Miley Cyrus may be catching a lot of flak for her anthem to Occupy Wall Street protesters, "Liberty Walk," but in at least one way it is the only piece of protest music ever to personify the very drastic change which its lyrics call for: it relies heavily on auto-tune. In fact, "Auto-Tune This Economy" might have been a way better title, but I'm no Pete Seeger.
And neither is Miley Cyrus, according to a post this morning on the Chronicle of Higher Education by Laurie Essig, who takes the 19-year old pop star to task for creating a song that's "highly produced, slick, and profit motivated," unlike, say, Seeger, who, as popular legend holds, recorded "Bring ‘Em Home" in an aluminum shed and carried the singles around in a knapsack on his U.S. tours to exchange with musically-inclined strangers for a soft bed and maybe a hot meal. I'm sure by "highly produced" Essig means that the lyrics to "Liberty Walk" were probably written in a board room by a cabal of nefarious record producers after they carefully considered a demographics chart and decided that Cyrus' voice was covered with an electronic varnish, but the truth is that is that all music recorded with a big label — as with all movies produced by big studios and all books published with big publishing houses — has discernible characteristics of corporate meddling. Even protest songs. Even protest songs written by Neil Young, Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen, who have all, by the way, profited from exploiting the cultural dissatisfaction or disillusionment of their audiences.
The only thing that Miley Cyrus is really guilty of is writing a shitty song, but Essig sees "Liberty Walk"* as a particularly egregious form of corporate music-making given the economic nature of the OWS protests. Though she takes the song to task for its aesthetic shortcomings, the bulk of her article identifies Cyrus' rapacity as the real motivation for the song's release, as if Cyrus was the first musician to get into the music racket for anything other than altruism:
If Miley Cyrus cares about economic justice, if she wants to represent a movement that is based on what can only be described as a redistribution of wealth, then she cannot live her incredibly posh lifestyle AND try to cash in on the sentiments of the time. She is, after all, worth $120-million.
A similar harumph echoed through the corridors of pop culture when Jay-Z's Rocawear decided to sell (gasp!) Occupy Wall Street t-shirts and keep the profits. To whatever extent instances of such unabashed consumerism may unsettle those who respect the ostensible purity and legitimacy of the Occupy Movement's ideology, it shouldn't come as a surprise when people who make a living hawking all kinds of products — from music to fashionable, over-priced shirts — take the opportunity to hawk products to a large, captive audience of similar minded people all gathered in the same place for a long period of time. Though Essig laments this phenomenon, that "consumer capitalism will do what it always does with antagonisms — it will package and sell them," she seems to identify a difference between the sort of music a pop singer cashes in on and the music that a more ‘legitimate' artist such as Pete Seeger profits from. Whether Seeger's music is better isn't the point Essig emphasizes, even though it's the only point that matters because the only real commercial difference between "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "Liberty Walk" is that Seeger's was better and therefore probably made more money for Seeger and his greedy team of record producers than Cyrus shitty tune will ever make.
It's not hard — even if you're only a musical dilettante — to criticize a pop star like Miley Cyrus, nor is it particularly groundbreaking. Pop stars, especially female pop stars, seem to suffer from the the stigma of lyrical insouciance even more than their male counterparts owing to what Rhian Jones of the music blog "Bad Reputation" identifies as "the masculinist bent of mainstream music criticism." In her engaging post "Women, Men, and Music," Jones explains that mostly-male music criticism teaches us, if we have any critical taste, to turn our noses up at "the emotional, the pleasure-seeking, the glittery, the silly, the frivolous, the undeadly serious" in favor of music that's more serious and cerebral. Miley Cyrus, therefore, isn't a serious artist even if she can write a catchy song (there, I said it).
Perhaps what's most revealing about the dichotomy Essig draws between the Miley Cyrus protest song and the Bob Seeger protest song(s) is that Cyrus is a young, female pop singer while Seeger is an old rocker, a dude who's purposely cultivated his own image and music to appeal to just the sort of listener who eschews bubble gum pop about sock hops and boy crushes. I don't think anyone will argue that Miley Cyrus isn't trying to cash in on the Occupiers or that "Liberty Walk" is an instant classic, but Essig seems to have fallen prey to the idea that one form of album peddling is more legitimate than another when the truth is that ALL successful artists focus on and exploit certain sentiments that their audiences espouse. Like partyin' in the U.S.A., which I think we've all done a little bit more of than we'd like to admit.
*Turns out the song was actually released in 2010; the "Liberty Walk" we're hearing now is a remix set to Occupy footage. But the argument still stands.