From where I sat—in front of a screen, reading Twitter—it was as if I could see the Miley Cyrus backlash building in real time, as delighted though distanced cataloging of Miley’s outrageousness gave way to critiques of her hip hop appropriations. (You might’ve seen something different depending on who you follow, or whether you bother with Twitter at all.)
Jon Caramanica of the New York Times posted an early thoughtful response on Sunday night, calling the performance a “clumsy white appropriation of black culture.” The next morning, Jody Rosen at Vulture wrote that Miley’s “act tipped over into what we may as well just call racism,” specifically mentioning the “thickly-set African-American” dancer whose behind Cyrus slapped and stuck her face in. By lunchtime, the idea that Miley has a “race problem” surfaced on the Huffington Post, where Kia Makarechi quoted Caramanica and Rosen and cited widely-quoted comments of Miley’s, like the one where she said she wanted to make music that “sounds black.”
Naturally, as a pop music nerd with progressive political opinions, I loved all this debate. But after all is said and done—and this being Tuesday, it mostly is—I have to agree with Adam Lambert, who last night asked, “Why is everyone spazzing?” I wasn’t entirely comfortable with how the aforementioned dancer came off, almost like a prop.
At the same time, I can’t fault Miley for including a black dancer in her act. She should just remember that it’s only her own ass that she has the right to use as a disembodied object.
As for Miley herself twerking: How different is this from Madonna voguing? Madge borrowed that style from New York City’s multiracial drag ball scene, and used dancers to help represent it. Twerking’s a much more explicitly sexual dance, and it comes from more strictly African-American sources. Miley surely doesn’t mind that it’s more explicit. And we should give her credit for that calculation: Those people who think she’s a puppet or fool should consider how widely exposed to culture she has surely been, growing up in showbiz. (She’s not so different, in other words, from Diplo, the respected white producer who’s currently promoting a mass-twerking competition.)
Miley’s VMAs performance was groundbreaking in one regard: She adapted it directly from her amorphous online presence, rather than trying to create a spectacle specifically for a television event (as Katy Perry so winningly did, and Lady Gaga less successfully attempted to do). It was sloppy and surprisingly vulgar, like a lot of what you watch or read online—and not unlike appropriation itself, which is never a spic-and-span process.
As Miley cobbles together her image, freely tapping from the most charged sources in her reach according to the long pop tradition, she certainly does assume risks. In retrospect, Miley could have more coyly referenced her recent outrageousness—teased the twerking and tongue-flicking we’re so familiar with online, and let the curious look it up.
She certainly won’t outdo Sunday’s performance and shouldn’t try. Instead, she should surface the other facets of her image that Bangerz will no doubt touch on—like the heartbroken tough chick from “Wrecking Ball.” The twerking is tired. Miley just needs to channel her zany, try-anything physicality into new discoveries.
Now that the Hannah Montana’s truly dead, and Miley’s positioned herself as anything but a beauty queen, she’s got the freedom to be herself. Whatever that self is, we just need to see more of it.