In-case you didn’t know already, last Sunday at the MTV Music Video Awards (why this award show is still relevant even though videos aren’t, don’t ask me), Miley Cyrus gave us another scene of her trippy 20 year-old pop-girl routine; smacking asses, gyrating on Robin Thicke, and doing a depressing and unappealing interpretation of “twerking.”
(*One Note* Can we stop calling referring whatever she is doing with her pelvic joints as ‘twerking’?! It is grossly offensive to call what she does—and this—the same thing. Thus, for the rest of this blog, I will refer to her dancing as ‘happy dance’.)
Cyrus’s hijinks on stage and off stage have drawn the ire of many around the country. People have accused her actions as racist, distasteful, and a gross cooptation of the oft-monolithicized “black culture.”
Not to make this article about myself, but context is critical for this discussion. My personal narrative will illustrate this. I am from a pretty black community growing up. I knew about wu-tangin’, D-mackin’, and other hyper-energetic dances. However, I was not familiar at all to “twerking” until I traveled to Atlanta, GA for college. It is there that I learned this wonderful secret of twerking. To southerners, it was pretty commonplace. I have seen women shake their asses in music videos. Twerking is something different, though. Perhaps this is male-centric perspective, but twerking it is a coordinated manipulation of toned muscle control and lower-body fat. Not just anyone can do it. It takes practice, skill, and rhythm. There’s a hierarchy and artistry to this thing that’s more than ass-shaking. Not ONE human on this earth has any intellectual ground to argue why twerking is not an art-form. It is just another example of how the perception of an expression determines the legitimacy of the expression (jump-rope comes to mind).
From Outkast to Lil’ Jon, to T.I. and Ludacris, to 2Chainz, the city of Atlanta has seen a rapid increase of visibility in the music industry. Gentlemen’s Clubs—or plainly Strip Clubs, a prominent cultural fixture in Atlanta, has found its’ way into the music. Stripper tracks or trap beats (songs kind of tailored to strip clubs) has taken the control of hip-hop. Juicy J, 2Chainz, and Rihanna all have songs that quite directly refer to strippers. This type of music has been called “ratchet” music (a name I absolutely despise). Today, radio stations across the country are largely playing the same music. This has diffused a lot of musical variance in the genre. Big Sean, Meek Millz, French Montana, Chief Keef, though they are from cities with traditionally-distinctive sounds, get meshed with music labels that feature both northern and southern artists. And the south is winning. Point is: the mainstream success of this type of music has made it so most listeners are novices to the genre– blacks and whites alike. My narrative is no different.
Enter Miley Cyrus. Her exposure to twerking probably has a similar genesis to mine. Just as a piece of the sub-culture has captured the ears of Philadelphians, New Yorkers, or even Gambians, it has caught Miley Cyrus. Granted, aesthetically, her reception to the genre is not as seamless as when, say, Amber Rose, Rihanna, or Beyonce. However, that does not make her performance akin to minstrel shows in any way. We make it seem as if twerking is something white folk just are not supposed to do. If anything, we should be screaming about how late everyone is to the party. Even if we agreed Cyrus is imitating (a form) of black culture, that doesn’t make it minstrel act. We damn sure would not call Robin Thicke minstrelsy. Minstrel acts were designed to grossly distort stereotypes of African Americans. At the moment we conclude twerking is indeed part of a distinct black sub-culture, any assumption of minstrelsy cannot exist. Miley Cyrus is just another person swept up in the current status of hip-hop. And for that we should not be surprised or appalled.
The country’s obsession with “ratchet” is music is a myth. The country has always been obsessed with hip-hop. And right now, it is in a phase where fascination about exotic dancers is rampant. The only difference is that she enjoys it and doesn’t mind if others find out if she does. I understand, from a celebrity standpoint, racial dynamics in this country enable her to embrace and reject the sub-culture at her own convenience, but this is something even as black people do.
The Hannah Montana star’s explanation that she enjoys “hood” music, but does not make “hood music” is not entirely unlike “socially upward” African Americans who admittedly enjoy “ratchet” culture in moderation. Why choose to jump on her there? There are plenty of people who enjoy sub-cultures but do not consider themselves to be part of it, nor desire to be categorized as a member of the culture. Fans of gospel music can be atheists. Fans of gangsta rap don’t want to be called gangsters or thugs. Fan-hood does not require an acceptance of the lifestyles the genre promotes. Her implication that Nicki Menaj is a hood artist is pretty ridiculous, but that is another topic.
Let’s be clear that Nicki Menaj and Rihanna both do the type of things that Miley did on that stage—albeit with much more meat on their bodies, rhythm, and cool, right? Nicki Menaj did it in front of Lil Wayne at the Billboard Music Awards, flanked by black women, without nearly as much ridicule. There are racially-driven reasons for that, also the fact that the VMA’s are not the BMA’s. The reason Cyrus’ performance was unappealing to Rihanna and Drake, because it was stupid-looking (Drake looked as if he was a worse person having seen that, which is how I felt watching). Her goof-ish and awkward happy dance is accentuated by dancing bears in a way that makes the entire show look like a caricature that evokes minstrelsy. In some twisted way, there is some seriousness that rhythmically inclined people take to twerking that makes Nicki Menaj’s dancing look more audacious than exploitative. Cyrus’ parading around foolishly doing her happy dance felt like a bastardization of the what I consider a legitimate and artful expression of the body. But foolishness is just coonery (it’s kinda fun to intentionally misappropriate traditionally-racial terms), something that Miley Cyrus epitomized Sunday night.
It was offensive to our senses, not our race.
The most poignant argument of Cyrus’ racism is seen through her company of black dancers on stage. It has been pointed out that Miley Cyrus participates in these “ratchet” acts usually flanked by other black women as if they are accessories. While that is not unique to pop star, certainly Cyrus’ analingus simulation on a voluptuous woman was offensive and inappropriate. It is egregious because she invaded the privacy of a body to which she does not own. But she is so willing to treat herself, Robin Thicke, and that dancer’s body like a piece of meat that it is difficult to discern whether her actions are racialized or if she is just some hyper-sexualized idiot.
Miley Cyrus is approaching this all in a way not too incongruent with how most of us have, albeit with the usual flair of a celebrity. The real problem for most people: she’s doing it on television. Meanwhile, we also grow unclear whether we’re upset that she’s mimicking, co-opting, or exploiting the culture, each having its’ own implications. Should we demand that people stop trying to portray what we perceive to be sexual images of black women or should we just insist that twerking shouldn’t be so sexualized? The former tend to function in a way that attempts to limit the freedom of what women can and want to do. I’d advocate the latter.
At the heart of the issue is sensitivity. Miley Cyrus is just another white artist that will continue to gain notoriety from embracing something that blacks know is a “black thing.” Black folk are reasonably upset because twerking, had it been something we did embrace, would result in a continued narrative of sexualization of black women. Or maybe not. There are legitimate issues to both sides of the quandary. But the lesson we keep learning is that it is important to for black people to uphold ALL cultural expressions as legitimate artistry. Or maybe we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
At the end of the day, Miley Cyrus is participating in acts that, in some way, allude to a type of black culture of which politically empowered black people feel is exploitative and/or insulting that illicit a stigma and/or behavior that negatively portray black women. But ironically, at the same time, as the idea of twerking explodes across the nation and world, we’d still be upset if Miley Cyrus stands to gain the most from being credited with the very exploitative and suggesting type of dancing we want to be distanced from.
Aint that black people in America?