The first thing you should notice on watching Miley Cyrus’ new video “Wrecking Ball” isn’t the “sexual” imagery deployed; the testicular wrecking ball she swings from naked, the sledge hammer she fellates–these images are worthy of a middling Maxim Magazine photo spread and are familiar enough. What immediately struck me is how the song is constructed, which is to say the form and melody are strikingly similar to Goyte’s wildly popular single “Someone That I Used to Know”.
Both songs noodle around in D minor (!) in a similar groove for two verses which recite a past romance. In Miley’s case “We clawed, we chained…A love no one could deny”, but “Don’t you ever say I just walked away…I will always want you” — In Gotye’s song things are a tad darker: “you said you felt so happy you could die…Told myself that you were right for me/ But felt so lonely in your company”. And eventually: “Well you said that we would still be friends/ But I’ll admit that I was glad it was over.” Both of these videos start out with the subject reciting these past romances in painful close up, both singers’ eyes are welling up with tears emotionally. Goyte yearns pessimistically, but the strange bathos of Miley’s “I will always want you” has that wonderful twang of American Hypocrisy (you don’t believe it) and bizarrely/boldly embraces a non-feminist naive honesty, eschewing a more familiar contemporary refrain of independence, transcendence and narcissism.
Now to the sing-along choruses which contain eerily similar money notes, namely Bb!-A-A! sung in the same rhythm (Dotted quarter, eighth, half note; “Long, short Looong!”): Miley’s “Wreck-ing ball!!” /”Break your Walls!”, or Gotye’s “Cut me off”, “Need your love” or “Stoop so low”. Now Miley’s song puts this melody on top of an F major chord, which is a modulation from the minor world of the verse. This is a “pop” move which adds a more slow-head-banging-rock-on feel where as Gotye keeps the chorus in D minor, always avoiding a melodramatic shift to the relative (F) major. Gotye’s song even stretches towards objectivity when the woman he has been criticizing for cutting him off and treating him like a stranger in the emotional choruses is given a verse to explain her side of the story. No such control, anger or drama with Miley’s refrain:
I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was wreck me
What a wreck. But here we also have a lyric that perhaps limn’s capitalism’s penchant for “creative destruction.” Her love, her desire, the creative urge to found a new basis, a new relationship is initiated through a destructive need, a need to break walls in order that a new foundation can get laid. The dialectical contradiction is emphasized with ludic eroticism as the swinging, destructive wrecking ball she straddles and fondles is both smashing through her small grey concrete chamber, creating rubble and ruins while also evoking a gonadal fecundity.
The sledgehammer which Cyrus tickles with her tongue isn’t too far away from Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, a song whose video begins with an ambiguous image that looks like an out-of-focus snapshot of snowflakes falling in darkness–When the frame is unfrozen the snowflakes flurry and we can make out instead hundreds of spermatozoa swarming about an ovary. Next, a close up of two sperms tadpoleing about, then images of fluids flowing, semen, blood, a montage of Deleuzian desire that culminates with closeups on Gabriel’s eye-machines, his lip-machines, his ear-machines until the singing begins which is delivered in a stop-motion style that only reinforces the bodily *mechanics* the song is hymning and interrogating.
The sexual content of Sledgehammer is graphically, if scientifically introduced in the introduction, but the genius of the video is how the rest of the images sturdily avoid aping the metaphoric eroticism of the lyrics:
You could have a steam train/ If you’d just lay down your tracks… You could have a big dipper/ Going up and down, all around the bends/ You could have a bumper car, bumping… Open up your fruit cakes/ Where the fruit is as sweet as can be
Instead his artistically playful images literalize and thus neuter the libidinous lyrics. In a claymation sequence the sledgehammer strikes Gabriel’s malleable (clay) face and human limbs appear in the gashes and in a later sequence on a stage, a dancing sledgehammer strikes the boards and an egg appears, soon there is a chicken, then two dancing chickens, you get the idea. Sledgehammers do what sledgehammers do: they (ironically) create.
Wrecking Ball is no Sledgehammer. But Cyrus’ skill is to borrow again and again in a culture of borrowing and sampling and trading and wrecking and rebuilding and stealing and commodifying. Miley Cyrus has been critiqued a great deal recently for appropriating the twerk from black culture and using it as a publicity stunt. While basically agreeing with this critique I have also disagreed with the way the argument has been framed and the historical depth at stake. It should be obvious that we are talking about a sophisticated marketing machine that cleverly borrows artistic techniques from motley sources, many of which are *just* under the radar, mostly forgotten, provocative, or historically rooted, but perhaps not yet properly commoditized in mass culture. Gotye’s video has been viewed a ridiculous 428 million times as of today, but it is the unexpected pain of the melodic line which is mostly responsible for the song’s success. It is a melody that is unafraid and thus hits the listener with a kind of shock; the anger he feels and the tone which he would express verbally in an argument finds its match in a musical moment. Wrecking Ball’s melody echoes this pain but with all the subtlety of a fleshy fashion shoot set during the Blitzkrieg. Sex and death return into each other over and over as the mediated sphere like a bulldozer churns up the perpetual landfill that is our culture.
The final shots of Sledgehammer show a room onto which is projected the original image of the argent dots on a sable field, which now evoke stars in a dark sky. The universe, cold and infinite is tied to the sperm and their frenzied struggle, now frozen in time. Gabriel, having fallen asleep in his chair, is now only a dark figure with these bright star-sperm shining out from his body. He rises from a chair, opens a door and salutes the milky galaxy with both arms. The final image shows this cosmic demiurge hammering with his arm in a mechanic rhythmic movement, the music fades.