It went largely unnoticed yesterday, what with everyone being too busy writing open letters and pissy tweets and then even more open letters, but Miley Cyrus reunited with the deplorable Terry Richardson for their second photo shoot together. There’s lots of that now ubiquitous tongue, of course, but to up the ante this time around, there’s also some ass, some nipple, and almost, almost some vagina, even. This comes on the heel of the “Wrecking Ball” video, which came on the heel of the VMA performance, which came on the heel of that other video and, uh, her decision to cut her hair really short or whatever—all of which is to say that this is not exactly a surprise. The opposite, in fact.
Miley Cyrus’s 2013 has been a slow march toward what we’re supposed to understand is her artistic and sexual coming of age. It’s the real Miley coming out, refusing to be pigeonholed as the wholesome Hannah Montana character that gave her her start. It’s a scenario we’ve seen unfold countless times over the years, with young female artists like Christina and Britney, and even Rihanna to an extent: they start out wholesome and beholden to the mostly male executives in charge of their career, and then when they become popular and thus powerful enough to earn some freedom, they give their image an overhaul that we’re always told better reflects who they are as women. They’re not that innocent, etc.
Now, I will acknowledge that, as a 34-year-old dude, there are probably people who are more qualified than I am to write about the sexual awakening of a teenage girl. This is not lost on me. At all. And I’m also fully aware that this is what has driven pop music since there was even such a thing as pop music–from the feelings young women (and men!) were meant to feel when Elvis did the thing with his hips, to the eye-opening thrill of seeing Madonna writhe around to “Like a Virgin,” this is the lingua franca of pop. But I also can’t shake the feeling that there has to be more to it than this, that there shouldn’t be such a set playbook for the whole thing. That, quite simply, it shouldn’t be this boring and predictable.
Or, to be more specific, that it should probably not involve Terry Richardson—especially when, as in Miley’s case, we’re sold on this idea that the artist in question is very much aware of how this sort of thing has played out over the years. During an interview for her recent MTV documentary, she said, “You can watch the VMAs and think it was a hot mess, but it was a strategic hot mess.” She’s telling us she’s fully self-aware, that she’s given great thought to every supposedly outrageous thing she’s done over the past few months. But this is precisely why it’s so disappointing that she’s gone about it in such a formulaic way. The signifiers are different (twerking and grills rather than, say, super low-rise jeans), but she’s still hitting every single well-established checkpoint along the way–checkpoints, mind you, that have been put in place as part of the very same system that churns out a new Hannah Montana every year. At this point the VMAs exist solely as an arena for performances like Miley’s, the shows organizers presumably desperate for one just like it to happen each and every year. And in much the same way, Richardson’s role in the industry is also firmly established: magazines, which, at the very top, are run by people not unlike those who run the record labels and television networks that originally put in place the very strict boundaries from which people like Cyrus are trying to escape, know that he’s the guy you turn to when you want to dirty up your image. People in power continue to provide Cyrus with all the tools she needs to be the person she wants to be, and she’s so busy utilizing each and every one of them that she hasn’t stopped to considered the possibility that she’s still just being exactly the person they want her to be.