Here we are at the end of the world. Everyone is drunk and no one can tell whether Miley Cyrus is telling us to “dance with Miley” or “dance with molly.”
It was inevitable that it would come to this. We’ve been resigned to the fact that dancing is the only acceptable way to ride out the Apocalypse for years now. I suppose we should have known that the combination of cataclysmic disaster and vigorous rhythmic movement would make tasks like the pronunciation and comprehension of vowel sounds more or less impossible. But I guess it’s hard to imagine this sort of thing before one comes to it.
I’ve never been very excited for this moment. It was first proposed in late 2008 by Stefani Germanotta, performing under the name “Lady Gaga,” in her debut single “Just Dance.” “…it’s a happy record,” she later said in an interview with Heat Magazine. “Maybe it will be appreciated more now that there are lots of people going through hard times, losing jobs and homes.” I have trouble relating to this. “Gonna be okay/Doo doo da doo doo/Just dance,” doesn’t strike me as responsible advice to someone whose home has just been foreclosed. But dancing is fun, and Germanotta is scary looking, so moving to the regimented minor-key synth beat while the world collapses around me is probably in my best interest.
Dr. Luke and Kesha Sebert reintroduced dancing as disaster response three years later in the single “Till The World Ends,” performed by Britney Spears. Their song addressed the impending Apocalypse directly and provided similar advice: “See the sunlight/We ain’t stopping/Keep on dancing ’til the world ends.” What a confusing message. I would think that sunlight would be an image of hope, but they seem to present it as a symptom of worldwide destruction. Maybe they mean that the prolonged act of dancing will bring about a vision of sunlight that will, despite it’s hallucinatory nature, provide encouragement? Very unclear. At least Britney seems to be a little bit mournful about the prospect of global calamity. She looks distressed throughout the video, and the way those “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh”s descend is just so melancholy. Take away the Europop production and replace it with an acoustic guitar and you’d have an okay Regina Spektor song to cry to. I can get behind that attitude, but the dancing aspect seems a bit extraneous. But then, I don’t really care for dancing.
I do care for dancing with Miley, and she has me sold with the third installment in this increasingly tragic end-of-times narrative, a beautiful Mike Will Made It-produced anthem titled “We Can’t Stop” with an accompanying video directed by the fabulous Diane Martel. I don’t care quite so much for dancing with molly, but I do admire Team Miley’s effort to slip explicit drug references into pop songs. That’s the best attempt since “Day Tripper,” though I wouldn’t be surprised if Clear Channel has it censored by now. Hearing it on the radio for the first time was shocking. Miley seems to be proud of that. “If you’re age ten it’s ‘Miley.’ If you know what I’m talking about then you know.”
In some ways I like it better as a ten year old. “Dancing with molly” is subversive (sort of), but the royal third-person of “dancing with Miley” is so adorably stupid. Miley’s best lines have always been her dumbest ones: “They ask what’s wrong with me/my best friend Leslie” – Leslie is a real person, by the way – “says, ‘oh, she’s just being Miley.” “‘Who’s that chick who’s rocking kicks?/She’s gotta be from out of town'” (Do women in L.A. not wear shoes? I spent four years there and didn’t notice). These sort of statements are what have always made Miley just a little bit endearing. Sad as her over-the-top drug use, self-sexualization, and moronic tattoos are, to me Miley will always be that stupid kid who tried to make “The next time I freak out” into the introduction of a hard-hitting emotional chorus.
“We Can’t Stop” is full of similarly moronic lines. “To all my home girls with the big butts/shaking it like we at a strip club” is the best one. Maybe it’s just her delivery, that drawl that would be a raspy snarl if it weren’t so friendly. It sounds nastier on some of her other lines, like, “Everybody in the line for the bathroom/tryna get a line in the bathroom.” Those are the lyrics that get attention, but they aren’t the ones that make the song. Former child stars have been turning 18 and saying naughty things for years; where would Miley’s career be right now if they hadn’t? But just because she’s grown up doesn’t mean she’s gotten too cool to talk like an eighth-grader. She’s a mess, but she’s an endearingly stupid mess, and she sells it well.
It’s nice to see her so comfortable with herself, here, hosting this party at the end of things. She’s drunk and coked out and she’s far too skinny, but she’s at ease, and there’s nothing nicer than a hostess at ease. She’s not trying to make her mess into something admirable – look at the way she’s chewing gum as she sloppily writhes around on the couch in her long underway – but she wants us to know that it’s there and that that’s the way things are right now. That sort of at-peace attitude makes for a very pleasant Apocalypse Party environment. Germanotta barks orders at her guests; Britney makes demands. Miley just offers suggestions. Dancing is an option, but anything is fair game. This is our party, after all. We can do what we want to.
I suppose there’s nothing about “We Can’t Stop” that explicitly implies that there’s an Apocalypse going on, but everything is so bizarre and dangerously debauched that it feels like the soundtrack for a party that is very much aware of its own very immanent end. Everything is ending, nothing matters; what do we want to do? The possibilities are endless. We can smooch dolls in swimming pools, or play with SpaghettiOs, or sleep, or roll around in piles of bread. Really, there are only two things we can’t do: 1. Stop. 2. Express ourselves as individuals. The first-person singular is out of the question for Miley. She avoids it at all costs and generally prefers the subjective over the objective, even at the sacrifice of logical syntax and grammatical integrity: “Can’t you see it’s we who run the night?/Can’t you see it’s we who ’bout that life?” “We run things, things don’t run we.” “We can’t stop; we won’t stop.”
Can we really not stop? I don’t see how we could. In addition to being stupid, Miley’s party is extremely hip and includes a variety of art installations, all of them reflecting a wasteful consumer culture that exists in denial of its own unsustainability and immanent death. Among them: a skull made of soggy french-fries, reminding the viewer of the horror that lies behind gluttonous waste; a girl who cuts off her fingers and bleeds fluorescent blood, reminding him of the frivolous fragility of life; a candelabra made of Bic lighters, reminding him of his destructive preference for unsustainable fuel despite the wide availability of natural and renewable energy sources; a rotting stuffed rodent that needs no explanation; a money sandwich that needs less.
Jeepers. Artists’ statements are a downer. We’re at a party. Parties are fun. Fuck artistic intent. Bic candelabras are for cooking marshmallows. French-fry skulls are for kicking. Money sandwiches are for eating. Everything is waste, and everything exists to be wasted.
We’re here, together, wasting everything, drunk and stupid, singing “La-di-di-da-di, we like to part-y,” not stopping because we can’t stop and not caring because we don’t care because nothing matters because we’re together. Who are we? You, me, Miley, everyone we know. Maybe everyone. The world is ending, but we’re okay. We’re okay. We’re going to be okay.
We’re okay, but everyone looks so sad. NPR’s Ann Powers’s description of “We Can’t Stop” as an “arrestingly sad party anthem” gets it just right. Miley’s codeine-y voice is twinged with sorrow, and the long, breaking “yeah” before the last chorus sounds like a keen over Mike Will’s nostalgic, mournful beat. The look on Miley’s face as she stares out the window in her torn-up “Dope” onesie is nothing short of heartbreaking. Listening to this song makes me want to cry.
The world is ending and I’m drunk with my friends and there’s a giant teddy bear strapped to my back, and a Miley Cyrus line about strip clubs is making me cry.
This should come as no surprise. One is bound to get emotional when everything one loves is coming to an end, and everything one loves is inevitably going to come to an end. The end of the world is an end; the morning sunlight is an end; one’s own death is an end. It’s better to meet those ends with a full awareness of one’s pain than it is to brush off one’s feelings and ignore one’s heartrending love. I haven’t experienced an Apocalypse, or an enjoyable all-night party, or my own death. But my research seems to show that a love-based approach is best.
If dancing is how we express our overwhelming love, then dancing is how we ought to go. But that doesn’t seem to be the kind of dancing that “Just Dance” advocates. “Till The World Ends” either, though I doubt that Britney truly prescribes to her own dance-nihilist philosophy. She wouldn’t look so happy at the end of the video when she realizes that she’s still alive if really believed what she was saying.
Miley though, she might have it right: going down together without any thought of stopping, without ever once thinking about yourself, without pretending that the prospect of losing everything you love isn’t incredibly sad. It’s a bummer, but it’s okay, because that sadness is just another aspect of love. The tragic temporality of each moment doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, just as it’s absolute worthlessness doesn’t make it any less beautiful. Every experience is achingly beautiful. Every party is achingly short. Giving yourself to the world – losing perspective on the lines between you and everything you love – is heartbreak. Every real party anthem is sad.
We’re at the end of the world, and I’m sad to be here. But I’m happy that we’re dancing with Miley. Whether she’s on molly or not, she seems to have a better grasp on things than most people do.
Besides, she’s got religion too. That could be handy if John the Evangelist and the Preppers and Pat Robertson turn out to be right about everything. “Remember only God can judge us/forget the haters, ’cause somebody loves ya.” That’s a beautiful line. It’s a genuine expression of vulnerability, something you hardly ever get in party anthems, Apocalyptic or otherwise. It could be turned into a blasé “don’t judge” line, but it isn’t. It reminds us that we’re not perfect, that we very often do stupid things and make mistakes and end up in situations where everything’s about to blow up and there’s nothing we can do but blame ourselves. It isn’t saying that we’re all beautiful just the way we are, or that we should be impervious to all accusations and guilt. To the contrary: we can be judged. But that judgment is transcendent, and it’s synonymous with love. Our failure is what makes us transcendentally loveable, and that’s what makes this party so sad, and therefore so worth living through. We’re all kind of screwed up. We’re drunk, and we’re slurring our words, and we’re dancing at the end of the world, and God loves us. Or at least somebody does. Somebody loves us, and that’s enough.