Time's announcement, this morning, that Pope Francis was its "Person of the Year" came as a surprise to those who'd bet on NSA leaker Edward Snowden. But at least one person was relieved that the newsmagazine didn't tap Miley Cyrus for the honor.
The "We Can't Stop" singer had, indeed, been among Time's 10 "contenders" for the title, which has since 1927 aimed to honor the person with the greatest impact on the culture. How to read the list of finalists -- as a list of 10 people each with a real chance of being named person of the year, or a ranked list of 10 people, some more important than others -- will determine how angry one gets at the idea of Cyrus being cited by Time. So, too, will how much one actually pays attention to the culture Time seeks to document.
National Journal's Major Garrett, to borrow a common phrase, wants Cyrus to get off his lawn. Garrett, in an Op-Ed published just before the Francis selection, derided Time for including Cyrus on its list of the year's 10 top newsmakers, and suggested in Cyrus' place several women: future Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and "women in the Senate."
Garrett's point about the low number of women Time considered is well taken; the rest lapses into delusion. Mary Barra was named as GM head this week; his explanation that "Barra has for months been on the short list to replace Dan Akerson as chief executive and was most recently in charge of global product development and purchasing" does not exactly grip the heart. Even someone who agrees that Cyrus doesn't deserve to be alongside the pope, Ted Cruz and Kathleen Sebelius on a list of the year's most influential people might find "person in charge of global product development and purchasing at a car company" to be comparatively thin gruel.
Dismissing, as Garrett does, Cyrus as human "click bait" entirely discounts the idea that people click on stories about her and not about Barra of their own free will. The implication is that those who do not agree that GM's rise from bankruptcy is "a fascinating story of industry policy" are somehow being manipulated by Time, that we all know someone like Barra is more "deserving" and Time is just trying to get us to click on a Cyrus story.
But even those who don't care about Time's traffic might see that the ability of a celebrity to, at mere mention of their name, catalyze Web traffic is in fact a qualification for Person of the Year status, not somehow a shameful disqualifier. If Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In movement were as much of a conversation starter across the Web as Garrett believes (as opposed to a conversation that necessarily excludes those who cannot "lean in" without the material wealth and help Sandberg already has), then she'd be included on the basis of her "click bait" nature. And, were that the case, Garrett would applaud, because Sandberg is suffused with a sort of respectability. But the very fact that Cyrus is, as she puts it, a "female rebel" of the sort not usually on newsmagazine covers is the very reason she is interesting.
Garrett describes Cyrus as "transparently unfit for POY status and unambiguously grafted onto the list for commercial reasons." Well, why? Cyrus' achievements this year are not all for the good, but through the year, young Cyrus catalyzed conversations -- many uncomfortable -- about race, feminism and sexuality; with an unexpected hit album, she pushed pop music further toward raunch and spectacle, outpacing much more seasoned performers; her single "Wrecking Ball" hit No. 1 on the strength of online streams, a bellwether of the changes in the music industry; she brought "twerking" to white culture.
To deny that Cyrus was influential this year is effectively to say that no celebrity from the world of popular culture can ever be as big a deal as Mary Barra was before she was named head of GM. With the benefit of hindsight, it's very easy to say that Madonna was one of the 10 most influential people of 1989, or Eminem in 2002, or the Beatles any year in the 1960s. (Conversely, it would have been possible, though slightly less apt, to name the creator or stars of "Breaking Bad" to the top-10 list -- though the conversations the show sparked were less interesting than those around Cyrus. Garrett likely would not have written an Op-Ed on that, though.) Because 2013 was not 1989, Cyrus will never be Madonna -- but her preeminence on the pop scene isn't an entirely dubious achievement.
And Cyrus isn't as influential as the pope -- well, duh. She wasn't actually named Person of the Year, and nor should she have been. But a list of 10 influential figures that entirely disregarded the role culture plays in our lives would be a deeply strange one, and dismissing Cyrus because she's "click bait" is a pretty tidy way to write off anyone interested in the culture as fundamentally unserious. 2013 was the year in which Edward Snowden revealed the PRISM surveillance program; it's also the year "Prism," the marquee album by pop veteran Katy Perry, was largely overshadowed by Cyrus' Video Music Awards antics. The fact is that Cyrus is influencing people. That Garrett and others don't respect them is hardly Time's problem.