Miley Cyrus has kept herself in the news recently with some provocative dancing and by appearing to smoke dope at a music industry awards ceremony. I doubt it was the real thing because the American government's "war on drugs" can be utterly merciless and celebrities aren't always beyond its reach. But to understand what's really going on here we need to look at the research of economist Moshe Adler into the economics of superstardom.
Adler wondered how some entertainers could earn many times as much as their competitors without actually being that many times better at what they did. For example, David Beckham could earn many times as much as some of his less famous England team mates without being that many times better on any objective measure of football skill. Adler concluded that it was because some performers become a focal point for public attention.
A footballer who scored a spectacular goal would get his name in the papers and would be talked about by football fans. This would make him appear more important to his team, so his manager would be more likely to notice any further achievements by the same player. The increased interest in this player would attract more spectators to the matches he was involved in, so the club would have a financial interest in playing him more often and giving him a more prominent role in the team. They would also be willing to pay him more in order to retain his services. If the player continued to perform well he would generate even more public interest and come to be perceived as even more important. It would create a positive feedback loop in which a player who is only somewhat better than his rivals suddenly comes to be seen as something completely different.
Russell Brand is another example of an Adler superstar. Before he got a job on Big Brother he was just one of many reasonably good comedians trying to get a break in television. Getting the job gave him massive public recognition, which got him further TV work and hugely increased the audience for his live performances, which got him even more recognition, and so on. But few entertainers ever get this chance because members of the public only have a limited amount of time to spare for thinking about celebrities, so they can only pay attention to a small number of people at any one time. The challenge for a performer is to be the right person at the right time, without knowing in advance what either of those conditions will actually be.
Miley Cyrus first became known as the star of the TV show Hannah Montana. Appearing in an internationally successful television show made her name and face world famous. But once the show ended she was suddenly back to square one in the celebrity game. She was back to being a competent professional entertainer who could sing, dance and act, but who was competing with thousands of other competent professionals who could perform to a fairly similar standard. She was in danger of going back to being just another face in the crowd.
The only way that Cyrus could maintain the level of celebrity to which she'd become accustomed was to trigger the feedback loop of public interest that would turn her into an Adler superstar. I'm not suggesting that she would ever have heard of these obscure economic theories, but whatever practical knowledge Miley Cyrus and her management team had gained over the years about how show-business really works would still lead to the same conclusions about what she had to do. To become a big star it is necessary to generate more publicity than your rivals, to make yourself the focal point of public attention. Therefore it is necessary to feed the media some scandalous stories that will make better headlines than the equally contrived scandals that are being promoted by rival publicists. For a young female singer that means ostentatious sexual displays and a bit of (probably fake) law-breaking.
The most important thing to understand is that what Miley Cyrus is doing is not a sign of societal decadence or personal immorality. It is economically rational behaviour for a person in her position, and if we look at things in those terms it becomes much easier to understand what is really going on in the world around us.