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In Defense of Miley Cyrus’s VMAs Performance

By now you may just have heard about Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs last night. But if somehow you’ve managed to avoid the whole thing, it went like this: Miley twerked. Miley sang with Robin Thicke. Miley slapped the ass of one of her female dancers. Miley wore a skimpy flesh-colored outfit. Miley wagged her tongue a lot. And the internet went completely and utterly bonkers about it, with critics climbing over one another to criticize Cyrus for being racist, for being clueless, for being a shameless hussy, for being on the verge of a spectacular breakdown. Has everyone gone completely mad?

There are two main lines of argument against Cyrus’s performance. First, there’s the controversy that’s been bubbling ever since the video for “We Can’t Stop” dropped, a controversy that’s based around the idea that a white girl twerking amounts to cultural appropriation, which is a Very Bad Thing. And second, there’s the idea that the overtly sexual nature of her performance somehow indicates that she’s headed for some sort of Spears-esque meltdown.

First, then, the alleged racism. The internet being the internet, everyone took one look at Cyrus’s performance last night and immediately assumed the worst — Vulture’s Jody Rosen, for instance, dubbed the performance “a minstrel show” and argued that “[it] tipped over into what we may as well just call racism… [she] is annexing working-class black ‘ratchet’ culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention.”

Really? A minstrel show? Head to pretty much any club in America on a Saturday night and you’ll see girls of every color doing exactly what Cyrus was doing on stage last night. As with many aspects of our culture, twerking is something that can be traced to a very distinct place — in this case, Jamaican dancehalls by way of New Orleans hip-hop clubs — but has changed and metamorphosed as it’s moved from its origins to become part of the mainstream.

The point is here that culture is a fluid and ever-changing thing, and doesn’t ultimately belong to anyone. In this case, the argument centers around the fact that twerking is part of “black” culture, and Cyrus is white. But part of hip-hop culture’s enduring power has always been its pan-racial nature, the way it’s able to reach across — and ultimately — transcend racial and social boundaries. Anyone who knows the history of hip hop-knows that it’s always been a multicolored art form — its first great institution, Def Jam, was founded by a black man (Russell Simmons) and a white man (Rick Rubin). The Beastie Boys came to prominence because they toured with Run-DMC, and Public Enemy came to prominence because they toured with The Beastie Boys. And so on.

In 2013, hip-hop is performed and consumed around the world by people of every color. Its roots certainly lie in the black culture of the Bronx and Harlem, but it’s long since ceased being exclusively “black” music, if it ever was. However, crucially, neither has its pan-racial spread in any way compromised the music’s identity. As Dan Charnas points out in his excellent book The Big Payback, “From the debut of the Beastie Boys to Vanilla Ice and … Eminem, the emergence of successful White rap acts [has] engendered dire prophecies of a White takeover of hip-hop. In each case, it [has] never happened. In the new cultural order of the hip-hop generation, White-skin privilege yielded less advantage than at any time in history.”

This isn’t, of course, to argue that white privilege doesn’t exist — it does, and it’s something that white hip hoppers are more aware of than you might think. But if anything, it’s disempowering to continue to portray black culture as a sort of inert, powerless thing that is capable only of fluttering feebly as it’s plundered by privileged white people. Anyone who continues to think that is true of hip-hop culture clearly hasn’t looked at the world over the last 20 years. As often as not, rants about cultural appropriation are, more than anything else, a way for white people to feel good about themselves by accusing other white people on the behalf of black people. The issue of race in hip-hop is a complicated one, but no one is served by shrieking “RACIST MINSTREL SHOW!” every time a white artist performs black-inspired music.

Honestly, if anything’s racist, it’s continuing to cast hip-hop as exclusively “black” music, which is really only a device to cast it as an Other, as ghetto culture that’s separate from the white mainstream, when in reality it is the mainstream and has been so for decades. Perhaps the most sensible perspective on the whole sorry business was provided by Maurice McLeod in The Guardian: “All cultures thrive on cross-pollination, though, and it is the merging and mutating of art forms that makes life so vibrant. Being white, or rich, should never stop someone from enjoying culture that originated black and poor. To say otherwise is to impose a form of segregation that would also preclude a black girl from Brixton from getting into ballet or bhangra. Society needs more, not less, cultural fluidity.”

This is 100% correct. McLeod is also correct when he argues, “If there is a problem, it’s that the cartoon version of black culture that Cyrus seems to be adopting lacks depth and context.” This is true, and an entirely different issue to what pretty much every other commenter has been saying — but, y’know, of course Cyrus’s music and image are cartoonish. She’s a pop star, for Chrissakes. You could just as easily make the same argument about, say, Nicki Minaj.

There’s also the argument that Cyrus’s apparent love for hip-hop culture is somehow affected or contrived. Again, Vulture’s piece provides an example of this idea: “Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club. Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil’ Kim and the music of ‘the hood.’ But the reason that these affinities are coming out now, at the VMAs and elsewhere, is because it’s good for business.” The Huffington Post argued that the performance involved “black cultural signifiers like twerking used as a means of connoting that Miley’s now wild and dangerous.”

Isn’t it also possible that, hey, Miley actually just genuinely likes hip-hop? She was born in 1992, the child of a generation for whom hip-hop has always been the pre-eminent and most commercially successful form of pop music, in the most literal sense of that term — popular music. She grew up in a decade when rappers both black and white topped charts and sold bazillions of records. She spent her teens in the clutches of Disney, but maybe now she’s asserting herself — is it so outlandish a thought that she’s finally making the music, and portraying the image, that she wants to?

Sure, there’s nothing remotely “authentic” about her performance. But the spectacle of Miley twerking isn’t any more or less authentic than, say, Drake’s “Started From the Bottom,” which was also performed at the same ceremony — unless, of course, you consider “the bottom” to be growing up in a nice Toronto neighborhood and being on Degrassi. The portrayal of an image that doesn’t reflect reality is, again, as old as hip-hop itself — Biggie probably never really fussed when the landlord dissed him, but no-one holds that against “Juicy.”

The other great objection to Cyrus’s performance has been its sexuality. Take this hysterical screed from MSNBC Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski: “I think that was really, really disturbing. That young lady, who is 20, is obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed, clearly has confidence issues, probably [an] eating disorder and I don’t think anybody should have put her on stage. That was disgusting and embarrassing… That was really, really bad for anybody who’s younger and impressionable.”

Brzezinski didn’t start tearing at her clothes and beating her chest and howling, “Won’t somebody think of the children?!??!”, but she might as well have done. The hectoring, finger-waving tone here is all too typical of what gets directed at “good” girls who suddenly decide they might want to assert that they’re actual women and might even rather like sex. If you’re someone who somehow gets from a girl wearing a skimpy outfit to a girl allegedly having an eating disorder and “confidence issues,” it probably says more about your prejudices than it does about the girl in question.

The weird Madonna/whore dichotomy America imposes on its female artists has been well-documented — the idea that society expects people like Cyrus to be beautiful, virginal ingenues until they’re of age, and then sultry little sex machines immediately afterwards. If anything, Cyrus seems to be short-circuiting this process by doing the sex machine thing on her own terms. For all that male child stars have to put up with a whole lot of other shit when they try to grow up, they don’t get this sort of treatment —  no one called Justin Timberlake deeply troubled or deeply disturbed when he brought sexy back, for instance. But what exactly has Cyrus done that’s so bad? As I wrote this morning, she’s not throwing bongs out windows or shaving her head in public. She’s flaunting her body and twerking. It’s not the end of the world.

None of this, of course, is to say that Cyrus’s performance was actually good. (As McLeod observed succinctly, “The other problem [with Cyrus twerking] is that I’m afraid she just isn’t very good at it.”) But that’s all it was — rather silly and not particularly accomplished. It wasn’t a racist minstrel show or the spectacle of a deeply disturbed anorexic or the harbinger of America’s moral decline — it was a gangly 20-year-old making a fool of herself with some silly dance moves. But then, shit, we’re talking about an award ceremony wherein Bruno Mars performed the godawful “Gorilla” — sample lyrics “You just smile and tell me, ‘Daddy, it’s yours’… You’re a dirty little lover” — and the same critics who execrated Cyrus dubbed his performance “a solid artistic statement.” Why isn’t anyone talking about that?

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