Who hasn’t complained about the music that comes along with the generation below them?
Who hasn’t thought that “their music” was “the best music” and the stuff that came after just “isn’t the same?”
Who hasn’t read one of those articles thinking the younger generation is going to degrade the world worse than where it is and therefore we’re all doomed?
…Not judging if you have, (I’m being mostly rhetorical and self-admitting here, minus the doomed part…) but these “What if” type questions and causes of anxiety are exactly where I’m at right now, though not because I think the entire world is in trouble. I’m just sensing a marked level of confusion about actual age, targeted demographic, expected behavior and social excuses.
Similar to the central juxtaposition addressed in this piece on Maroon 5’s lyrics, it seems a perfect set of songs and artists have surfaced about which is worth talking. The subjects at center stage? Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus
During a run of the mill afternoon, wherein I was browsing terrestrial radio for some background music, songs by both Cyrus and Perry managed to make their way through my stereo’s speakers back to back. It was interesting to hear Cyrus’s newest track, “We Can’t Stop” right up against Perry’s slightly older radio hit, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F).” The intrigue comes from the impression I had drawn after reading Cyrus’s own admissions about her song’s lyrics and its inherently controversial content. The song and the accompanying music video both contain references to drugs and the video takes things a step further with Cyrus prostrating herself in several suggestive positions, making suggestive gestures and including symbolism in her video, which further exacerbates the impression of a classically narcissistic group of people, in the form of reckless partiers. To make matters even more dicey, within the context of the video, as well as the context of real life, it is clear the people being portrayed are underage –not that this matters where anything but alcohol consumption is concerned but it just emphasizes my point.
Now, to make this completely fair and objectionable as possible, “TGIF” by Perry evokes similar themes and the accompanying video for her song portrays similar recklessness framed within the implied visual context of a high school, and thereby underage, audience. Lyrics like “think we took too many shots” and “warrant’s out for my arrest” make Perry and Cyrus seem like they could easily be placed in an analogous audience space and criticized for parallel parentally-problematic themes, given the conflict between consumer age and given messages. I can absolutely see this and can agree with it.
However, let’s take minute to talk about the pair outside of their music video personas. (Especially where Perry is concerned since her video plays out like a short film.) Katy Perry is well into adulthood; both physically and emotionally. Her being close to 29 years old and having gone through a full fledged engagement, marriage and divorce; not through the antics of a 24 hour Vegas wedding but in what, at the time, was a committed relationship, she isn’t experiencing the adrenaline of older life for the first time. There’s no denying that Perry’s music in general, even from the time of her first breakout single, “I Kissed a Girl,” has both racy undertones and outright statements. I’m not here to debate if words are controversial or not.
What’s interesting at present, is the fact that Perry is at the age she is and although her fan demographic is likely to span both into older individuals that might be around her age, as well as into younger ages breaching teens, for “TGIF” in particular, Perry approaches a song about carefree partying that I would expect of Cyrus; as it would at least align more with where she actually is in age. “TGIF” might look and read comparably to “We Can’t Stop” on the surface but aside from Perry and Cyrus’s ages, the framing of Perry’s video in a fictional scenario that heavily exaggerates high school stereotypes makes listeners more likely take in Perry’s video at face value as opposed to that of a potential real life experience, of which Cyrus’s video is admittedly based, according to Billboard’s video interview:
“I think my music video for “We Can’t Stop” is where people are really going to see me the most and who I am. It’s really based off of true events. It’s the true story of a crazy night I had with my friends. …I know we all live for those nights right now. We’re young and so I want to talk to my fans about that.”
Miley Cyrus is not yet even legal to drink, only at age 20 and still working to shed her Disney days for all time, as she elaborates on for Billboard, in her accompanying cover story from this past June:
“Right now, when people go to iTunes and listen to my old music, it’s so irritating to me because I can’t just erase that stuff and start over.”
While I won’t fault Cyrus for decisively choosing to not pan to multiple age brackets, (since she’s blatantly implying she wants to ditch her older stuff, which would leave the door open for younger fans to appreciate her at some level, even if only in a prior image,) I can’t help but be surprised by the position she takes on the subject matter for “We Can’t Stop,” explained during her interview with the UK’s Daily Mail. It’s not so much that she admitted a slang MDMA drug reference. It’s her reason of justification that leaves a perplexed “Really?” out in the open when I think about her song stacked against Perry’s:
“If you’re aged ten it’s ‘Miley’, if you know what I’m talking about then you know. I don’t think people have a hard time understanding that I’ve grown up.”
(Side note: Funny how in the Billboard interview Cyrus is emphasizing youth while in the quote to the Daily Mail, she wants people to understand that she’s grown up and that the latter is her adequate validation for incorporating drug references. Which one is it?) Here again, I won’t debate that younger children often miss innuendos for all kinds of topics that breach adult life but following that up with a reminder of her “grown up” status is where things just come across as very off. Cyrus is 20 and Perry is almost 30. Yet, even with Perry’s risque material and song theme of “I Kissed a Girl,” being released back when she was 23, Perry then was still older than Cyrus is now by a few years, and furthermore, no explicitly female kissing even ended up in that video. It was essentially one big tease. While a new super racy and borderline offensive video from Perry now wouldn’t likely be given a parental approval award of the year either, if one were released tomorrow, it would seem such a video would induce a less severe reflex of potential repulsion, simply because Perry is older and not necessarily carrying around the younger fan bracket that Cyrus is (whether she wants it now or not.)
The obsession by some A-list musicians with (singing about) drugs, sexual themes and risky life choices can be disappointing but one arrives at a point where they see and accept that the person is not primarily catering to younger listeners. If consumers want to start moving away from listening because of this kind of change, they are free to do that. The reality is though, that Cyrus is not an older celebrity like that of how she wants to act and glamourize. She is the age she is now and the idea of leaning on the cheat of “marketing age vs. real age” to soften the blow over questionable material says something about how the overall nature of music marketing exists in the U.S. Think of it like the unpacking of Valentine’s Day decorations during Thanksgiving. Cyrus is not there yet and she still has her younger fans, not to mention, younger self to think about, even if she wants to hurry up and reach an age where it’s supposed to be acceptable to do the kinds of things we as listeners are supposed to “know [she’s] up to”…even though, last time I checked, drugs aren’t a universal(ly accepted) rite of passage.
Oh, and as a last piece of food for thought: Cyrus’s frustration over her stubbornly sticking Disney days feels very melodramatic when one looks over just a slight 45 degrees and sees the also teen appealing Jonas Brothers well evolved past the very same situation of previous juvenile musicality, still touring and writing, getting married and getting older too –all without thrusting their crotches or singing about heroine.