4 Reasons You’re Still Hearing About Miley Cyrus’ VMAs Performance

The singer appeared at the MTV awards show, but she isn't in the news because of what she sang

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Miley Cyrus performs during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards at the Barclays Center on Aug. 25, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

It seems like only yesterday — OK, it was only yesterday — that the biggest question about the the MTV Video Music Awards was whether *NSYNC would appear.

Though the venerable ’90s boy-band did indeed grace the stage during Justin Timberlake’s medley performance, the “Bye Bye Bye” revival has been overshadowed by a very different act from the Aug. 25 show: Miley Cyrus’ performance of her dance hit “We Can’t Stop” and her duet with Robin Thicke on his “Blurred Lines.” Though much of the set merely expanded on imagery from the songs’ music videos, it was enough to drive the online conversation for much longer than is usual for a few minutes of a cable-TV awards show.

(WATCHThe VMAs: The Best and Worst Performances of the Night)

Here are the four biggest reasons the artist formerly best known as Hannah Montana is all over your news this Monday.

Her tongue

As everyone watching noticed, she stuck her tongue out a lot. Though Bethenny Frankel joked on Twitter that maybe the tongue-hanging-out look was in honor of National Dog Day, most people were just confused and overwhelmed and wanted to talk about it.

The crowd’s response

A photo of the Smith family reacting to the performance went viral almost immediately…

…but, as Slate points out, that photo is actually of the family watching Lady Gaga‘s performance (still, there were plenty of other horrified reactions to choose from).

(PHOTOSCelebs Hit the Red Carpet at the 2013 VMAs)

Nudity and Sex

Even more prominent than Cyrus’ tongue was her, well, pretty much everything else. When Cyrus emerged from a giant teddy bear at the beginning of her set, she was wearing a skimpy bear-appliqué leotard (maybe a play on “teddy,” maybe just weird) and, for her duet with Thicke, she stripped to a nude bikini in homage to the scantily clad woman of the “Blurred Lines” video. A tiny outfit is hardly shocking — Lady Gaga has frequently worn less, and there were no ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ — but Cyrus paired her ensemble with lewd gestures, some of which were directed at stuffed animals (to be fair to the performance, the teddies appear in the video too, so this isn’t exactly new). It was a message that, coming from the former Disney star, read pretty clearly as a literal “screw you” to wholesomeness.

Some of the day-after noise is shock over her actions. But, as Gothamist points out, there’s also concern about that shock. Whether audiences should be scandalized by what a young woman is wearing and what she does as part of an overtly sexual performance — especially when she’s performing in the context of lots of other crazy clothes (see: Gaga) and songs about sex — is, by now, garnering more attention than the original scandal did.


As New York magazine’s Jody Rosen points out in a sharp analysis of the performance, Cyrus’ set (as with much of her recent oeuvre) appropriates and tweaks many aspects of music, dance and dress that are closely associated with African-American culture, especially those aspects that Cyrus herself has called “hood.” Per Rosen’s take, the VMA performance “gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin”: Cyrus is using that appropriation to help make it clear what kind of artist she wants to be (not Hannah Montana), in order to sell more records. Is Miley Cyrus just part of the ever-evolving interplay between pop-music cultures in the U.S. — a story that, while still problematic in some cases, is old as rock and roll — or is she making tongue-out mockery of a culture she picks and chooses from for her own profit?

When you think of it that way, it’s less surprising that people are still talking about the show she put on. Which means these aren’t so much reasons you’re hearing about Miley Cyrus today — they’re reasons you’ll probably be hearing about her for a long time.