Review of The Lowdown CD
Music I Got for Christmas and How it Relates to Cher

Camille Paglia on Miley Cyrus

CamileCamille Paglia: you love her or you hate her. She's outspoken and strident and I tend not to agree with her politically or critically and she was not supportive of Chaz's transgendering and has both been critical of Cher's plastic surgery and supportive of Cher's persona on occasion.

But recently my friend Christopher sent me a really good Time editorial by Paglia about Miley Cyrus' recent scandalous performance and it echoes many of the concerns Cher initially had. Her editorial also made many good points about the history of pop music and Madonna, as well:

"...the real scandal was how atrocious Cyrus' performance was in artistic terms. She was clumsy, flat-footed, and cringingly unsexy, and effect heightened by her manic grin.

How could American pop have gotten this bad? Sex has been a crucial component of the entertainment industry since the seductive vamps of silent film and the bawdy big mamas of roadhouse blues. Elvis Presley, James Brown and Mick Jagger brought sizzling heat to rock, soul and funk music, which in turn spawned the controversial raw explicitness of urban hip-hop.

The Cyrus fiasco, however, is symptomatic of the still heavy influence of Madonna, who sprang to world fame in the 1980s with sophisticated videos that were suffused with a daring European art-film eroticism and that were arguably among the best artworks of the decade. Madonna’s provocations were smolderingly sexy because she had a good Catholic girl’s keen sense of transgression. Subversion requires limits to violate.


But more important, Madonna, a trained modern dancer, was originally inspired by work of tremendous quality — above all, Marlene Dietrich’s glamorous movie roles as a bisexual blond dominatrix and Bob Fosse’s stunningly forceful strip-club choreography for the 1972 film Cabaret, set in decadent Weimar-era Berlin. Today’s aspiring singers, teethed on frenetically edited small-screen videos, rarely have direct contact with those superb precursors and are simply aping feeble imitations of Madonna at 10th remove.

Pop is suffering from the same malady as the art world, which is stuck on the tired old rubric that shock automatically confers value. But those once powerful avant-garde gestures have lost their relevance in our diffuse and technology-saturated era, when there is no longer an ossified high-culture establishment to rebel against. On the contrary, the fine arts are alarmingly distant or marginal to most young people today.


With their massive computerized lighting and special-effects systems, arena shows make improvisation impossible and stifle the natural rapport with the audience that performers once had in vaudeville houses and jazz clubs. There is neither time nor space to develop emotional depth or creative skills.

Pop is an artistic tradition that deserves as much respect as any other. Its lineage stretches back to 17th century Appalachian folk songs and African-American blues, all of which can still be heard vibrating in the lyrics and chord structure of contemporary music. But our most visible young performers, consumed with packaging and attitude, seem to have little sense of that thrilling continuity and therefore no confidence in how it can define and sustain their artistic identities over the course of a career.

What was perhaps most embarrassing about Miley Cyrus’ dismal gig was its cutesy toys — a giant teddy bear from which she popped to cavort with a dance troupe in fuzzy bear drag. Intended to satirize her Disney past, it signaled instead the childishness of Cyrus’ notion of sexuality, which has become simply a cartoonish gimmick to disguise a lack of professional focus. Sex isn’t just exposed flesh and crude gestures. The greatest performers, like Madonna in a canonical video such as “Vogue,” know how to use suggestion and mystery to project the magic of sexual allure. Miley, go back to school!

Read the full piece:

What Paglia does here is to maintain that sex has always been a part of pop music and that the raunchiness of Cyrus' performance wasn't the issue. It was the emptiness of it. She makes similar critiques of Lady Gaga. From the UK's Sunday Times, Paglia said that

Gaga is a "manufactured personality" who rips off her music and fashion from "Cher, Jane Fonda as Barbarella, Gwen Stefani and Pink." Paglia also disses the star's attractiveness, saying that "Drag queens, whom Gaga professes to admire, are usually far sexier in many of her over-the-top outfits than she is." Her sex appeal, or lack thereof, is quite a problem for Paglia: "Furthermore, despite showing acres of pallid flesh in the fetish-bondage garb of urban prostitution, Gaga isn’t sexy at all – she’s like a gangly marionette or plasticised android. How could a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism have become the icon of her generation? Can it be that Gaga represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution? In Gaga’s manic miming of persona after persona, over-conceptualised and claustrophobic, we may have reached the limit of an era…"

This is the enduring issue I have with Gaga, not her unsexiness (do we all have to be sexy?), but her flatness, how her artistic gestures are shallow and blatant. I just don't get a message there.

I like how Paglia compares the vapidness of shock for shock's sake between the pop and the art world, and how both fields need something to play against, "subversion needs limits to violate" like Madonna's transgressions against the Catholic Church. Likewise in the art world, if there is no establishment to rebel against, rebellion seems valueless.

I'm also interested in Paglia's concerns about arena shows and how computerized elements "make improvisation impossible and stifle natural rapport." I hope Cher keeps in mind a balance between cool technology and bling-bling effects and allows a spot of unplanned-out intimacy in her new show, understanding the fact that she is beloved to her fans and she could sing on a stool in a pretty dress and charm us all well enough. She is truely much more than "packaging and attitude" (or trust me, I would be bored to tears and would have jumped off the Cher wagon years ago) and defines, all by herself, the "thrilling continuity" of pop music's lineage. I hope someday she takes ownership of that.

She's also naturally sexy (sister to sister, you're time-tested) and thankfully doesn't need to bump and grind a teddy bear.




who is cher

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