Miley Cyrus, currently enjoying a bout of publicity due to an interestingly choreographed performance at the VMAs, is currently riding off the popularity of her song of the summer “We Can’t Stop.”
This is the song that she performed at the MTV Video Music Awards in Brooklyn on Sunday night.
Commonly misconstrued as a vivacious summer “party anthem,” there’s something insidious going on in Miley’s big hit.
See, the song isn’t happy.
It’s a song about being stuck in a cycle, and being unable to leave. The key line isn’t “we won’t stop” or “don’t stop,” it’s “we can’t stop.”
There’s ample evidence in the song that the subject is unhappy. There’s the slowness. There’s the fact that it’s written in a minor key.
There’s the foreboding, deep, potentially male voice that’s first to sing the refrain (“It’s our party, we can do what we want,” etc.) in the beginning of the song.
There are several lines that also call into question the interpretation that all is right. For instance, while “we came to have so much fun now,” clearly they have not. How do we know this? Well, they’re “not ready to go home” for starters.
And of course, they can’t stop.
This song is distinctly different from a similar song — on paper at least — “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha. Both are about getting ready for a party, then going to that party, then articulating the intention to continue with the party until dawn.
However, contrast the tempos, and the inflection of the core credo. Ke$ha rallies the troops with “Don’t stop, make it pop, DJ blow my speakers up tonight, Im’ma fight, ’til we see the sunlight!”
Miley? “We can’t stop, we won’t stop,” she drones. “We run things, things don’t run we,” she insists.
So why the difference between the hedonist anthems?
The drug use in Cyrus’ song is more than an oblique reference to MDMA, or “molly,” and forms a central theme. “Everyone in line in the bathroom, trying to get a line in the bathroom” is clearly about doing lines in the bathroom.
The line “can’t you see it’s we who own the night” is also rather interesting, as the phrase “we own the night” was used by the NYPD in the 1980s to publicize their anti-drug efforts.
And while normally casual designer drug use would be a crucial part of any self-respecting party anthem in this day and age, the inflection is mechanical, and the repetition of the song itself conveys a cycle. A cycle they, yes, can’t stop.
Because here’s the thing about Molly (MDMA): The drug brings about a euphoric feeling by increasing the presence of three neurotransmitters, dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
These are the chemicals that, for all intents and purposes, make you feel happy.
MDMA makes these three neurotransmitters release in your brain, and then prevents them from being absorbed back.
Since they’re just hanging out in your brain, you feel happy for the entire course of the drug as they’re released and prevented from being removed from the system.
But, you don’t have an infinite supply of them.
When you deplete serotonin, it takes a while to get back to normal serotonin levels.
As a result, regular MDMA abusers get serotonin hangovers several days later, because they have actually run out of the brain molecule that makes them feel happy.
This results in difficulty concentrating, fatigue, emotional exhaustion, sleep disturbance, low to no self esteem and social withdrawal.
In order to get out of this, some addicts might take MDMA again, in order to draw from the reservoir and get back on top, but this is robbing Peter to pay Paul when it comes to serotonin.
This is what “We Can’t Stop” is about, because once this cycle stops, the facade will be over.
The narrator will have to endure the dissolution of the party.
Worst of all, the narrator will have to bounce back without the use of the drug.
And if you don’t believe it, just watch the video.
While generally speaking the video should be considered a separate work from the song itself, here the video only bolsters our perspective.
It’s permeated by a sense of foreboding, designed to make the viewer ill at ease, and full of potent imagery that is anything but fulfilling.
An unhappy man devours a money sandwich, remaining unsatisfied.
It’s one of the most literal articulations of un-fulfilling monetary consumption in recent memory.
Miley, at one point, is in a swimming pool full of attractive young twenty-somethings straight out of central casting. Whom does Miley gravitate to?
Well it’s a plastic, unrealistic puppet, an internally dead thing that’s easily manipulated and doesn’t say no.
But in the middle of the video, you see the most potent symbol of the entire song.
You see a series of taxidermied animals.
One animal is placed in front of a mirror, an effect which makes it appear that the animal is not really alone, that’s it’s supported by a circle of understanding, identical companions. But it’s not. It’s alone.
The line of the song that this occurs during, for what it’s worth, is “Forget the haters, because somebody loves us.”
By they way, it’s wearing sunglasses — Miley’s sunglasses — to hide its dead eyes.
One animal is dragged on a cart, forced into motion.
Lastly, the first animal is cradled by Miley as she walks to “the line for the bathroom, trying to get a line in the bathroom,” as she stares directly into the camera.
Because here’s the interesting thing about taxidermied animals …
They’re vivacious, vibrant, realistic on the outside, set into a “natural” pose designed, just for a second, for the person not looking too closely, to convey that the animal is alive, behaving as it normally would.
But really, the animal is dead, gutted, and stuffed on the inside, and only preserved from rot thanks to a multitude of chemicals.
That’s what “We can’t stop” is about.
As noted before, the song starts with a deep, ominous male voice repeating “It’s our party we can do what we want,” but the voice could easily be Miley’s just slowed down with computers, projected years into the future, when she’s still stuck in the club and totally exhausted.
[Director’s Cut of We Can’t Stop]