YOU CAN SELL A CHILDHOOD, BUT YOU CAN’T BUY IT BACK [GUEST POST BY MEGAN WADDING]

BY MEGAN WADDING

Miley Cyrus
 Lost girl or PR genius?
Iremember when Miley Cyrus’ Disney Channel show, Hannah Montana, debuted. I was 17 and my little sister was just four years old. We watched the premiere together. My sister faithfully watched the show throughout its run over the next few years, and I often watched it with her. We grew fond of the bubbly, little, Southern girl with the big voice, and we, like the rest of young America, watched her grow up and shed the long, blond “Hannah” wig, finally transforming into herself. Although it was a cute show, I was personally glad to see Miley discard the Hannah wig and venture away from the Disney machine that seems to handpick and pump out various triple-threats whose careers tend to end when their Disney contracts run out. I had hoped that it would be a different story for Miley. I found myself rooting for the teenager with the lovely, raspy voice.

And then she grew up. Or, at least, she got older. I imagined she felt like she never had the chance to be anything other than what Disney manufactured her to be. So, once she got the chance to, she started to try out new styles, new looks, new musical genres. She put out her own record and people seemed a bit surprised with the new sound. In essence, she graduated and started to find herself and experiment, as many teenagers do. Except Miley had to do it in front of the world.

And so the judgment began.

Child stars, with the exception of very few, seem to struggle with some sort of arrested development. Childhood, in essence, is for innocence, for wonder, for imagination, for play, for discovery. When you take that away and you replace it with work and meetings and adult things, something huge and irreplaceable is lost. Somewhere along the way, these little child stars lose the person they are to become, and instead, they become a persona. They walk around Hollywood as these sort of half-adults, stuck in some sort of unending loop of trying to find themselves and not being very good at it.

How can we expect them to behave like “normal” adults, when not a single one of them has had a normal childhood? Can you even become an adult if you haven’t ever been a child?

These days, Miley Cyrus is in the news constantly, most notably because of her provocative stunt with Robin Thicke at the VMAs earlier this year. Her recent performances have left audiences wondering if she is toying with the media in an elaborate effort to garner attention. And maybe she is. I certainly hope she is. I find myself hoping that her antics are all part of a big PR stunt, and that she is laughing all the way to the bank. Miley later called her VMAs performance a “strategic hot mess”, leading me to believe that that the joke may actually be on us. But at the end of each performance, more than anything, I just feel overwhelmingly sad for Miley. Tabloid articles have been flooded with comments from disillusioned fans who complain that Miley, her wagging tongue, and her nearly-there outfits are deplorable, crass, disgusting, slutty, and worse. She was literally the topic of conversation for weeks following the VMAs, and for someone with a new album, that pretty much sounds like the perfect situation. But the conversations mostly consisted of people who haven’t ever met her, talking about what a “mess” she has become, as if they have never done anything stupid themselves, as if none of them had ever been young once.

We so easily forget what it is like to be 21. We forget how lost and confused we were, and how we were still sort of figuring ourselves out, deciding who it is that we would grow to be. We forget the dumb things we did and the mistakes we’d made. The majority of us got to be dumb and make mistakes in relative privacy and we got to live in relative anonymity, both of which gave us the space necessary upon which we were able to build the foundations for as normal of an adulthood as each of our situations allowed. Not to excuse her questionable recent behavior and raunchy performances, but Miley grew up in front of the entire world, which is to say, she grew up as a performer and as a heavily judged human being. Miley was plucked out of anonymity and privacy, and tossed onto the world’s stage at age 11, an age when most of us were still playing with toys and watching cartoons. Miley’s career and fortune are what she got when her childhood and privacy were sold. Her attempts to find herself and to figure out who she is and what she wants, have been subject to a mass level of criticism than none of us ever experienced for our mistakes and missteps at the same age.

How can we hold her to the same standards that we hold any other 21 year-old? How can we expect her to behave in ways that we can understand when she has lived a life that none of us will ever understand? She is like us, but unlike us at the same time.

“I was an adult when I was supposed to be a kid, so now I’m an adult and I’m acting like a kid,” Miley told Harper’s Bazaar back in September of this year, when she graced their cover, alluding to the fact that she has lost her childhood. It begs the question: Can you ever really develop into an adult if you haven’t first been a child?

Miley, in order to remain relevant, must constantly worry about what people think of her. Her entire career and livelihood completely depend on the image she presents to the world. The more the Internet is abuzz with her antics, the more her name trends on Twitter, the more YouTube views her music videos collect, all directly correlate to the amount of records she sells and stadium seats she fills. People buy into the charade, and then her album and concert sales skyrocket. Good or bad, amazing or ridiculous, whatever sells is what has to be done in her world. Every choice has a price-tag. No publicity is bad publicity, as they say. And Miley seems very aware of what is profitable. But after a while, no matter how talented an artist may be, with too much exposure and bad publicity, an Artist can turn into just a Celebrity, and subsequently, their art can be overshadowed by their celebrity.

Miley seems to have found a sort of sad, savvy brilliance that only comes with having grown up in Hollywood. She knows how to keep her name in the press, no matter the cost. The ends always seem to justify the means. Miley the Celebrity is now beginning to be known more for her antics than for her art, more for her twerking than her twang, more for her swinging (on a wrecking-ball) than her singing. But if exposure and publicity is what Miley thinks she wants, Miley “the Celebrity” has become a master manipulator of the media, not unlike the late and great Michael Jackson. Like Miley, Michael Jackson realized at very young age that if he wanted to stay relevant in the business, he had to take control of his image, mold it into a profitable item, and sell it, which is some sort of sad brilliance in itself.

The reality is, you most certainly can sell a childhood, but you absolutely can’t buy it back. Michael Jackson was just five when he began his musical career. The uber talented child prodigy unknowingly signed away his childhood in return for a life of musical super-stardom and luxuries beyond the average person’s wildest dreams. The man he grew into was really still just an aged little boy who never got to play outside or ride bikes with his friends; a little boy who was worked and abused and used and spent. He chased his elusive, lost childhood for the rest of his short life, sadly failing to ever realize that he couldn’t ever get it back. You can lose a childhood, but it can’t ever be found. The media ridiculed him as he built Neverland, complete with his own personal amusement park and zoo, and he lived there in a Gatsby-esque dream where he thought that by proximity to all the trappings of a happy childhood, he could finally have the one that he had traded in many years before. The tabloids had a field day with Michael. They didn’t understand him, and how could they? We laughed at him, called him crazy, joked about his appearance. We had no way to relate, and vice-versa. He lacked the foundation upon which a normal adulthood could be built. He never had a shot at figuring it out. You can lose a childhood, but it can’t ever be found. He was a lost boy in a man’s body, and you can’t be a man unless your first are a boy. This backwards development creates tragedy and we lost Michael because of it.

Like Michael Jackson, Miley has many critics, but she has even more fans. The critics judge too easily, too freely, forgetting that she is a girl, who despite the fortune and fame, is just a girl; an uneducated, image-obsessed, driven, young, spoiled, rich, performer of a girl who probably hasn’t been told ‘no’ in a decade.

Celebrities, as much as they may bank off of their publicity, are still just ordinary human beings, but with extraordinary jobs. There is a level of respect that totally gets thrown out when we speak of them. It’s as if they should be expected to be equipped to take the name-calling and judgment in stride because they choose to live public lives, as if they are exempt from feeling the effects of it. We judge too harshly and too readily, and I think famous young women get the brunt of it. As a big sister to a now 14 year-old girl who wants a career in the music business, I constantly worry about the world in which young girls are growing up and the way in which women are presented and discussed in the media. I cringe when people who do not even know Miley, judge her and call her names. I can only imagine what that does to the psyche of a young girl, famous or not. I do also cringe when Miley uses her performances as attempts to drum up public attention to her rather than to her voice, and when she cares more about being in the news than being newsworthy. Though she may see it as a gain monetarily, I see it as a loss, because she is so wildly talented and no one is seeing that anymore.

I remember the big voice she has. When I hear ‘The Climb’ on the radio, I still get chills. I hope Miley can grow to see that she is more than just her image, that she is more than just the number of stadiums she fills, or the amount of talk show hosts that keep rehashing her performances for weeks afterwards. I hope she is able to find value in real things. And I hope she is given the space and time she needs in order to find herself somehow. Miley failed to be nominated for any Grammys this year, which is likely because her antics clearly overshadowed her art this go-around. I sincerely hope that at the next awards show, we see Miley the Artist again emerge and that when the only thing making our jaws drop during her performances were the notes that she was flawlessly able to hit, and for that to be the reason we all find ourselves still talking about her for weeks after.


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