Starting off with a definition might be considered trite, but sometimes the dictionary must be called upon. Case in point: the word best. Take at look a Merriam-Webster’s write-up of the word:
: better than all others in quality or value
: most skillful, talented, or successful
: most appropriate, useful, or helpful
This morning, MTV anointed Miley Cyrus with the title “best artist of 2013” and, whether or not one agrees with the network’s assessment, it’s worth a look at the reasoning behind the honor. In a press release, MTV noted that Cyrus “dominated both the charts and headlines this year with the release of the critically acclaimed #1 album, Bangerz, two #1 worldwide smash singles, “We Can’t Stop,” and “Wrecking Ball,” two jaw dropping performances during the 2013 “MTV Video Music Awards” and “MTV EMA”, an original MTV documentary “Miley: The Movement,” as well as a memorable turn as a host and performer on Saturday Night Live” and that the “criteria for the editorial lists included album and single sales, touring, airplay, social media, Internet and overall impact.”
The one thing that’s missing from that list of criteria is any discussion of the quality of the art that comes from the artist in question. This is not to say that Miley Cyrus’ work this year was or wasn’t the best music of the year, or that she was or wasn’t the musical artist to produce the best material — merely that MTV’s definition of the word “best” is, in a substantial way, different from most people’s.
Not that MTV’s definition — “best” meaning “most profitable/most listened to/most talked about” — is wrong.
After all, the network’s ranking is of the best artists, not the best songs or albums. And, as Miley Cyrus herself has demonstrated, there’s a lot more to being a musical artist than making music. The deeper meaning of MTV’s decision-making, if there is one, is about the evolving definition of “artist,” not of “best.” (“Of” and “2013” are O.K. too.) For better or worse, in the age of the personal brand, great songs, albums, performances and stage presence — or any of the other markers of traditional music greatness — aren’t enough. And if being an artist is a matter of controlling one’s image, driving conversation and garnering fan interest, it’s hard to argue that anyone in 2013 was more “skillful, talented, or successful” than Cyrus.