Miley Cyrus at the VMAs: a six-minute guide to the prejudices of the entertainment industry

From Miley grinding Robin Thicke to smacking her backing dancer's buttocks, the VMAs showed that, once again, white men run the show, black men play support, all the women get mostly naked, and black women get to hold up the bottom of the objectification

Not to get all philosophical about pop, but when Miley Cyrus starting singing "It's our party, we can do what we want" in her MTV VMAs appearance, the question that comes to mind is: oh yeah Miley, whose party? Because by the time the We Can't Stop/Blurred Lines medley is up, Cyrus has been stripped down to a supporting role in Robin Thicke's show.

Dressed in latex pants and bra the colour of her skin, like the models in Blurred Lines' Benny-Hill-goes-to-American-Apparel video, Cyrus ends up bent over in front of a suited Thicke, wiggling and hanging her tongue out the side of her mouth. Is what you want definitely such a close match with King Leer behind you, Miley?

Mind you, it's turn and turnabout in the objectification stakes. Cyrus's segment of the performance includes her bending over a black dancer and spanking her while singing the weirdly slow and mournful line: "To my homegirls here with the big butts/Shaking it like we at a strip club." Oh we're doing the Hottentot Venus thing now, are we? I haven't run the full sums on my Is-This-Racist calculator, but preliminary estimates suggests that yes, this is pretty stinkingly racist.

In fact, if you wanted a six-minute guide to the prejudices of the entertainment industry, this performance has it covered: white men run the show, black men play support, all the women get mostly naked, and black women get to hold up the bottom of the objectification pile. It is, simply, horrible, and made worse by the fact that Cyrus looks wildly awkward. She's at her best as a clowning comedian, a Disney Channel Lucille Ball, and can't play the affectless wanton. No wonder Rihanna seems to be shooting her evils: Rihanna knows sexy, and this isn't it.

But it is one of the only roles that's available to female pop stars – certainly for Cyrus, who's trying to get away from the country-pop sweetheart persona of Hannah Montana that Taylor Swift now occupies. "You're a good girl," croons Thicke ironically over Cyrus's jiggling heiny, and what do ironic good girls do? They get nasty in exactly the way boys want them to, while the boys stay neatly clothed. It makes it drearily obvious just who's in charge.

In this tedious atmosphere where everything tends to women ending up in their bras and pants, even Gaga's giddying performance-of-performance for Applause ends up feeling null when it climaxes with her dancing in bra and pants. Hey, everyone's naked today, Gaga. Next time try blowing my mind by wearing a three-piece suit or something. If the endgame is always a skinny white woman in her underwear, it doesn't seem to make much odds what the hooks are or what wit and gameplaying goes into getting there.

Yes, but pop music is about sex, right? No: pop music is sexy, but that twitching force doesn't always have to be driven into a dull pantomime of rutting, with available female bodies and smugly self-contained male ones. I cheered inside last year when Cyrus spoke up, saying "it’s ignorant not to talk to your kids about [sex] or [not] make it seem as magical or cool as it actually is." The kind of sex on show last night? Not magical. Not cool. Not my party.

Yes, Jaden Smith. We know.

Miley Cyrus grinds on Robin Thicke. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis