Before Miley Cyrus trespassed urban music culture, Madonna showed us how to stunt with a greater purpose in mind
In the space of one unicorn-suit twerk in March, Miley Cyrus morphed from countrified Hannah Montana into culture vulture of the century. Producers Mike WiLL Made It, Pharrell and Future—not to mention collaborators Big Sean, Ludacris and Nelly—ushered the reborn pop princess into the urban space in a fashion unseen since Timbaland first rolled out the black carpet for Justin Timberlake. But where white chicks touring a black space are concerned, one name still looms large over all the others. Miley’s just a lowercase m. Even in 2014, the Big M is still Madonna. When it came to pushing the mainstream’s buttons, Madonna went way beyond twerking; she used her headline-grabbing escapades as bait to school her followers, an archetype from which Ms. Miley could learn.
The 55-year-old icon hasn’t really made waves in the 21st century, despite record-breaking concert revenue (Forbes named her the highest-paid musician of 2013 for pulling in $125 million) and stabs at youthful relevance via Nicki Minaj and Kanye West collabos. But once upon a time, in the 1980s and ’90s, Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna formed pop’s holy trinity. After Penthouse published her unauthorized nudie pics two years into her career, the Material Girl became a master at folding controversy into her marketing, effortlessly turning out pop classics at the same time.
At 21 years young, Smiley Virus has plenty of time to piss people off. More crucially, what she seems to lack is someplace to lead her flock once their parents are all up in arms. In her prime, Madonna would appear on talk shows and name-drop the Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo in interviews; she helped fund the first major posthumous exhibit of her ex-bf Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork; she arguably introduced many of her fans to Argentinian first lady Eva Perón, playing the lead role in the 1996 biopic, Evita. Madonna always seemed cultured. Miley Cyrus doesn’t give you that sense just yet. In all fairness, Madonna came of age on New York City’s Danceteria scene when hip-hop and punk first flourished, a far cry away from the Disney machine. But following Madonna might actually have taught you something back in the day, about the arts or feminism or haute couture or LGBT culture.
Of course at Miley’s age, Madonna Ciccone was enrolled in ballet classes at the University of Michigan, still trying to sort her life out. And Britney Spears once leapfrogged from the Disney factory into the urban arms of The Neptunes and will.i.am too, doing her own culture vulturing without much Madonna-esque sophistication either. On the other hand, Lady Gaga—hosting R. Kelly, T.I. and Too Short on November’s ARTPOP—isn’t too shy (or shallow) to be pretentious. She might actually teach her Little Monsters a thing or two about, say, artists Jeff Koons and Botticelli. Those painters’ influence is all over herARTPOP cover. Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz artwork only recalls the neon and pastels of Miami Vice. But then Gaga is 27, and six years can make a big difference.
Pop stars with little substance are hardly new. If anything, maybe 140-character literate fan bases with the social media-addled attention spans are the new normal. If millennials wanted cultural sophistication from pop stars nowadays, it’d take a lot more than twerking to move units. But Madonna was the originator of manipulating controversy to get our attention. And once she had it, she fed us a little bit. It’s a worldliness Miley Cyrus may or may not grow into. Stay tuned. —Miles Marshall Lewis