For the past several weeks, my Facebook newsfeed has included at least one status, link, or photo about Miley Cyrus and/or Robin Thicke. People have had a lot to say about these two. There were the people who found “Blurred Lines” offensive, and the people who didn’t know what the big deal was. There were hilarious parodies, disturbing photomontages, and impassioned talk about rape culture. There were the people who analyzed Miley’s performance and then the people who analyzed these analyses. The conversation permeated all forms of social media, classroom walls, and conversations with friends and coworkers – it was simply everywhere. I learned what it meant to “twerk.” I learned that people do not like Miley’s tongue. I learned that Robin Thicke is married with kids. I learned interesting, informative debates about cultural appropriation, along with meaningful insights about how art develops from the blending of different cultures.
I hadn’t watched the MTV awards and I hadn’t heard “Blurred Lines” until sometime in early September.
That’s not to say that I have anything against pop culture. In fact, I seem to defend it more often than criticize it. I like to listen to Katy Perry when I work out and I know all the words to most Eminem songs. There are many things to enjoy about popular culture. Most of our “highbrow” entertainment was popular culture at some point. Like Shakespeare. Or Mozart. Or Mark Twain. And no one can justly reject The Beatles, who once had their faces on enough merchandise to clothe and house a small family.
And the recent explosion of Miley and Rob proved two things. First, that popular culture is inescapable. No matter how indie your films, how alternative your rock, and how far you hide and hate the Britneys and Madonnas – you can’t avoid it. It will find its way into your conversations and into your subconscious. If you go to stores or on the computer, then it is pretty much inevitable that it will affect your life in some way. And for this reason alone, we can’t discount it. The fact is that pop culture is produced to be as immediately accessible as possible, so chances are that we will all consume it in one way or another. Second, popular culture reflects the culture – the ideas, the beliefs, the stereotypes, the fears – of the moment. Miley twerks, and this expresses something meaningful about women, about our bodies, about black people. Robin rhymes “hug” and “fuck,” and this too reflects something disturbing about how our society deals with the body, with power and with sex. So again, we cannot discount it.
But I also believe that while they may reveal valuable insights about our culture, there really are more important things to also pay close attention to. I know it’s a tired argument. But there is so much fantastic, poetic, wonderful, moving art available out there, even just around the corner. Pop culture is not usually designed to make us think or feel particularly deeply. They are often the television shows that we can watch while doing five other things, or the music and the movies that are entertaining but that don’t trouble us with messy thoughts. It is not designed to change our lives; it is designed to make us spend as much money as possible. I admit that it can enjoyable, but the magnitude of the obsession with Miley and Rob was unnecessary. There needs to be balance.
We should always try to think at least a little critically about the pop culture we consume. I don’t object to dancing to “Blurred Lines” and I don’t think that after said dance we should go home and write an academic paper on it. But I think with every top-40 song, with every Hollywood film, and every passing television show that we watch, it’s important, maybe life changing, to be active in our consumption rather than passive. Easier said than done. I am regularly guilty of being a passive consumer. But I really do want to make more of an effort to wonder about how people are represented, to compare it to other art forms by other kinds of artists, and to object, at least in my mind, to some of the things that are done and said and sung.