Amidst all the news of petrochemical malfeasance in the Gulf -- and thank you, Rep. Joe Barton, pride of Texas, for your apology to BP, demonstrating everything that's wrong with a Congress jammed too snugly in the pocket of big business -- I watched teen sensation Miley Cyrus on David Letterman Thursday night.
Oh my. Listening to her, I thought, there is no there there. And that made me sad.
When Gertrude Stein wrote, "There is no there there," she was lamenting the loss of her childhood home in Oakland, California. At 17, Ms. Cyrus already seems to have lost her entire childhood, careening into her majority like a runaway bus with a bomb on board.
Not that she isn't a smart, savvy young woman with talent. But of course, she's more than that -- she's a Disney-manufactured phenomenon, with hit records, movies, the "Hannah Montana" TV series and sold out concert tours, a role model to millions of adoring girls who buy up all the Miley-related merchandise they can get their hands on. "You represent popular culture," Letterman told her and he was right, with all the good and bad that implies. Then he asked, jokingly, "Are you looking for the warmth the spotlight can't provide?" Ms. Cyrus said, firmly, "No."
Maybe she should send out a search party. Scrape off the increasingly heavy makeup and toss aside her pounds of bling and all that seems to be left is a chilly hollowness, a jaded, world weary, adult-sounding nonchalance signifying nothing; an attitude far too mature in one so young. Unfortunately, it's one that's assumed and emulated by a lot of other teenage kids: too cool for school and pretty much everything else.
Call it the curse of the child star, one that goes back at least as far as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, if not farther. A few years ago, I was on a set in Hollywood, where a TV special I had written was being shot. A number of child actors had been cast in it. One of them, who had been involved in both a successful TV series and a hit movie, was having her childhood slowly drummed out of her by a stage mother who spent most of the day working the phones to find more and more work for the kid..
Each morning, when the child arrived on the soundstage, the mother made her walk around and make a show of kissing me, then the producer and the director. It was creepy. She was still a smart, sweet kid, but you could see that everything natural was being taken away from her as adults sought to make the most of her ability while she was still young.
Recently, a friend was telling me about the misbehavior of a popular movie actor on a film my friend had written. The actor had hit it too big, too young; like Cyrus, he was a star at 17 and it had ruined him as a human being.
When I was 17, David Letterman said, I had a paper route. I know what he means. When I was 17, I was working in my father's drugstore in upstate New York, marking merchandise with a grease pencil and running out for coffee.
But that summer, I was given the extraordinary opportunity to go to school in England, studying literature and drama. It was a grown-up setting, for sure, and it changed my life but nevertheless, no one tried to stop me being a kid. Adults kept their eye on us in a caring, non-mercenary way. Even when I developed a serious crush on a red-haired girl in my classes over there, the feeling was reciprocated but we were chaperoned most of the time. Besides, unlike kids today, we were clueless when it came to matters of the heart and libido.
Not that all is lost. This week, I attended the 8th grade graduation of my girlfriend's niece Lexie in Philadelphia. The ceremony was in a church, the girls were in white dresses, the boys in school blazers, ties and khakis. Each endeavored to be as grown up as possible but they were still caught up in jokes and wisecracks, still relishing sweet memories of science fairs, May Day dances and the school production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Seventeen is a few years away, thank goodness.
But Miley Cyrus, well, as columnist Maggie Lamond Stone wrote, "I almost wish I were your mother for a day or two, so I could tell you the one thing that you don't seem to understand: growing up is a process. It is not an event. I'm glad you're seventeen and finding yourself and trying to make it as an adult in the music business, but why do you need to do it overnight? The headline yesterday was 'Miley Cyrus: I'm Not Trying To Be Slutty!' That was not an easy conversation with my daughter, I don't mind saying."
Youth is wasted on the young, they say. Ms. Cyrus certainly seems to be wasting hers, but she's in no way entirely to blame. Shame on the grown-ups who have exploited her. Shame on the media's manipulation of a role model's obvious problems. And shame on those of us who have enjoyed her music, then reveled in the gossip of her growing pains.
Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.