What Was Up With That Miley Cyrus AMA Performance?

Miley Cyrus

On November 24, 2013, Miley Cyrus closed the American Music Awards with a performance of her number one single “Wrecking Ball.” Unlike her previous appearances on awards shows, including the infamous MTV Video Music Awards, Cyrus’ performance was relatively tame and void of shock value. She stood on stage and sang her song, proving to her critics and fans that she was talented. However, this is pop music after all, and Cyrus wasn’t going to end the night without causing a commotion. Even if Cyrus didn’t do that much on stage, a computer generated cat projected upon a screen behind her most certainly stole the show.

The question on everyone’s minds was the same: What the hell was that? Even without shocking, Cyrus made us shake our heads. The consensus from most casual viewers is that the “weird” cat ruined the performance. As thesmartone from the Goldderby forums writes, “I think Miley Cyrus would have had one of the best performances of the night if it weren’t for the cat. Her vocals were really good, and she proved that she can actually sing, but that she just chooses on her own to do all of these distractions in her performances.” What these criticisms fail to realize, however, is that ” these distractions” are the point of Cyrus’ performances.

Some seem to get this, and a few critics have even attempted to articulate the symbolic significance of the cat. Judy Berman of Flavorwire, for example, claims that the cat is a “‘fuck the haters’ gesture wrapped in the kind of sarcastic apology best expressed by the crocodile tears of a giant kitten.” Todd Martens of the Los Angeles Times, on other hand, situates the kitten’s presence within the surreal realm of stoner humor. These perspectives are certainly worth considering, but I think Cyrus was up to something a little more consequential, and she was implicating us in the process.

In order to comprehend the importance of the cat, we must keep two things in mind: First, the cat is a computer generated image, which means that it isn’t “real” in the sense that Cyrus’ presence on stage in the human flesh is. Second, we should note that the cat, while not being “real”, emulates the emotions Cyrus expresses in the song’s music video. This is because the cat represents the artificiality of Cyrus’ pop star image. Like Cyrus, the cat expresses emotion and sings along to “Wrecking Ball,” and its uncanny presence reminds us that Cyrus is a calculated pop star who knows how to sell a false image to the public.

The fact that Cyrus happens to be performing her most emotional, personal song is no coincidence. Even during intimate moments, Cyrus calls attention to the fact that her public image is a creation. In a sense, Cyrus’ image can be understood as her art, and the AMA performance can be viewed as a response to the critics who attack her for being fake and shocking for the sake of it. Cyrus provides her critics with confirmation. When the cat sticks out its tongue at the end of performance, this is Cyrus’ proverbial wink to the audience, as if to say, “I knew exactly what I was doing all along, and you all fell for it.”

In addition, Cyrus’ costume is sexually revealing, and it is decorated with images of cats–the same cat that is projected digitally on the screen behind her. The message couldn’t be clearer. Cyrus is the cat, and everything she has done in the public eye before her AMA performance, from the sexual antics to the emotional confessions to the shocking revelations, were fabricated for the production of her star image.

There is nothing authentic about Cyrus’ public persona, and she wants us to know this because the image she creates is her art. More than the music or the movie performances, her greatest creative achievement is the ability to persuade people into thinking that the pop star they see twerk on stage or hang naked from a wrecking ball in a music video is the real her.

This is why Miley Cyrus is the most relevant pop artist of the 21st century. Whereas others are satisfied with producing successful albums and singles, Cyrus is determined to create an entire public persona, and she won’t stop–she can’t stop–until we take it seriously. So far, given the recent controversy and attention devoted to her every move, she has succeeded. However, like every artist, there’s a conscious attempt to call attention to the craft in the hope that the audience will stand up and applaud.

At the end of Cyrus’ performance, audience members at the AMAs clearly gave her a standing ovation, but the look on some of their faces shows that they weren’t entirely sure what they were applauding.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here: http://jonlisi.pressfolios.com/.

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  1. Grete Lut

    People need to understand that she was playing Hannah Montana for several years and now its finished. She’s Miley Cyrus, and she is here to stay. Do I like that? No. But who am I to be the judge of anything. Nice read btw.

  2. Ramirez

    The kitty was cute, but everything else, no. Miley just can’t kick the twang. 

  3. I expected her ride on a wrecking ball with the confetti and everything… Well, at least she can sing! lol

  4. I actually thought this was a very powerful performance by Miley. This woman is just hitting her stride. She plays by her own rules. I remember when everyone talked about Madonna the way they talk about Miley now. She’s crazy, she’s horrible, look at the terrible example she’s setting, and on and on. Remember, well behaved women seldom make history.

  5. THought she has nice vocals… but the performance was nonsense.

  6. Jordan

    sounds interesting, I’ll have to check it out 😛
    i think i’d rather look at a cat then watch the music video for Wreckingball ever again

  7. Interesting read. Keep it up.

  8. Nat Parsons

    Miley’s always been able to sing, and sing very well – see her cover of ‘Jolene’ with her band about a year ago. I have this theory that although a singer, she’s a performer first. She’s so plugged in to the music industry of now – add that to her knowledge of how to hold an audience and her relaxed personality, and she’s never going to play it safe. Why should she? Plus she’s played it safe already!
    Great article, I loved it, and so glad someone else feels the same about Miley. I think she’s got an incredible sense of humour. That performance made me laugh. x

  9. Taylor Ramsey

    We pay far too much attention to her. In 10 years, assuming she is still a music force to be reckoned with as she is now, THEN we can debate the finer details of her art.
    At this point though, her music does exactly what it is intended to do, be pop and nothing more.

  10. Nicola Kahler

    She’s insane… but I guess she has successfully lost her “Disney Kid” image which is always a plus

  11. I think she has managed to grab a good deal of attention- her latest album is quite a hit, be it for good or not and the VMA performance has driven everyone right from the academicians to music critics to talk about her! Feminists are going crazy! Voila, she’s done a good job.

  12. I agree with some of your comments, particularly the view of Miley using certain ‘distractions’ within her performances: however, as also shown by her performance of this song on the X Factor recently, it isn’t really that good… she has a lovely voice but this song is difficult and you can hear her straining to hit the notes on the chorus, so it ends up sounding like she is shouting…perhaps she knows this and the ‘cat’ thing is simply a ‘look at the cat and not at my bad singing’ distraction? If you search for Miley’s performance of Jolene in the Backyard Sessions on Youtube, she sounds gorgeous and looks confident.

  13. The absurdity of the cat was another way for Miley to gain media attention and ensure that people are still talking about her. Similar to how Kanye West has been wearing bizarre masks at his concerts lately, the more outlandish the performance, the more media attention generated.

  14. I think she is out for media attention, not creating an image. I mean, that is a by product, but she just wants more attention so she does stupid/outlandish things. I worry for her future, really.

    • Jon Lisi

      She’s a big girl; she knows what she’s doing. I guess it’s a matter of perspective. Either way, the image is intertwined with media attention and in many ways is designed to elicit that attention.

  15. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    Sort of a retrospective post: I honestly think Miley’s on her way out (unfortunately, I really like her). Bangerz was completely unmentionable other than the single hits, and unless Miley strikes chord with her next batch of music, she’ll probably fall into celebrity obscurity. But the girl can sing and knows how to cause a ruckus, so maybe she can keep her name at the top of the media headlines…

  16. Jemarc Axinto

    Her fascination with “image” is basically what the industry has always been about. While, on one hand she is very intentionally perpetuating this image, on the other hand she will only be timeless in an infamous sense. The artists that are still around today for more than their image, but their music, are still here to stay. As an example, and perhaps a bit of an unfair one, “Can’t Stop. Won’t Stop” will be played as a fun “I listened to this at a party a few times in my youth” song, whereas Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To the Moon” is still remembered as “brilliant” and “art.” I don’t think a majority of people would ever call Miley an “artist” but she definitely has made an impact.

  17. foreshadowing of coming planet nibiru

  18. Re: the cute kitty: I wouldn’t even give it the dignity of an article. As a couple of comments have noted, it’s an attention ploy, and devoting a whole article to it (as opposed to any merits that Cyrus has as a singer) simply gives oxygen to the ploy.

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