Thursday, 13 January 2011

Biography | Music | So, Miley Cyrus and Roland Barthes walk into a bar...

I can think of several interesting entry-points into a discussion about the relationship between biography and musical product in the various echelons of the music industry. The apparently mandatory socio-economic hypocrisy still at the heart of the American R&B and commercial rap markets – I can flaunt myself in this way, because I used to be this way, don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still I’m still Jenny from the block etc. etc. The manner in which alternative music has created a special niche for a particular type of shutaway genius which is now dependent as much on biographical continuity as it is on songwriting – Mike Hadreas (Perfume Genius) is this year’s Peter Silberman (the Antlers) is last year’s Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) etc. etc.

Or Kanye West etc. etc. As Pitchfork put it, whilst heralding My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as its record of 2010:

Bearing witness to Kanye West's very public 2010 has featured many joys, none greater than watching everyone unspool his myriad updates, achievements, and indiscretions into piles of meaning. His persona went to cataclysmic places this year-- there were times when he deserved his own cable news ticker. But, somehow, West managed to transcend the preposterous talk show appearances, the too-good-to-be-true Twitter account, the live breakdowns, the Horus chain, the free-MP3 stunt(ing), the press blitz, the breakups, the make-ups, the dick pics, the furniture pornography, the Rosewood movement, the NO NEGATIVE BLOG VIEWING, the living paintings, the short film, and the rest of the lot. Through all that noise, we obsessed first and most deeply over the eye of the storm: the album.
But actually, what I fancy doing instead is composing (á la Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, only less gay) a fictional meeting between two notorious cultural figures, Miley Cyrus and Roland Barthes, and having them do all the work for me. For a collision of Cyrus and Barthes and, more crucially, Cyrus’ and Barthes’ respective work offers up, I think, a whole host of important truisms about the complexities, difficulties and significances inherent in having biography get in the way of artistic output (or vice versa). So, without any further ado: We’re in a Starbucks somewhere on 52nd Street, Midtown Manhattan, December 2010. Miley Cyrus is sitting crosslegged by a window drinking a skinny pumpkin latte and flicking through À la recherche du temps perdu and looking bewildered. Roland Barthes has just bought, and spat out, a little cup of the caffeinated gravy that passes for espresso in this kind of place, and is about to storm out when he notices what Cyrus is reading and sidles over:

RB. Hello pretty girl. [I was tempted to include the odd French word here and there – Bonjour pretty girl etc. – in order to really characterise Barthes’ speech, make this little dialogue a little more realistic etc. Then I realised characterising his speech – and, in turn, my own text – in such an affected, authorly way was the last thing I should be doing in a piece of writing about Roland bloody Barthes. So basically, look everybody, I’m not here. I am not here. Author: not here. Author: dead.] You look like you could use some help.

MC. Hello. Yes, I guess I could. You look like a doctor. Are you a doctor? I need a doctor.

RB. Well. I suppose I am, in a manner of speaking. What kind of doctor are you looking for, pretty girl?

MC. A mind doctor. A doctor of the mind. A psychiatrist. I’m freaking out here. Freaking / the fuck

RB. Otherwise your health is good?

MC. Yes. I’m actually quite a bit younger than you, and most other men, think – or at least, pretend to think – young and pert and healthy. But freaking out.
RB. Then I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong doctor, pretty girl. Psychoanalysis: it’s not really my thing. Have you tried my friend Jacques Lacan? He might be able to help you.

MC. Fuck it, you’ll have to do, this is an urgent situation. What’s your name, not-a-real-doctor?

RB. Roland.

MC. Hi Roland, I’m Miley. So named because I smiled so much as a baby. My real name is the somewhat tautological Destiny Hope. I must be the only person ever to change their name from Destiny to something else. Anyway, I’m not smiling so much these days. A video of me hitting a bong full of salvia and giggling like some husky stoner slut has just gone viral all over the internet. And I don’t know what to do.

RB. Salvia? According to my pal Michel [Foucault, obviously] that shit is off the hook. He was more interested in the ‘disintegration of the self’ than me though. I’m more interested in the disintegration of the author. I’m afraid my only real interest in drugs is metaphorical – in order to make sense of the ‘deconditioning’ of reading that I’ve spent the last however-many-years calling for. I really am afraid you’ve got the wrong / doctor

MC. Shut up and listen you ponderous frog. The whole world is calling me an awful hypocrite because I spent the first five years of my career playing the part of a butter-wouldn’t-melt meta-creation called both Hannah Montana and Miley Stewart/Cyrus (I don’t really understand it myself) singing Disney songs about Disney lifestyles and selling a fuckton of sexualised merchandise to impressionable pre-pubescents whose parents misguidedly thought I was a good thing because I was baptised a Baptist and wore a purity ring. And then a couple videos emerged of me bump-n-grinding with an openly gay man and pole dancing at the Teen Choice Awards, and people began to suggest that I was selling one thing and doing quite the opposite, that I was a liar and a slut, and this salvia video has just compounded everything…
RB. Hold on a minute, if you were performing in character as this Hannah Montana figure, surely people understand it was, is a creation? Do people criticise Christian Bale for not dropping chainsaws on people in real life (perhaps Christian Bale isn’t the best example, actually)? Do people confuse Geoffrey Rush with the Marquis De Sade?

MC. Naïve naïve, so fucking naïve Roland. I was, am a children’s entertainer whose ‘character’ shares my own name, whose real-life boyfriend for a couple years was one third of Disney’s other uber-successful tweeny creation, the Jonas Brothers. Hannah Montana was, is a Role Model, and that means I’m expected to be a Role Model too. For the bright-eyed Midwest / kiddiewinks

RB. I see, I see. Tricky. But your songs are chaste and wholesome and drug-free, right? Both musically and lyrically? No squelching bass and laboured innuendo?

MC. Yes, of course – at least, the Montana stuff still is. Take G.N.O. for example, a cheery affirmation of feminine solidarity and the fun that it’s possible to have on a Girls’ Night Out without, say, sex, alcohol, drugs etc.

RB. Then I don’t really understand what the problem is. Ever since my seminal 1968 essay ‘The Death of the Author’, readers have realised that modernity/post-modernity is in many ways defined by a cultural landscape in which an overt focus on an Author’s relationship with his or her text is an act of capitalist tyranny – within which writing ‘can no longer designate an operation of recording, notation, representation…rather, it designates exactly what linguists call a performative.’ Surely the little boys and girls, and in turn their mothers and fathers, appreciate that your work is only a ‘tissue of signs’, and that accusing you of being a hypocrite for not practising what you preach is to miss the point? Indeed, the whole notion of the artist as role model is absurd. They should focus on the songs only. A song is a song is a song. You should tell the mothers and fathers that. Just look at Proust.
MC. Who?

RB. That book in your hand?

MC. Oh, this. See, I can’t actually read – daddy taught me how to sing, not read y'see. I use this to mainline a selection of legal highs. Shiny surface…

RB. ‘Proust himself, despite the apparently psychological character of what are called his analyses, was visibly concerned with the task of inexorably blurring, by an extreme subtilization, the relation between the writer and his characters.’

MC. Look Roland, it’s suddenly occurred to me that there are actually sentiments within G.N.O. that aren’t necessarily wholesome at all – the vindictive sluttishness of ‘I’ll dance with somebody new / Won’t have to think about you / And who knows / What let go will lead to / You’ll hear from everyone / You’ll get the 411 / Hey boy / You knew this day would come,’ for example – and that perhaps it is precisely the cultural trappings surrounding this particular text (i.e. Montana’s cheery, honest, Christian outlook) that have ensured this side of it hasn’t been hitherto appreciated. That the kind of textual focus you’re proposing might actually do more damage than it’ll heal, as parents realise Disney have been selling aggressive sexuality to their kids. Via me.

RB. I take your point. Let’s come at this from a different angle though – surely you, as artist, would like your creations to be appreciated on the basis of their own merits, rather than your own lack thereof (if you’ll excuse me saying such a thing)?
MC. I don’t actually write my own songs.

RB. Heavens! What are you doing singing them then?

MC. Making a lot of people extremely rich. Myself included.

RB. So who does write them?

MC. The Walt Disney Company (and affiliated companies).

RB. The Walt Disney Company is writing a song which defines female autonomy in terms of a vindictive sexual act, for a teenage girl to sing to a pre-teenage audience? But that’s astonishingly fucked up.

MC. I know, right? But people don’t seem to realise. Disney seems happy for my mild (for they are, ultimately, that) transgressions to draw the heat away from its cynical capitalist exploitation of women, childhood, sexuality, Christianity… Can’t think why.
RB. People don’t realise because ‘writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.’ The scariest thing is that Disney seems to realise this, to positively encourage it where its own identity is concerned, whilst simultaneously exploiting human beings’ willingness to collide text and author (precisely what ‘The Death of the Author’ was attempting to counter) in order to have you, Miley, personally shoulder all the moral responsibility for its shockingly amoral behaviour. It makes me wonder whether the complexity of my own Marxist reading – that placing the author at the heart of any text represents the ‘culmination of capitalist ideology’ – offers Disney a get out of jail free card. I mean, of course Disney’s exploitation of its innocent audiences is only one meaning in amongst the ‘blend and clash’ of meanings within a song like G.N.O. But when it’s doing such a good job of painting itself as the innocent backdrop to your personal Bad Girl antics – I presume they proposed the pole dance? Thought so – I can’t help thinking killing the author in this situation is precisely what the author wants. Hmmm.

MC. They also made me sing Girls Just Wanna Have Fun to arenas full of eight-year-olds.

RB. Heavens! You know what Miley, I wouldn’t worry too much about the salvia. There’s a possibility that increasing forays into the vanilla end of the counter-cultural spectrum (via, for example, legal psychotropic herbs) may offer an unlikely escape route from the claws and tentacles of an entertainment industry that intends to chew you up and spit you out as soon as you cease to be valuable to it. You’re going to need to stop the whole Hannah Montana thing / though

MC. No can do. Contractual obligations.

RB. Shitballs. This is a pickle.

MC. Would this be a good time to inform you that Hollywood records, an organisation belonging to (who else?) the Walt Disney Company, put out Can’t Be Tamed for me last year, a record that (rather transparently) attempts to take on ownership of my transgressions and assimilate them into a product that Disney can control (and therefore make money from) every bit as two-dimensionally offensive as, say, Hannah Montana – all ‘Bad Miley’, ‘Miley Grows Up’ etc. So that any future ‘scandals’ will simply ensure Disney’s new product gets a whole bunch more publicity/brand definition/valuable. George Bush would probably call it a 'preemptive strike'. Lyric sample: ‘Every guy, everywhere / just gives me mad attention / Like I’m under inspection / I always gets a ten / ‘cause I’m built like that / I go through guys like money / flyin’ out the hands.’
RB. ‘I go through guys like money flyin’ out the hands’? Fucking hell! That’s horrible.

MC. Hey, it worked for Britney and Lindsay.

RB. On the contrary, it worked for Britney and Lindsay’s publicists, management, media representatives etc.

MC. Same thing.

RB. Jesus. Unfettered capitalism really is astonishingly evil isn’t it? And clever! There’s just no way I can win, is there? At all. What’s the goddam point?

MC. What indeed?

Miley grabs Roland and throws him out of Starbucks and into the path of a passing laundry van, giggling uncontrollably, picking his pocket and flashing her bra strap simultaneously [remarkably, this is how Roland Barthes actually died. The laundry van, that is. Not by the hand of Miley Cyrus.]
Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor



  2. You boys been making fun of me, ha-HA!
    You're trying to make me look like a fool, you're trying to wreck this company, ha-HA!
    Probably in league with fucking Jeffery Kaztenberg as well, ha-HA!
    I'm coming over there to kick some ass, ha-HA!

  3. Not before you suck my balls, you're not.

  4. God damn this was a good read. Worthy of the great man Eagleton himself

  5. In December 2007, a brief controversy emerged when photos Cyrus had posted on her private MySpace account, depicting her and a female friend sharing a piece of licorice, were spread across the internet. "For me, I was like, That's two girls—it's not a big deal. But they got spread around. Like someone copied and pasted and said, Omigod, look at this, and blah blah blah," said Cyrus.

  6. I have just installed iStripper, so I can watch the best virtual strippers on my desktop.