For those of you thinking that Miley Cyrus should feel chastened over negative reaction to her hip-thrusting, tongue-jutting performance at MTV's Video Music Awards August 25, I've got surprising news: You're more likely to change your mind about her antics than Miley is, thanks to a psychological phenomenon known as "fading affect bias."
"Fading affect bias" describes the way negative emotions fade quicker from memory than positive emotions. Clay Routledge, an associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University who studies nostalgia, says, "When people experience something that might be perceived as threatening, unpredictable or chaotic, in the immediate aftermath there's this cognitively conservative response: 'I don't like it, it's inappropriate and unacceptable,'" he says. "That seems to fade over time."
As Breeanna Hare of CNN.com pointed out, Cyrus's performance fit into the show's tradition of "testing the boundaries of what culture deems 'decent' and reveling in youthful (and, yes, sometimes immature) freedom." And other commentators have acknowledged that performances that were initially considered scandalous are now thought of as iconic: Madonna revealing her underwear while rolling on the floor in a wedding dress as she sang "Like a Virgin" at the first VMAs in 1984; Britney Spears stripping down to a flesh-colored, thong-flaunting costume in 2000. According to some critics, the main problem was that Cyrus didn't match those star turns. Kyle Anderson of Entertainment Weekly felt the performance was "weirdly artless," while Shirley Halperin of The Hollywood Reporter cringed at the "crassness." Buzzfeed used photos to compare Miley unfavorably to Britney Spears in 2000, advising the new-generation Disney star, "Do not try to be the queen."
But Madonna and Britney weren't universally acclaimed as VMA queens at the time. Last year, Madonna told Jay Leno that her manager confronted her in her dressing room after her '84 performance and said, "That's it, you've ruined your career." The March 4, 1985, issues of Newsweek and Time both ran features on Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, lauding Lauper as a sassy feminist and painting Madonna as a retro male fantasy. Newsweek called Madonna "conventional" and her MTV performance an "old-fashioned sex-siren act." Paul Grein, an editor at Billboard, told Time, "Cyndi Lauper will be around for a long time. Madonna will be out of the business in six months."
As for Britney Spears's 2000 striptease, the Washington Post echoed Newsweek's been-there-done-that reaction to Madonna when it said Spears "tried hard to be provocative by bumping and grinding her way through a bit of the Rolling Stones' hoary 'Satisfaction'..." The New York Post -- saying Spears's "teen-diva look went from nymphette to nympho" -- interviewed one mom who said of Spears and Christina Aguilera, "Their real audience is 16 and under. They should dress appropriately for the audience that buys their records." Last week, The Parents Television Council asked, "How is this image of former child star Miley Cyrus appropriate for 14-year-olds?"
Of course, the history of pop stars shocking television viewers (especially parents) predates MTV and the VMAs. On Sept. 16, 1956, the New York Times published Jack Gould's column on Elvis Presley's Ed Sullivan show performance under the title "Lack of Responsibility Is Shown by TV In Exploiting Teen-Agers." Gould -- who three months earlier had written Presley had "no discernible singing ability" -- now clucked that Elvis "injected movements of the tongue and indulged in wordless singing that were singularly distasteful."
"To resort to the world's oldest theatrical come-on just to make a fast buck ... is cheap and tawdry stuff," Gould wrote, sounding very much like The Hollywood Reporter's Halperin who last week wondered about Cyrus: "... was that the plan all along? To shock the masses and stir a social media frenzy while corporate sponsors clapped along, gleefully counting impressions?" Or like Amanda Marcotte of Slate who wrote, "Miley Cyrus was so obviously trying to push your buttons, people. Teddy bears to stripping? Oldest trick in the book!"
How do we forget that our biggest, most envelope-pushing acts were once accused of being vulgar and -- perhaps worse for a would-be pop superstar -- unoriginal? Amy Lynn Wlodarski, an associate professor of music at Dickinson College, agrees with psychology professor Routledge that it is all a matter of context: "We have, to some extent, canonized Elvis and Madonna as pop-icon figures." She continues:
"Their controversial pasts are less relevant now ... because of the broader impact that each had within the history of popular music. It becomes a more heroic narrative -- one in which their supposed transgressions are now interpreted as misunderstood, and they are repositioned as a figure ahead of his or her time."
So does that mean Miley Cyrus will be as big as Elvis, Madonna or Britney? Routledge laughs. "I'm not suggesting that 10 years from now we'll say, yeah, Miley Cyrus's performance was amazing -- paradigm changing! But this happens over and over again and we do look back nostalgically on these experiences and spin them in a more positive light."
As for Miley, she's already benefiting from the attention. Over 90,000 digital copies of her new song "Wrecking Ball" have sold, propelled by the more than 300,000 tweets per minute that she reportedly generated at her peak during the VMA broadcast (triple the peak tweets of 98,000 at last year's VMAs). After her performance, Larry Rudolph, Cyrus's manager, didn't race to his client's dressing room to scold her. Instead, he told Us Magazine, "It could not have gone better. The fans got it. The rest eventually will."