Miley Cyrus’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the Joys of Amateurism

The viral video du jour is an unfortunate Nirvana cover by Billy Ray’s famous offspring. But it’s fortunate as well: I learn as much about art when it fails as when it succeeds. When it does both, it’s doubly interesting.

Yesterday when I was in the bowels of an excruciating head cold, my day was made worse by Miley Cyrus’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the inevitable backlash; it’s been made fun of in all the right places. Sure it’s a bad cover, but it’s the lowest of low-hanging fruit. And if you set aside the veneer of heresy, it’s bad in interesting ways.

Her band is perfectly competent—they’ve got the jerky intro down, and the gunshot drums. The fault is entirely Cyrus’s, and the cover really goes off the rails in the final verse, if you can make it that far. And it’s not just that she’s not a good singer qua singer; plenty of people with mediocre voices make good or great singers.

Cyrus tries to gussy it up with the musical equivalent of overacting, presumably because, as a tween pop star, that’s what she’s trained to do—exaggerated emphases, affected delivery, arena-sized intonations. She sounds like someone who legitimately likes the song, but as a result of culture and training, understands it through the lens of Alanis Morrisette. As a result, she misses the understated menace, which gives the verse dynamics in contrast to the immense chorus.

The pile-on is unfortunate; Cyrus is a more fair target than Rebecca Black, but there’s still a bit of a cool-kids-club feel to it that I get from a lot of viral videos (which is why I’ll always be grateful to Weezer for their humanist single “Pork & Beans”). Nonetheless, I’m always a bit appreciative of instances when art falls. It makes me appreciate greatness more, and in the contrast, allows me understand it more.

I saw the Cyrus video the night after seeing the Lakeside Pride Orchestra (full disclosure: I have a couple friends in it). They’re a small, GLBT-oriented community orchestra that plays around town on an occasional basis, often at the Center on Halsted*, where they have seven free concerts scheduled for 2010-2011.

I don’t mean to be critical about them when I say they’re not the CSO. In fact, that’s part of why I like seeing them play. They’re a very good community orchestra, but they’re amateurs—sometimes the seams show. Obviously the seams occasionally show with professional orchestras as well, but if you’re ear isn’t trained, or you aren’t familiar with the piece, it’s hard to tell. When you see greatness—and it’s true just as much in sports or anything else—out of context, it can seem like it’s birthed from the forehead of Zeus for your pleasure, which is far from the truth.

Going to a great CSO show is like visiting an architectural masterpiece: it’s easier to appreciate the beauty that comes out of it than the engineering that went into it. As a connoisseur of failure (and a master practitioner in my own right), I always feel like something’s missing, and that’s part of why I legitimately love amateur art—when the curtain slips, showing the structure underneath. And when the curtain is drawn closed and the orchestra comes together again, as it did Tuesday in the finale of Mendelssohn’s 3rd Symphony, it’s all the more exciting.

* Which I’d never been to before; turns out it’s an incredibly pleasant place to hang out even if you’re not there for something in particular. It’s like a student union building, but for a neighborhood instead of a college.

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