You might have been fortunate enough to avoid seeing Miley Cyrus’ rather disgraceful “performance” on the VMAs last night.
Or seeing how social media is all going bonkers over this outfit, her lewd dancing, “twerking”, and all that.
There is some useful and thought provoking commentary on what it means that the world is so obsessed with a young woman’s sexual performance (even a lewd one) over and beyond “real” news items like the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the ongoing atrocities in Syria, here.
The words here are from someone who loves music, passionately, and indeed considers music a form of prayer. They are also from a father, a person of faith, and a person who has loved music, all kinds of music from Coltrane and Bob Dylan to Marley and classical Indian music, from Bach and Mozart to Springsteen and Shahram Nazeri, Mahalia Jackson to Aretha, for decades.
I could reproduce the kind of shallow analysis here that fetishes a young woman’s appearance and the barely-there outfit.
That is not my intention here.
It is actually a much more basic point. Music, fundamentally, is not mere sound. Music was thought to be by the Greeks and their Muslim heirs to be nothing short of the sound of the movement of the heavens. The beauty here served as an echo of the beauty there. For indeed, as the sages never tired of saying, “God is beautiful, and God loves beauty.”
The great Rumi simply said:
Music is the sound of the opening of the gates of Paradise.
Johann Sebastian Bach was right:
“All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul’s refreshment; where this is not remembered there is no real music but only a devilish hubbub.”
Let us be clear: it is not that music has to mention God to be sacred. Music, real music, is itself of God, and divine. Music leads back to God. The refreshment real music offers is itself a very taste of paradise.
The great Sufi master Suhrawardi makes another interesting observation. Music by itself is not sacred nor lewd. It simply reveals what is in our hearts:
Music does not give rise, in the heart, to anything which is not already there. So he, whose inner self is attached to anything else than God is stirred by music to sensual desire, but the one who is inwardly attached to the love of God is moved, by hearing music, to do His will…. The common folk listen to music according to nature, and the novices listen with desire and awe, while the listening of the saints brings them a vision of the Divine gifts and graces, and these are the gnostics to whom listening means contemplation. But finally, there is the listening of the spiritually perfect to whom, through music, God reveals Himself unveiled.
In other words, some (Rumi, Mahalia Jackson, Shahram Nazeri, Bach), see music as a channel of God’s grace, and through the ladder of senses arise to encounter God face to face. For others, like much of the filth that parades as popular music these days, music is expressing the diseased state of our hearts. And yes, many of our own hearts are sick.
One more comment deserves to be made. There are those who are bound to see these comments as one of a world uncomfortable with sensuality and sexuality. And naturally we are already seeing certain right-wing pundits opining on how this resembles (or is) pornography. And some are likely to support Miley Cyrus on the ground that a woman should own her sexuality, and do what she wishes with it, no matter what the boundaries.
My point is actually not about what is in Ms. Cyrus’ heart. That is between her and her maker. It is a simpler point: we live and participate in a patently patriarchal society. Even if she “owns” her sexuality, by appearing essentially in her underwear and twerking, she is essentially perpetuating that patriarchal system that collapses the worth and value of a woman to her commodification as a sexual merchandise. Other than appearing to be semi-nude, what else can a woman do to receive such great attention on social media? And that, that, is a pathetic comment on the range of possibilities open to all of us, women and men.
The mere fact that she as one artist (if we wish to call her that) is laughing all the way to the bank does not negate the patriarchy system. This is not women’s liberation or emancipation. (of course neither is Robin Thicke, the man old enough to be her father who’s her co-participant in the lewd VMA dance, a model of women’s liberation, with his “rapey” lyrics of “let me liberate you.”) This is one woman riding a patriarchal system all the way to the bank, the same way she rode the foam finger. And that was indeed Ms. Cyrus’ response today on her Facebook page, noting how high her album was ranking after the debacle last night.
Incidentally, the racist aspects of the whole debacle probably deserves much closer scrutiny than it has received so far.
Most of all, this is not about Miley Cyrus. It’s about the patriarchal (and racist) culture that we all participate in, and about our own diseased hearts. It says something about the absurdity of the world we have created that instead of participating in the struggle of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, of thousands of innocent lives lost to gun, of half of all Americans living at or below the poverty line, of a fifth of the world’s population living on a dollar a day, of the imminent destruction of our shared planet’s environment, of over 100,000 lives lost in Syria, we are pulled along a sex-crazed, crass song and dance.
The great Muslim sages were right: this “music” is simply bringing out what is in our own hearts. And it is we, we the people, not just Miley Cyrus, who are profoundly sick and diseased. It is not just Ms. Cyrus that needs a spiritual (and intellectual) awakening. It is us, We the people.