One week ago, Miley Cyrus left the nation reeling after her performance of “We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines” at the Video Music Awards. Parents watched in horror as the girl they remembered as Hannah Montana twerked in a teddy-bear leotard, gyrated on Robin Thicke‘s crotch in nothing more than a creamsicle bikini, and rubbed her nether-regions with a phallic foam finger. The whole display was provocative, pointless, and, for most viewers, shocking.
But in all actuality, Cyrus’ deliberately vexing presentation wasn’t shocking at all. “We Can’t Stop” is a natural extension of the “Can’t Be Tamed” philosophy that Cyrus has been peddling since 2010. And by the same token, the song — in its irreverent disregard of all people in the name of a good time — is the crystallization of pop music’s ideals over the past year. In the wake of fun.‘s “We Are Young,” pop has quickly become a medium that worships its own youth unabashedly. Granted, pop music has always heralded youth (tellingly, Justin Timberlake, 32, was given a legacy prize at this year’s VMAs) — but it’s never been so self-aware about it.
“It’s not just about being like, ‘We don’t care what people say,’” Cyrus said of “We Can’t Stop” during a Billboard cover shoot in June. “It’s about living for right now.” In the same interview Cyrus said the single’s edgy video was meant to resonate with young people: “I know that we all live for those nights right now. We’re all young,” she said. “I want to talk to my fans about that.” That may sound like a shallow conversation, but currently, it’s the chosen topic in much of 2013′s pop music.
These days, pop stars don’t just sing about throwing a great party. They sing about throwing a great party because it’s their time to do so. There’s a weirdly reverent sense of duty wrapped up in the whole affair — as if stars must pay homage to the #YOLO (You Only Live Once) mentality that’s so often cited by young people in moments of indulgence or reckless adventure. This is our moment to claim, say pop stars. This is our moment to be crazy. We’re entitled to it because we’re young. As Cyrus sings, “It’s our party, we can do what we want to.”
Songs like “We Can’t Stop” have been around for generations. In 1966, the Grass Roots‘ released their breakout hit “Let’s Live for Today,” which resonated with youth, particularly frustrated American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. In 1987, the Beastie Boys unveiled their iconic smash “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right to Party.” The song was intended as a parody of hair metal bands like Twisted Sister, but it nonetheless became a rallying cry for teenage rebellion. “We Can’t Stop” has no political subtext (I suppose you could argue the “we can kiss who we want” line is in favor of gay marriage) and it certainly isn’t a parody. It’s sincerely delivered by a pop tart already at the center of the celebrity universe, not a scruffy alt-rap troupe like the Beastie Boys.
Indeed, the #YOLO credo has become mainstream. Cyrus may be the most notable purveyor of the ideology at the moment, but she’s hardly the only star singing about young people’s unique right to live it up. “Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young,” sang Ke$ha on “Die Young,” which hit No. 3 on the Hot 100 earlier this year. “We’ll never ever ever stop for anyone/Tonight let’s get some and live while we’re young,” sang One Direction in their hit “Live While We’re Young.” “It feels like one of those nights we ditch the whole scene/It feels like one of those nights we won’t be sleeping” sang Taylor Swift on her ode to youth (and Diet Coke), “22.”
The Atlantic‘s Richard Lawson described “22″ as “a pre-gaming, rum shots-and-hair dryers thumper” that elevated itself above other party songs with the line “We’re happy free confused and lonely in the best way.” “This is not just some toss-off night,” Lawson wrote in October 2012. “This is an age-defining, beginning-of-the-world evening of free-spiritedness. Don’t we all want to remember our early twenties like that?”
Still, as Lawson explained, that wasn’t his experience in his twenties. Swift’s assertion that being 22 is “miserable and magical” felt strange in its extreme self-awareness. “Miserable, sure. But magical? No, it normally takes a few years to arrive at magical,” Lawson wrote. “She is somehow beyond-her-years wise about how she’ll want to think of a particular age before she’s even done living it. She sings from an eerie remove, as if she’s somehow had contact with her future self.” But Swift was simply doing what so many other pop stars are doing: celebrating her youth while still living it.
Even pop acts that aren’t “young” (a relative term in the age of Justin Bieber and Austin Mahone) are making appeals for young fans. Nate Reuss, the lead singer of fun., was 30 years old when “We Are Young” blew up. Avril Lavigne released “Here’s to Never Growing Up” at 28. The song represented a lyrical regression for Lavigne, who promoted her 2004 sophomore album Under My Skin with the narrative that she was all grown up at 19 years old. “I do get asked a lot if I feel like I’ve been robbed of a significant part of my youth,” Lavigne said in an MTV documentary at the time, “but I don’t.”
Since then, Lavigne has seen great commercial success, great failure, gotten married, gotten divorced, and gotten married again. In almost every way, Lavigne has already “grown up,” and yet she flipped the maturity switch “off” to release “Here’s To Never Growing Up” this spring, attempting (unsuccessfully) to connect with the same crowd that Miley Cyrus has reached more believably. If nothing else, Lavigne’s song revealed the efforts record labels are making to tap into the youth-obsessed narrative.
Cyrus’ VMAs stunt was a lot of things. You could call it crass. You could call it inane. You could call it promiscuous and selfish and unsettling. I would call it all of those things, and I don’t think Cyrus would mind one bit. That was the point of her act. It was reckless and obnoxious and attention-seeking — it had all the trappings of the #YOLO philosophy — but it was also popular. In fact, that’s why it was popular. (We’re still talking about it, after all.) Sure, the outrage over it has been deafening, but the simple fact is that “We Can’t Stop” is clicking with young people. Before the performance, it was the most streamed song in America for ten weeks running due to Gen Y-fueled services like Spotify and YouTube. After the performance, her new single “Wrecking Ball” topped the iTunes chart.
Cyrus, as much as people wish it weren’t so, is connecting with a young audience, and it’s not because she’s bringing a new perspective to the pop world. No, the naughty diva has simply distilled the things her pop cohorts have sung about for the past two years, and she’s delivering them at a higher proof. If modern pop is all about youth and the sex, fun, and irresponsibility that accompany it — easy subjects for young people to support — then Cyrus is just telling her fans exactly what they want to hear.