Until I was asked to do so by my friend Nadia (author of Listen Girlfriends) to blog my thoughts about Miley Cyrus, I wasn’t aware that I’d already incubated and in fact unknowingly birthed a principled argument against doing so. Unbeknownst to me, my thoughts had already coalesced like the layer of fat on a cooling pot of greens. I would not add to the already out of control Miley Cyrus media machine by contributing my voice to propping up someone so undeserving.
And now, mere hours after coming to this realization, I am throwing this vow out the window. Why? Honestly, I am not sure. But I am guessing that it has to a lot to do with the fact that I told friend that I would and I enjoy being a person of my word. But more-so, because I believe the Listen Girlfriends community is the right place for these kinds of conversations and if Nadia thinks it’s worth me writing the Web’s 14 billion blog entry on Miley Cyrus, I am going to take her word for that and trust she wont take me to task on my not-too-sunny impression of Ms. Cyrus.
This all started on New Year’s Eve. I was, as a result of circumstances involving a broken down vehicle, a wedding, two dogs, and three cats, alone watching TV at my outlaws’ house (I would call them my in-laws, but Virginia has some marriage equality problems). Given the opportunities to watch other people’s cable, I somehow find myself compelled to watching things I would never give a second thought to in my own home. I call this phenomenon “Hotelevisuality,” and it inspired me to settled on Fuse (a channel I actually have at home and have never previously watched). The channel was featuring a “Miley Cyrus Takeover” and–overcome by boredom, despair from the absolute beat down my beloved Hokie football team took in the Sun Bowl, and a severely misplaced sense of justice–I committed to investing some time and thought into an hour or more Cyrus related programming.
In fact, I was feeling proud of myself, open-minded, committed to doing the kind of in depth immersion necessary to making the Survey of Popular Culture course I am teaching during the 2014 spring semester that much more successful. I was being non-reactionary, liberal-hearted, generous in recognizing how unfair it was of me to have talked trash about someone, something I wasn’t as familiar with as I needed to be.
An hour and a half later, I found myself mourning each of the 90 minutes I’d contributed to Fuse and felt profoundly disappointed in the paucity of trash I’d been talking…I’d really dropped on that one.
There was much Facebook commenting, as 2014 drew closer and closer, about the mind-numbing experience of watching Miley Cyrus videos and related media content for 90 minutes and her remarkably unfortunate performance on Dick Clark’s (Ryan Seacrest’s) New Year’s Rocking Eve. The thoughts presented here are the collected, organized, and cleaned up rants that began that evening.
When you dare to have a problem with Miley Cyrus an interesting thing happens; you immediately get branded a conservative. I found that not matter how I tried to shape my objection, what those who I was involved in friendly debate with read was the generalized shock, horror, and outrage we might attribute to cardigan-wearing minivan pilots in the WASPy suburbs of Americaland. As I ranted, albeit inarticulately at points, I was genuinely confused that the responses I received seemed to assume that 1) I thought Cyrus was being too sexual, 2) that I thought she was not intelligent or conscious what her choices meant, and 3) that I intended to infantilize Cyrus, denying her access to womanhood and the agency that comes along with that condition. Examples of these responses are below:
“I don’t agree with her sexualization of women of color, but did you see her SNL appearance?? It was hilarious, and her interview for Rolling Stone was witty. I think she’s a smart, smart girl.”
“Miley is uninhibited by her sexuality and doesn’t seem to give a shit that guys think she’s slutty.”
“I think it’s strange that people want to keep her as this Hannah Montana figure…is she supposed to stay 16 years old forever??”
Little could be further from the truth on all three of these accounts. In truth, I don’t have a problem that Miley Cyrus is brazen about displaying her sexuality…I have a problem with HOW she does so. And my problem isn’t of the sort that advocates censoring her videos or announcing that she is a danger to young girls or demanding that she be a more responsible celebrity. My problem is of the sort that will keep me from wasting future minutes on her music videos, turning the dial when I hear her voice, and rumbling with generalized curmudgeonism about how profoundly Pop music sucks these days.
My thoughts are pretty simple. The Miley Cyrus reinvention is obnoxious because 1) it’s tacky, 2) it’s boring, 3) it’s unoriginal, and 4) it’s based on difference-mongering that exploits the living shit out of some well-worn racial stereotypes. I have no issue with Miley being as sexual as she wants (in fact, I think it might actually be interesting if she pushed it lot further), but the fact that her public sexuality is played, contrived, inauthentic and fraught with race issues.
The Disney darling turns crazy bad girl story is literally so oft told these days that I find it inconceivable that it still carries any significance for anyone. I find Britney Spears’ version way more interesting and, frankly, more authentic. I really believed she went crazy and loved her bald head for it; Cyrus seems to be playing at crazy, but I don’t really buy it. Fergie is a more natural badass than Cyrus. Aguilera has the chops to justify her diva antics. Cyrus may never match Lohan’s impressive Bad Girl body of work. And Raven–Symoné’s romance with gender-queer America’s Top Model Contestant AzMarie Livingston is a world of fabulous post-Disney defiance that I simply cannot get enough of. Before she even started, Cyrus was outclassed.
On the same token, when looking at Cyrus’s new affinity for provocative videos with arbitrary nudity and nods to sexual deviance, we again see a hierarchy of skill that firmly lands Miley at the bottom. If we control for pop stars with questionable vocal abilities but a flair for making media buzz, I would have to say Gaga does this exponentially better. And the Cyrus team clearly knows this. There are an unbelievable number of shots in Cyrus’s videos that are thematic rip-offs of Gaga’s, from the use of monochromatic environments, texture and reflection, to surrealistic/hyperreal storytelling devices.
Cyrus’s new “I don’t give a fuck attitude and identity reinvention” is literally embarrassing when considered against the moves of masters of the form like Madonna, who makes her look like first week contestant on American Idol whose Dad told her that she could be anything she wanted to be because she is “special.”
And finally, the most glaring aspect of this reinvention, Cyrus’s emergent identity as the new white girl to run with the hip-hop set…still Cyrus is blazing paths on long paved sidewalks. Princess Superstar, Iggy Azalea and Kreayshawn can actually rhyme and don’t seem to exude that ‘I’m only here because I’ll hook up with anyone who asks me’ vibe. Not that those hook-ups aren’t hers to allocate, nor do I think there’s anything wrong with that. I just think it’s tacky as hell.
My point is that all of the things that are getting Cyrus attention are imitations–poor ones. Everything…from enlisting a little person as something of a stage mascot (Kid Rock), to attempting to twerk (Bounce/strip club culture), to dating her a bad-boy producer (extensive list), to pushing the line with racial stereotypes, to self-aware hipster irony… has already been done and it’s been done BETTER. And given that I DO believe she is smart, AND given that she grew up with a multi-platinum record selling recording artist for a father and thus presumably had more resources, exposure, contacts, training, grooming, educating in being marketable, and privilege than most pop artists, you’d think she could do better.
Cyrus’s reinventions seem incredibly calculated, strategically “shocking,” and totally dependent upon the sensibilities of others…so much so that she doesn’t even look “natural” in her own reinvention. It looks like a cobbled together hand me down that she’s desperately trying to fit herself into. And the axe that I REALLY have to grind is that this hyper public, enormously popular reinvention is fraught with some extremely problematic interpretations of blackness.
FACT: Miley Cyrus straight up told song writing duo, Rock City, (whom she only recently started working with), “I want something that feels black” when advising the force behind hits from Drake, B.o.B., R. Kelly, Rihanna, Ciera and more about what she wanted in her new song. Her VMA performance, more recent forays into “rapping,” and the fact that she clearly conflates her “turn to the dark side” as a “turn to the dark side” is not only strategic it’s silly and if you have the patience to take it seriously….insulting. The fact that she is now a “bad girl” and that being a bad girl equates to adopting black cultural forms, sexualizing the black female body to the point of objecthood (more on this later), singling out black masculinity as her preferred object of sexual desire, and exploiting the shock value of brazenly playing out fascination with other categories of difference (like grinding on and squeezing the breast of the random little person she keeps on stage with her these days), amounts to a rather calculated and coordinated effort to push buttons that are based on rather sloppy re-deployments of age old stereotypes, well-worn persona, and recycled visual imagery. It’s just plain lazy…and profitable.
I think she is so fascinated with what she is appropriating that she is diving in head first. This is fan culture at its purest. And I think that many artists who make changes in the material they produce start as fans of something that inspires them. Through study, appreciation, exposure, mentoring, reverence, practice, experimentation and more, they find virtuosity in an art form that is not native to them. But they run before they walk. They understand the rules before they break them. They become familiar with something before they wholeheartedly critique or celebrate it.
Cyrus is obviously a fan of hip-hop, bounce, R&B and other “black” cultural forms. But she’s skipping over all the “understand and get good at this” part and simply appropriating the most visible, most shocking, most deviant symbols and imagery because they feel good (like leaning up against the washing machine during the spin cycle) and get her the most publicity. She’s riding the cameo bangwagon and is using her substantial riches to hire people who ARE good at these forms to produce and write the music for her. Sadly, the end result is the resounding statement, “that’s really all there is to these cultural forms.” Even worse she’s being celebrated as an original, as if she is doing something produced from her own talent, knowledge, sensibilities, or experiences.
Specifically, Cyrus seems to have some sort of fascination with what you might call black strip club culture, which might arguably be said of American culture at large if you consider how many commercials have co-opted the phrase “make it rain.” This fascination for Cyrus, however, seems to translate to attempting to twerk with her tongue out and physically harassing (slapping, grabbing, shaking, and motorboating) the rear end of every black woman in the vicinity. I challenge any reader to watch one of the most recent Miley Cyrus videos and find a black women on camera that is not treated in one or more of the following ways: 1) the black woman is not all the way in the frame (aka is reduced to a floating ass), 2) has her back side to the camera (that’s the side that matters apparently), 3) is being freakishly aggressively slapped, grabbed, or shaken (not stirred) by Cyrus or, 4) are involved in some sort of “circle-twerk” with Miley.
EXAMPLE: Let’s take the video “We Can’t Stop” (consequently, a song produced by Rock City). If you can make it through all the product placements you will see the following instances of the four phenomena I detailed above.
- 0:42 – Tall, black queen ass slapping.
- 1:05 – Black ladies wear giant teddy bear suits and dance, back sides to the camera (The important side, remember?).
- 1:16 – More teddy bears. You might even say that black female back sides are being represented as toys, something to play with.
- 1:28 – Tongue out black woman circle-twerk (Hey, where did all her “other” friends go?)
- 1:32 – Lyrical reference to being “up in the strip club.”
- 2:30 – More teddy bear time (What? the bear can do the splits? Cool!).
- 3:33 – Slap, claw grab, and violently shake the living hell out of some black woman ass…followed by more Miley circle-twerk.
Here’s what’s even more amazing.
“We Can’t Stop” is a classic house party video in the tradition of the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right (to Party),” Janet Jackson’s “Go Deep,” and Gaga’s “Just Dance,” however in EVERY SINGLE party shot in this video, among the scenes packed crazed party goers, we see a bunch of skinny hipstery types, a couple of “thuggy” black dudes (one of which is literally eating money), but there is interestingly NO TRACE whatsoever of the three black women that cast in the scenes I detailed above. In the narrative arc of this video…and in Cyrus world write large, they were not “invited” to the party, not part of the general social atmosphere, but serve a very specific…and I would argue…rather disappointing function.
Again, my problem isn’t that Cyrus wants to celebrate this culture, but how.
If one were going to be fascinated by and want to give a nod to “black strip club culture,” one might want to do it like Rihanna did in her Pour It Up video. Not only is this video beautifully made, it interestingly celebrates strip club culture without including a single male person in the video. Moreover, Rihanna seems to inherently understand that she is not a master of this form and allows the skilled entertainers who are, to come to the forefront rather than flank her as she perpetrates a poor imitation of what they are doing. Far from some tacky tongue out antics, there are truly interesting uses of light, color, and composition in this video. The addition of water brings something both new and titillating to the strip club setting. And most importantly, this video highlights the remarkable amount of strength, coordination, flexibility, practice and stage presence it takes to master this art. In particular the world class athletes who do high level pole stunts. THIS feels like a celebration…not an exploitative rip off…and it is straight up SEXY.
So there it is Nadia. You have your blog post. I hope your Girlfriends enjoy and I will be resuming my vow of silence on Cyrus from here on out.