baker's work but stumbled on this piece. The drawing is wonderful, a mash-up of the two characters of your story. This is a very clever discussion, with a naturalness I haven't really read on the internet.

I agree with this piece, and I felt your reading of the video was spot-on, but only because what you said makes sense. I've seen the video a few times, but maybe like many viewers I see it but do not really look at what I'm watching.

The stuff about making enough is true, but I think Cyrus is really part of a sort of group in celebrity-land, she learned her craft at the Disney School of the Performing Arts, American Version.

Thus, as well as having made enough to do art, Cyrus also seems to be trying to overshadow other, older media images of herself. But everyone knows, what's online stays online forever.

Which is to say this is a very interesting piece of writing. Thanks Mr. Baker