The talk of the Video Music Awards last night was Miley Cyrus, who -- before leaving early after she lost an award -- twerked wildly all over the body of Robin Thicke, stroking his crotch with a foam finger as the two sang his hit "Blurred Lines."
The performance -- a duet between a 20-year-old woman and a 36-year-old man, a woman young enough to have not been allowed to buy Britney Spears's "...Baby One More Time" and a man older than MTV itself -- was intended as the biggest platform yet for the new Miley Cyrus, who was reinventing herself in precisely the same way Christina Aguilera did ten years earlier when she performed "Dirrty" and "Fighter."
But performing near-nude on the VMA stage back in the day, Christina Aguilera was singing an ode to her own empowerment and desire to get sexual satisfaction on her own terms. Last night, Miley was singing a song about how good Robin Thicke is at sex. "Blurred Lines," the song and video, has been read by some as an ode to coercive sex -- not an opinion I had shared until watching Cyrus thrust herself all over a tight-suited Thicke. The girls dancing nude in Thicke's video look as though they're having fun; Cyrus looked as though she were gritting her teeth to prove a point.
Sex-positivity is the coin of the realm for MTV; artist after artist reinvents him- or (usually) herself as "adult" with a raunchy new outfit and single. (In the case of One Direction, who won a prize for their video "Best Song Ever," that can mean mocking gay choreographers and dressing in drag.) But it's usually intended just as a way to get attention and record sales, not as a way to express a genuine emotion. Even those artists trying to support equal rights or sex-positivity are subject to the marketplace. Lady Gaga, whose performance of "Applause" was among the strongest of her career, was lampooned in two separate comedy segments by Kevin Hart, who couldn't stop remarking upon how her posterior looked in her costume.
Or consider the case of "Same Love." After out-of-the-closet NBA athlete Jason Collins delivered a heartfelt introduction to the Macklemore song about marriage equality, the rapper A$AP Rocky took the opportunity to interrupt to promote an associate's album. There is no moment too gauche to use for self-promotion -- indeed, the import of the moment, such as it was, made the naked appeal to commercialism all the more impressive. Then there's the Macklemore song itself, which won a trophy for its "social message"; it's performed by two straight men and a lesbian woman. The woman did not get to speak during the acceptance speech and was shouted down by straight entertainer Jennifer Hudson during the performance.
Macklemore, meanwhile, a brand-new but extremely commercially viable artist, is able to build a career off of an image as an ally, with such deep thoughts as "When I was in the third grade / I thought that I was gay / 'Cause I could draw." While it's perhaps expecting too much for Macklemore to be much more sophisticated -- he's the most prominent advocate for gay rights on the music scene other than Katy Perry, who's recently decided she doesn't think gay people should hang themselves -- this is rudimentary stuff. Macklemore's saying he can relate to gay people because he thought he was gay, except he loves women, is an excellent way to position him as someone almost too sensitive for this earth but, don't worry, definitely straight! (He's "loved girls since before Pre-K!," the song goes.) He's all things to all people and keeping the focus on himself, not the gays for whom he claims to advocate. The queer person on the stage doesn't get to even speak.
Bruno Mars's performance of "Gorilla" at least did not pretend to be anything other than what it was -- an ode to really rough sex. "I got a fistful of your hair / But you don't look like you're scared / You just smile and tell me, 'Daddy, it's yours.'" If only a woman or gay person were allowed to be half as frank about their experience without fear of interruption, capitulation, or mockery as the straight man given five minutes of airtime to tell us how great things are for him.