The Last Word on Miley Cyrus

When does a pop princess become an American tragedy?

Like most of the rest of America, I watched the Great Twerk of 2013 with my jaw hanging open, staring at my TV screen in disbelief. I didn’t know a lot about Miley Cyrus before her infamous performance at this year’s MTV awards (here’s a link, in case you were indisposed and somehow missed it)—just that she was the teenage daughter of the “Achy Breaky Heart” guy, that she’d been on a kiddie TV show, that she was engaged to somebody named Liam, and that my 20-year-old son once had a crush on her. She didn’t quite fit into that vast category of wild-child ex-kid actors gone bad, the one that includes Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes.

But she seemed to be heading that way, with scantily clad photos and bong hits and drunken escapades. Then came the startling stage show with the giant foam finger and Robin Thicke, who’s old enough to be her father. Miley-geddon, it seemed, was here.

There was something deeply disturbing about watching Miley cavort around the MTV awards stage. I’m not even going to get into the role of her black backup singers. I’m talking about the profound disconnect between the lyrics to her hit, “We Can’t Stop,” and the tune. She may be singing “It’s our party we can do what we want,” but there’s nothing celebratory about that song. It’s more like a dirge—a slow, sad ballad of anomie and loss and regret so grim, I can hardly bear to listen to it. No 20-year-old kid should sound that jaded, that joyless, so resigned to a lifetime of meaningless sex and drug use and the haters who are gonna hate no matter what you do.

That’s what was so upsetting, I think, about the MTV performance, unless you want to fixate on racial politics—something I’m not sure is fair to do with someone Miley’s age. She didn’t look like she was having any fun whatsoever up there. And that made the title of her hit, not a defiant cry of liberation, but a desperate Sisyphean wail: We can’t stop! We won’t stop! We’re stuck in this endless loop of parties, paparazzi and provocation, pushing and pushing, beating on and off (musically and sexually) ceaselessly, like Gatsby, against the tide.

The question, then, becomes: Did she know what she was doing? Is she clever enough to so deftly send up the lifestyles of her rich and famous peers? Or is she genuinely so exhausted by that lifestyle’s demands that all she has left to give is that hollow, haunted parody?

The interview she finally gave to MTV a week after her notorious performance didn’t answer that question. She said critics were “overthinking” her turn on stage: “Madonna’s done it. Britney’s done it. Every VMA performance, that’s what you’re looking for; you’re wanting to make history.”

Well, if by “history” you mean Camille Paglia in the pages of Time castigating you for being “cringingly unsexy,” maybe so. But the more I listen to Miley’s slow, solemn requiem for her lost youth—and you can barely tune into pop radio for half an hour anymore without doing so—the more I think the degree of her self-awareness doesn’t matter. Art speaks for itself. And her hit just might be the saddest song I’ve ever heard.