Miley Cyrus
Credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Was the former Hannah Montana’s appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night an envelope-pushing masterpiece or a deranged teddy bear orgy? With 48 hours to digest, Kyle Anderson and Darren Franich debate.

KYLE ANDERSON: Going into Sunday night’s VMAs, Miley Cyrus was on a roll: Her single “We Can’t Stop” had been on the Hot 100 for 11 weeks, and she had just announced the release date of her new album Bangerz. The conversation over the video for “We Can’t Stop” — which has been viewed over 157 million times on YouTube — has been at a fever pitch for the bulk of the summer, and Cyrus seemed primed to make a big splash on her biggest stage yet.

What could have been a major transition moment in Cyrus’ career turned into a circus sideshow, and now the only thing people will remember about her for the next news cycle is how she masturbated a foam finger in front of millions of people. What we got was a desperate stab at “adulthood” at best and a reasonable exhibit A for strengthening indecency laws at worst. Darren, give me a reason (or several reasons) not to think this performance was a disaster.

DARREN FRANICH: Here’s one reason: The gigantic teddy bear with a Geordi LaForge visor. Here’s fifty more reasons: The dancing pink teddy bears that flanked Miley while she initiated an event that was less a musical performance than a carefully-choreographed cartoon orgy. We’re a few years deep into the new silly-sexy pop diva paradigm, and on a show which saw Lady Gaga reheat old weirdness while Katy Perry did yet another “Look at All my Funny Faces!” routine, Miley managed to be simultaneously goofier (hair-horns!) and more transgressive (her skimpy outfit was hiding an even skimpier outfit!). The fact that half of Twitter was grossed out means she did her job right. You call this “a desperate stab at adulthood”? I call it a guns-blazing cannonfire assault on the whole idea of musical decency. And isn’t that why we watch the VMAs?

KYLE: I know it’s a little odd to be clutching one’s pearls at the sight of anything on the VMAs — after all, we’re talking about a show whose legacy includes Madonna humping the stage at Radio City Music Hall and Britney Spears dancing around with a barely-a-metaphor python. So we should not be shocked at whatever the show rolls out. But this felt like something different. It might be because Cyrus still looks so young — she’s 20 years old, but could easily pass for 15, so when she started grinding up against Robin Thicke, I felt like somebody should be shining the Pedo Bear signal in the sky.

It also bothered me that the whole thing was so artless. I dig the bear imagery, and the idea of turning pieces of childhood ephemera into hyper-sexualized fetish objects is provocative, but Miley ended up undermining herself with the foam finger and the constant tongue-wagging. Does she really need to do all those things at once to make her point? It came across more as somebody trying to shock with every single element of her performance, rather than someone who has a clear idea of who she is as an artist.

Let me ask you this: Were you surprised at all at the reaction to the Cyrus performance? Because it has also created this weird Mobius strip in the Twitterverse, where people were appalled at the performance (lots of “Who will think of the children?!?!?!?” type of stuff), and then people were appalled that those people were so appalled. Does that seem like a poor way to promote an album, or is all publicity good publicity?

DARREN: The most important thing to remember — before we descend into the internet sphere of perpetual outrage — is that “We Can’t Stop” is a really great song. This isn’t Miley doing “Dirrty,” a shameless and empty provocation; this is Miley doing “I’m a Slave 4 U,” a shameless and empty provocation that is also ridiculously addictive. So any publicity is good publicity. And much like the “We Can’t Stop” video, Miley’s VMA performance straddled a metaphorical foam finger between being an effective shock-value stunt and being a parody of shock value.

Take that Robin Thicke moment. Thicke has spent the summer peddling a winking parody of cool-guy sexiness, with a music video that finds Mr. Paula Patton surrounded by supermodels who just can’t get enough of his Jordan-Knight haircut. So then Miley — onstage, on-camera, in front of the assembled United States of Music — called Thicke’s bluff and twerked him into submission. She made him look like an empty Beetlejuice suit. She looked confidently in control — she’s a million miles away from Britney in her prime, when every hyper-sexualized onstage strip session seemed stage-managed by the terrifying puppet masters of Britney Inc.

It seems like the core of the anti-Miley brigade is the idea that she’s a former child star who is now, terrifyingly, a sexual human being. This strikes me as a mixture of nostalgic nonsense and puritanical nonsense. Like, is there any way for a former Disney star to avoid that controversy? Would you have preferred a more tasteful performance? Clutch those pearls, Gramma Kyle!

KYLE: Obviously there’s no lazier criticism of anything than, “I wish this thing was some other thing,” but I guess I just wish this thing was some other thing. Maybe as a dyed-in-the-wool rockist, I’m just a little disappointed that the only truly transgressive moment at the VMAs — and love it or hate it, it was transgressive — came from the pop starlet formerly known as Hannah Montana and not from the second coming of Kurt or Axl.

Part of the fun of rock and roll is that it’s supposed to fuel rebellion from the life that was handed to you, but there’s no way Mumford & Sons could possibly upset your parents (or your grandparents for that matter, especially if grandpappy is an old prospector). The idea that anybody in pop music had the stones to upset anybody fundamentally makes me feel good. And it clearly made an impact: Her forthcoming album Bangerz shot into the top five on the iTunes album chart, and that’s solely based on pre-orders for a record that won’t be out for two months. Miley may not be the rule-breaker that I want, but at the moment, she’s apparently the pop tart rebel that America can’t stop watching.