Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards were all about reactions. In the most GIFable award show ever, our digital souvenirs include Drake solemnly staring at the ground, Rihanna giving the stink eye, and endless cutaways of Taylor Swift being Taylor Swift. Most are in response to Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke's medley of her "We Can't Stop" and his "Blurred Lines," two of the year's most controversial music videos brought together as the night's must-see moment.
Bringing the "fucked-up selfie" concept of her video to life, Cyrus straddled giant teddy bears, spanked butts, touched herself, thrusted across Brooklyn's Barclays Center, and gave Gene Simmons a rival for most notorious tongue in music—and that was before Thicke even sauntered onstage to start their duet. The performance, as multiple headlines point out, "stunned" audiences and, atypically, generated more chatter than the show's opening and closing acts of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, respectively. Reactions ranged from the expected (The Parents Television Council was not pleased) to the more surprising: MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski called Cyrus "deeply disturbed" and accused her of having an eating disorder during a Morning Joe rant.
So here's a fun theory: Was Cyrus's and Thicke's performance actually a thought-out response to "Blurred Lines" criticism? Even before the song hit No. 1, "Blurred Lines" and its oft-parodied video have been accused of treating women like objects and promoting rape culture with its "I know you want it" hook, physical aggression, and subtle messages about alcohol and consent. Cyrus's performance with Thicke played with several of these themes in a way that could be read as commentary—though, at best, failed commentary.
It would be easy to write off her performance as just looking to deliver shock value: Cyrus has openly professed her admiration for the Britney-Madonna-Christina smooching trinity of scandal that opened the awards show a decade ago, so it's possible that Miley was just being Miley to carry the torch of sexually provocative pop stars. That idea is also consistent with the message of "We Can't Stop," which kicks off her hip-hop makeover by warning it's Cyrus's party, and she can do what she wants. But from the way she introduced her performance—by having Saturday Night Live's Vanessa Bayer revive her Cyrus caricature—it's clear that Cyrus is more self-aware than she perhaps gets credit for. And if there's anything we learned from Lady Gaga's "Applause" video, it's that pop stars responding to or parodying their own critiques is not out of the question.