Last week The O2 hosted a bizarre, X-rated show, the likes of which the venue has surely never seen before. On the plaza outside, video screens advertised future gigs from Il Divo and Barry Manilow while inside a 50ft dog shot lazers from its eyes, a giant bed spawned a menagerie of skimpy clad freaks and a cone-titted dwarf who writhed around with each other before breaking into a Glee-style synchronised dance routine. John Kricfalusi, the Ren and Stimpy creator, debuted a series of terrifying animations featuring dildo limbs and bestiality. A magic mushroom trip was recreated with Jim Henson style monsters and members of the audience were invited to passionately make out with each other in an attempt to appear in front of a voyeuristic roving camera.
This was not some kind of Irvine Welsh curated theme park or a retrospective in contemporary erotic art. This is the Bangerz tour, and sitting atop this beautiful cacophony of insanity, is Miley Cyrus.
She begins the show pleasuring herself on the top bonnet of a car, before aggressively attacking her crotch while screaming at the crowd to “mind your business, stay in your lane bitch, I'm a southern belle, I get crazier than hell.” Later, she flies through the arena straddled across a giant hot dog and, in one video interlude, appears gagged with tape on her tits and flowers sticking out her anus.
Cyrus is often accused of shallow, attention-grabbing stunts, and perhaps at an awards show or a TV performance that is what her antics amount to. But splayed across two hours, for paying fans who would be here anyway, it becomes clear her aim is to create something much more bold: a world in which tabloid outrage, psychedelia, lifesize Beanie Babies, gonzo art, overdrive sexuality and childlike amazement can co-exist. The art within the show, overseen mostly by Kricfalusi, and the costumes, designed by Roberto Cavalli, take center stage in this extravaganza. Cynicism is not the aim but the enemy, something to be overcome with the thrills of watching giant teddy bears fuck each other.
Any moments of respite in this Disneyland peep show are filled with Miley’s foul-mouth tirades. She espouses the benefits of weed, often demanding that the crowd throw her some on stage; she denounces antibiotics as useless, and calls the nurses who tried to give them to her bitches. She looks straight at the tweens in the front row while she details her porn preferences. Again, Miley’s rants might seem like desperate pleas for attention but they're more a reflection of her inability to regulate her own speech. As a tween, she regularly performed for thousands of fans, dealt with gruelling film schedules, and always had to be ready for interviews and paparazzi. She basically had to be rewired to never feel insecurity or nerves. The side effect - that she has no barrier between what she thinks and what she says - is evident in an interview she did on the Jonathon Ross show five years ago. Her mouth is just a release valve for the pressure building up in her brain.
The chasm between what this show believes it is - a high-art exploration of music, erotica and nebulous stream of consciousness for a critically mature and appreciative audience - and the reality of its setting - a pop concert attended mostly by confused children and their furious parents - only adds to the surreal nature of the show. The only thing more entertaining than the Bangerz tour is witnessing the stunned expression of short-straw dads watching it with their kids.
"People are taught to look at things so black and white, especially in small towns. I'm excited to take this tour to places where [art] like this wouldn't be accepted, where kids wouldn't learn about this different kind of art," said Cyrus earlier in the year. Critics seem to agree she’s been doing just that, with five star reviews raining down on the Bangerz tour. But one doubts whether the thousands of parents who took their kids to her O2 show will feel they left with an art lesson.
Miley can pretend she’s in a Brooklyn gallery space rather than an all-ages show, if she wants to. But she can’t pretend things are going well in terms of ticket sales. There were plenty of empty seats at the O2 and, unusually for an artist of her sway, she only played one night there. Things haven’t picked up on the rest of the European tour, with tickets still available for many of her upcoming dates. In the US, sales for the tour also struggled, particularly after she was seen smoking weed on TV. Forbes believe it’s unlikely she’d sold out “as many as half of her shows”. Tickets on secondary ticketing sites were selling for less than face-value as touts just tried to make some of their money back.
Her record sales have also been surprisingly poor. Despite being repeatedly described as “the person of the year” with unprecedented coverage across the worlds of music, entertainment and news, not to mention having two of the most watched music videos of all time, Cyrus’ album was only the 71st best selling of last year in the UK. Records by Alt-J, Kodaline, dutch jazz singer Caro Emerald and violinist Andre Rieu all performed considerably better. Globally the album did slightly better, but was still a long way off the top 20 global albums of 2013, an important measure for world-straddling artists.
How can that be? To understand why Miley isn’t selling you have to disregard everything you believe about what she is.
Conventional wisdom is that Cyrus, like every other almost famous female popstar from the past 30 years, is using sex to sell her music. She is basically Madonna, only more crude, with less self-awareness and worse music. This seems almost painfully self-evident. “Wrecking Ball” is a well-performed but largely perfunctory ballad that has become the 9th most watched video in the history of Youtube because it features a butt-naked Miley swinging across a laboured metaphor. Miley remains in the public eye because of her very public displays of her body.
Undoubtedly, she made a buttload of money from all the plays her videos. "Wrecking Ball" and "We Can't Stop" have received over 1 billion plays on Youtube alone. Most estimations suggest she will have made around $10 million from those two videos. Nothing to be laughed at, but considering the huge expenditure she has for live performances, press and general upkeep - she still needs to be making money for sales and touring and here’s where things get sticky.
The old adage that sex sells meant a lot when you literally had to buy into an artist or performer. You couldn’t read Madonna’s Sex book without purchasing it, or watch Deep Throat without going to the cinema. True, music videos have always been free at the point of access, but they once acted as adverts for a purchasable product; now people can watch "Wrecking Ball" as many times as they want, with no interest in the Miley album itself. They can tweet about what she means for feminism till they’re blue in the face, but with no real interest in the end project, there’s no guarantee that all publicity is good publicity.
Obviously, Miley won’t be declaring herself bankrupt anytime soon, the Bangerz album and tour will have brought in tens of millions of dollars. But in pop everything is relative, and there’s no doubt she’s underperforming in relation to the size of her public persona and the popularity of her performances.
The Guardian did quite a sweet piece on Miley fans that had grown up with her as a child and have continued enjoying her shtick into their 20s. But the fact is those people are in the minority and you can’t build a global fanbase of loyal former Hannah Montana groupies, children with extremely liberal parents, and hipster music journalists.
For the first time, we are seeing the “sex sells” theory collapsing. Sex drives traffic, clicks, conversation, glances. But sex is also grubby, people don’t want to keep it in their home, they want a brief glance and then pretend they never looked at it. It’s difficult to make the case that smut is of artistic or physical value. That’s why porn has struggled more than any other industry with internet piracy, and why Miley is struggling to keep up with other more family-oriented popstars. The music industry is increasingly relying on the purchase power of children and mums to buy records by One Direction and Bublé. Grubby blokes just aren’t spending like they use to.
All of which is a shame because the world should see the Bangerz tour. Ironically, it’s one of a few mass-culture examples where the use of gratuitous sexual imagery feels artistically justified - it was never intended just to get bums on seats, but no one predicted it would have an adverse affect on ticket sales. Unfortunately, it seems the only way Miley can ensure people see her greatest creation is if she gives the concert footage away for free.
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