Miley Cyrus’ VMA ‘disaster’: Hated by critics, (probably) just the way she likes it

September 3, 2015, 11:00 AM UTC
Miley Cyrus
Miley Cyrus performs at the MTV Video Music Awards at the Microsoft Theater on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
Photograph by Matt Sayles — Invision/AP

The critics have spoken, and according to them, the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards this past Sunday was a category five disaster that destroyed Miley Cyrus’ career.

In her first-ever stint as host of the ceremony, she did what she usually does – she made pot jokes and showed a lot of skin. Many critics were not pleased with it, and said her career was officially over as a result.

In an epic takedown titled “Miley Cyrus just torpedoed her own career, and MTV helped,” writer Emily Yoshida described the host as “the rich girl whose birthday party everyone’s parents forced them to go to… as irrelevant as the post-credits bumper for whatever scripted MTV show is on tonight that you’ve already forgotten the name of.”

One has to wonder what Yoshida was expecting. Cyrus is one of the biggest publicity magnets on earth, as demonstrated by her headline-grabbing statements about smoking pot and her extremely not-safe-for-work Paper magazine feature from June. Tim Maleeny, Chief Strategy Officer for the Havas Worldwide advertising agency in New York City, said that the ire of the critics is not just par for the course, but an essential component of what keeps the Miley train running.

“Miley Cyrus has only sustained her career by being polarizing and getting people to talk trash about her the day after a show, so in that regard the negative criticism isn’t surprising, it was probably exactly what she expected and wanted,” he told Fortune.

Post-twerking, a net worth of $150 million

In 2013, she was castigated for her appearance with singer Robin Thicke at that year’s VMAs. Writer Shirley Halperin wrote a post-mortem for the ceremony in the Hollywood Reporter titled, “Note to Miley Cyrus: Please stop,” which sounded the same notes and offered the same tidings as Yoshida’s piece two years later.

“While Cyrus crotch-grabbed, faux-fingered herself and dry-humped the 36-year-old singer, audience members collectively gasped,” she said. She then went on to describe “the countless tweens and teens who may come away from the telecast scarred” and “the adults who feel like they need a shower.”

The numbers suggest that PTSD aside, the twerk worked. Ten million viewers tuned in to MTV that night, and the encore presentation was seen by almost 13 million people, according to MTV. That’s right, more people tuned in to watch the rerun. So if people scandalized by the live airing called friends to warn them not to watch the encore, those friends let the calls go to voicemail.

The more telling statistic, however, is her post-VMAs net worth. In 2014, The New York Post reported that it was approximately $150 million, so the takeaway would seem to be that scarring children and making adults feel violated is a good way to keep the bills paid.

MTV wants her because she’s polarizing

There was a time when MTV, and MTV alone, could make or break an artist. In those days, the network’s attitude towards a given musician made the difference between a career playing to packed venues and a career waiting tables.Those days are long gone, and the network has been sliding into irrelevance ever since. It now needs artists who can command attention, even negative attention, to get people to tune in.

Maleeny said that a controversial artist like Cyrus is the ideal personality to throw the network a lifeline. In fact, without the negative press, he’s not even sure that MTV would have asked her to host the VMAs in the first place.

“It stretches credulity to think MTV didn’t expect what they got, or that most of it wasn’t staged to begin with,” he said. “The real driver behind the show’s shenanigans is that the VMAs and MTV have lost the cultural cachet they had in years past, so the network is dependent on outrageous on-stage antics and pre-show Twitter fights to get people to watch.”

Don’t be fooled by article titles like the one in Billboard that reads “2015 VMAs ratings: Miley-hosted show suffers 3 million viewer drop from 2014 on MTV.” According to the article’s own data, the 2014 ceremony aired on MTV alone and attracted 8.3 million viewers, while only 5 million viewers watched it on MTV this year. However, this year’s ceremony was simulcast on 10 different networks, including MTV2, VH1, VH1 Classic, BET, Centric, CMT, Comedy Central, Logo and TV Land.

The collective tally for all those networks was almost 10 million viewers, according to the same article in Billboard. This is the same number of people who tuned in to see the show in 2013, when Cyrus sent the Hollywood Reporter’s Shirley Halperin to the fainting couch. So if anything, MTV needed Miley to help get back the viewers that the network had lost.

Miley got attention for her new single

Cyrus closed out Sunday night by performing her new single, “Dooo It!” It comes from her new album, “Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz,” whose surprise release was announced that very night. It received no other promotion, and is available for free via the streaming site SoundCloud.

Since the album comes at no cost to the consumer, there’s no money to be made. But that’s not the point.

Almost two years have gone by without Cyrus releasing any of her own new music, and since that’s her actual day job, Maleeny said that putting some new product out there, even for free, is critical. “She needs new music — good music — to give her credibility,” he said. “Otherwise she’s just another pop star in a disposable culture.”

The Madonna effect

Miley Cyrus will eventually need a more mature public persona. Nudity and weed make fine headline-grabbers for the 22-year-old right now, but if she wants to stay in the public eye into her 30s and 40s, she’ll have to pull a Madonna and prove herself adept at reinvention. Luckily for her, she’s already demonstrated once that she knows how to do that.

Just a few years ago, she was the squeaky-clean Disney character Hannah Montana. One scandalous, sledgehammer-licking video later, and Hannah Montana is all but forgotten. But Maleeny said while the metamorphosis was deftly executed, there’s no way of knowing if she can pull off another one until the next one succeeds or fails.

“She timed that transformation with the release of a hit record, ‘Wrecking Ball,’” Maleeny said. “[That] gave her enough social currency to command the public’s attention just long enough for the new image to eclipse the old one. Whether or not her schtick is sustainable or just an act of desperation, only time will tell.”

Her critics, clearly, are banking on “act of desperation.” For her sake, here’s hoping she proves them all wrong, and that she’s able to come up with enough second acts to sustain her career for years to come. In the meantime, she can be seen on October 3, when she appears on “Saturday Night Live” as both host and musical guest.

Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.