“We Can’t Stop” is a revolutionary anthem. It is a mutiny against an old morality that preaches restraint, to be replaced by a new consumerism that preaches rabid individualism.
Its pace is marked, a slow march on the palaces of power, a declaration of independence from authority. “It’s our party we can do what we want” – the victorious chant of the successful revolutionaries, ousting The Man from his corner office, taking the night in celebration, kissing who they want, like an American soldier in Times Square newly freed from the threat of anti-capitalist invasion.
The chorus appears mid-march: “We can’t stop. We won’t stop.” A fiery square full of youths paused in a unified cry, promising a never-ending struggle against the tyranny of dawns past. “Can’t you see it’s we who own the night,” they ask incredulously, suddenly aware of their own power, the power of the people, the -cracy of the demos.
The video starts with Miley scissoring herself free from an ankle bracelet, unshackling herself from lawfulness. Red Beats and EOS lip balms everywhere, the Young Twerks are finally free to indulge a wantonness that was previously restricted by an out-dated morality that preached moderation over gratification, prudence over extravagance, communitarianism over consumerism.
That is their victory – the supplanting of a moral order by an indifferent one. Their democratic impulse is piloted by a materialist machine, and fuelled by an unbridled pursuit of desire. But without moral purpose, we become hollow. We get tricked into believing that the need to fulfil desire fulfils the need to have purpose.
The authority of consumerism gave these revolutionaries the freedom to indulge their most purposeless whims, to get lost in the abyss of individualism, to play with abandon in Narcissus’s pool. The authority of consumerism is devoid of purpose. Its acolytes float aimlessly through a life without calling, fooled into doing what the market demands, hoodwinked into thinking they have a choice.
The video is a celebration of what the revolutionaries have won – the freedom to buy what they’re told to buy, the freedom to be who they’re told to be.
In a surreptitious way, it’s in on the joke. It caricatures excess, the traditional preserve of the rich. In their revolution to usurp The Man, they’ve won his freedom of indulgence. It’s a revolution without a cause – a manufactured victory.
In an orgy of destruction that parodies pop consumerism, it pays homage to that Pyrrhic victory. Eating a hundred-dollar-bill-sandwich is a big middle finger not only to the rich, but also to the poor, who have neither sandwiches nor hundred dollar bills. The destruction of a “freedom fry skull” is a wink again to the hungry masses, a stratum to whom these nouveau revolutionaries act as both role model and in an Orwellian twist, the new Man.
You have the freedom to do what we do, they say; if you can afford it.
The purposeless revolution is characterised by its focus on aesthetics, lack of content, and desperate need to be contemporary. The most striking thing about the purposeless revolution is its obsession with image – the refuge of the superficial and the uniform of the hollow.
In a way, the video knows this. A telling scene is a toy sheep in front of a six paned mirror staring at equally vapid reflections of itself. The punch line – they’re all wearing sunglasses.
Miley seems to be conscious of this critique of consumerist culture. She carries her sheep under her arms, aware of the irony that in the fight for independence from conformism, we end up conforming to some other image anyway.
Her non-conformist revolutionaries look the same, talk the same, and act the same –they adopt the image fed to them by a powerful marketing machine that coerces them to want to buy what it wants to sell. She seems to be aware of the irony, and buys into it, ironically.
Buying into it means donning that sheep’s sunglasses, being confronted at every turn by a reflection of a superficial identity constructed by someone else, by the machine of consumerism – the new authority, the new morality, the new dictator of what’s-right-now.
We buy into its promise that happiness is in purposelessness, in the conspicuous consumption of every desire, and that emptiness will be filled by losing ourselves in frivolity and destruction.
We lose ourselves in the endless void of license.
We can do what we want, says the new order. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should, said the old. Freedom doesn’t come with the moral license to abuse freedom. Their revolution supplanted the old morality with a licentious consumerism in which we worship pretend versions of ourselves – like Miley making out with a plastic Barbie doll version of her fabricated Barbie doll self.
The song is a sad, slow commentary on the lies we’re sold. The song is about lies of freedom – freedom to be sold a false dream and to be coerced into buying it. It’s a commentary on the failed revolution to be in charge of our lives and of ourselves.
When we threw out the old authority, we didn’t replace its ethical base, its moral purpose. We only started the revolution because we were sold #YOLO. But with the Happy Meal of freedom-to-do-what-you-want, we got the prize of an imprisoning cycle of consumerism that enslaves us to purposelessness, to false promises of happiness, and a dark truth of emptiness.
“This is our house,” she says. But it’s not mortgage-free, they reply.