“Honestly, all this clean image stuff really gets on my nerves. Like people in America were coming up to me and saying 'aaah … I'm really pleased you're givin' our kids some clean harmless fun' and I'd be going 'AAAARGH! No. I don't want this.’ ”
No, this wasn't what Miley Cyrus said after her squalid spectacle at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. This is from a 1985 interview with Wham! lead singer George Michael.
He was complaining to Smash Hits Magazine about the burdens of a wholesome image, burdens he would soon shed with salacious-yet-forgettable ditties like “I Want Your Sex” and nigh-unto-pornographic music videos.
Since then, he’s been arrested for public exposure and gained notoriety more for his obsession with marijuana than his sputtering music career. So — mission accomplished! Yes sir, no one will ever accuse George Michael of being wholesome ever again, at least not in this lifetime.
Except how is that a victory, exactly?
Part of the reason so many people were disgusted with Miss Cyrus’ unseemly display was that she owes her fame to her squeaky-clean Hannah Montana persona that was emulated by tweens the world over. Now she has twerked a message to the tweens that she no longer needs or wants their devotion.
Yet judging from the overwhelmingly negative response to her VMA performance, she isn’t building a new fan base so much as simply alienating her old one.
Wouldn’t sticking with wholesome be a better career move?
It seems to be the bane of “serious” artists in every medium. Consider Julie Andrews, the embodiment of wholesome, who made a name for herself in family-friendly classics like “The Sound of Music” and “Mary Poppins.” She was an international icon, but she lamented she wasn’t considered a “serious” actress. So she decided she needed to do a topless scene in the movie “S.O.B.” — a film utterly unlike “The Sound of Music” and “Mary Poppins,” in the sense that nobody has seen it.
Again, what’s wrong with wholesome?
If Miley doesn’t want to learn from George Michael, then she ought to pay attention to the object lesson provided by the Monkees, the screwball quartet that took the nation by storm with a goofy-yet-clean sitcom, which they followed up with a filthy, incoherent feature film called “Head” that froze the Monkees’ collective career for a couple of decades. When they came to their senses and embraced all things wholesome again, they achieved new success by reconnecting with the audience they’d alienated.
A pattern seems to be emerging.
I don’t know what it is about artists who somehow equate seriousness with smut. Can anyone honestly argue that Cyrus’ semi-nude frolicking with her oversized tongue glued to her chin was somehow more “serious” than her earlier work? Is her frenetic, forgettable anthem “We Can’t Stop,” which celebrates promiscuity and ecstasy, really a more substantive, adult song than “The Climb,” her melodic, wholesome international hit with listeners of every age? Why does she think she can elevate her stature by degrading herself?
Unfortunately, she’s not alone. Every generation of performers thinks they’re the first to discover bad taste. But vulgarity has ever been with us, and, sadly, ever shall be. Yet unlike other motifs that have become boring clichés, somehow crudeness is still heralded as being on the cutting edge. So singers like Miley will always put themselves out there, even if it means they cut their careers short in the process.
Wholesome strikes me as a vastly better option than “serious,” unless you’re only interested in being seriously ignored.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.