A Gripping and Important Debate About Miss America's Cup Song

Miss New York – the third-straight from our state to take Miss America's crown – performed Pharrell's "Happy" on cups. Do we forgive her?

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Last night at the never-dull Miss America pageant, Miss New York Kira Kazantsev shocked the crowd by not only winning New York's third-straight crown, but also by performing a highly polarizing rendition of Pharrell's ubiquitous hit "Happy" with the aid of one red plastic cup.
New Yorkers immediately distanced themselves from the spectacle, but the merits of Miss New York's performance, given that it won her the crown, seem worthy of discussion. Amazingly, somehow, we have two Wire writers who disagree on Kira Kazantsev's performance. One, Adam Chandler, thinks the representative of our fair state held her own. The other, Kevin O'Keeffe, would like to ban cups. Together, they debate in a Cocktail Crossfire.

KO: So, Adam, you've made the unenviable choice to defend this mess. My question to you is this: Are you okay? Do you feel feverish, or light-headed? Because I'm assuming you have to be somehow affected to be saying this was actually good. I mean, not even getting into the technical aspects, it's freaking "Happy" on freaking cups. She combined two of our most loathed musical trends into one – and then performed it during the Miss America pageant. Can you explain what would make you stand up for this?
AC: I may have a ton of maladies, but I can and will defend this. There's a point about halfway into Kira Kazantsev's brave (even the coldest hearts can concede that this was brave, yes?) performance where I witnessed Miss New York in total command of her experience. She's smiling, she's confident, she's poised, she seems to be having a good time, all while doing something she even admits herself is a little bit ridiculous. On the floor of an Atlantic City stage no less. This backlash isn't about her plastic cup as much as it is about the collective plastic heart of the cultural elite.

Why do you hate it so much?

KO: I will concede it was brave! It was as brave as Miss Arkansas 1994 singing "And I Am Telling You" from Dreamgirls.

That doesn't make it good, though. First, her tone is kind of off, though she's clearly not a trained singer and I give her points for her efforts. The bigger issue I have is this: If you're going to perform with the full backing of the band, why bother doing the cup trick? No one's going to be able to hear you! The magic of when Anna Kendrick does the cups trick in Pitch Perfect – and yes, I'd actually call it a magical moment – is that she's performing after a bunch of loud singers. She takes it to a quiet, lovely place. This also brings up another issue: Why "Happy"? Do you like "Happy," Adam?

AC: Had Miss New York broken out "Happy" about three months ago, I can see cause for serious blowback. That song, at its saturation point, was infuriating. But given the summer to temper, I didn't mind the song, just as I didn't mind it when first came out. It's a crowd-pleaser. And the crowd seemed happy. And isn't that the point? Just last year, Miss Kansas (somewhat uncomfortably) caterwauled "Nessun Dorma" from the final act of Turandot.

You may get style points for swaggering into opera, but nobody wins when the crowd is waiting for disaster to strike. With Miss New York, there was no real pretense, just a woman inspired by Anna Kendrick and a cup.

So what are we really arguing about here?

KO: We're arguing because this is the Internet, and that's just what we do here. I guess I just wish it didn't feel so pandering? You're totally right about it being a crowd-pleaser, but I feel like it was designed to be a crowd-pleaser. Cups! "Happy"! She's on the floor! It was built in a lab to be twee. I do think if she'd done the actual cups song, the groaning would have never ended. But what if she'd done a more recent song – like Charli XCX's "Boom Clap" – and totally reinvented the clapping rhythm? That would be a crowd-pleaser, but an ambitious one. Wouldn't you have loved to see that, Adam?

AC: Absolutely not! I've never even heard of that song! What I see in Miss New York's perhaps pandering jaunt into the American middlebrow is the nuancing of her total picture. Kazantsev is trilingual, triple-majored at Hofstra, wants to go to law school at Notre Dame, and said her pet cause is domestic violence. This is why it was crucial for her not to do something neither too heartland (remember there was a ventriloquist singing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" last night) or too brainland (like, say, an aria from Turandot).

So pandering aside, which I'll grant, what about this violated the protocol to which hold our sacred Miss America contestants? Is there an ideal performance for a Miss America competitor? And if so, what is it?

KO: I'm going to be absolutely ridiculous and say my ideal is Miss Rhode Island Cheryl Frasier's flaming baton routine from Miss Congeniality. Hear me out!

It's both courageous and interesting, while retaining some of the natural camp that a Miss America pageant will always have. (Or a Miss United States pageant, in Cheryl's case.) Now, I'm not saying Miss New York should have picked up a flaming baton, but I think she could have been more ambitious while remaining true to the spirit of the competition. And you really should listen to "Boom Clap."

I'm not sure we're ever going to reach a middle ground on this, Adam, but do you have any final thoughts?

AC: Nope. I will take my victory in this debate as not only New York's win, but America's as well.

KO: And I respect your and America's right to be wrong.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.