Sunday, July 07, 2013


In a July 3 article on NPR’s website, Ann Powers draws attention to recent discussions about Miley Cyrus’s new(ish) video, “We Can’t Stop” (that's it above). She takes an adversarial, even scolding stance; the title of the piece is "When Pop Stars Flirt With Bad Taste," and Powers calls Cyrus out for “racial appropriations”—namely, twerking, which, for those who don't know, is the latest of the ass-shaking dances that have been part of hip-hop (and Latin music—do a YouTube search for "perreo" sometime) for decades.

Says Powers, “Many critiques of Cyrus rightly [emphasis mine] question why this privileged young woman has chosen to adopt an ‘urban' style grounded in the most abject aspects of African-American culture, as it's been filtered through a ‘hipster-racist’ subculture that reduces black masculinity to thug primitivism and femininity to door-knocker earrings and big, juicy butts.”

One of the critiques Powers links, and by extension co-signs, comes from Sesali Bowen; it was originally published on the blog Feministing, and reappeared on the blog Racialicious. In the piece, which seems intent on making some larger point (it fails), Bowen implicates Cyrus in “a larger system of cultural appropriation, commodification, and sometimes exploitation,” reproducing a photo of the singer with her hands on her knees and her ass sticking out, glancing over her shoulder Betty Boop-style at the camera, and sneering, “Her skin and class privilege overfloweth in this poorly executed commodification of ‘ratchet culture.’”

Another critique comes from the self-described feminist blog Jezebel; this piece is called "On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture And Accessorizing With Black People." Here's a sample quote:

"In the video, Miley is seen with her 'friends': Mostly skinny white boys and girls who appear to be models. But in a few scenes, she's seen twerking with three black women. Are they also her friends? Or is she just hoping for street cred? Note that she is wearing white, in the spotlight, the star of the video — and they are treated as props, a background for her to shine in front of. We've tackled the use of people of color in the background before; it's a theme that persists, but remains wrong. In a white-centric world, putting white women quite literally in the center of the frame while women of color are off to the side is a powerful, disrespectful visual message, and it really must be said: Human beings are not accessories. These women might be her friends, but the general dynamic created is that she is in charge and they are in service to her."

Or they might be, you know, backup dancers in a music video.

I have questions.

1) When did Miley Cyrus become a ‘hipster’? She’s from Nashville, the daughter of a country singer, and a former Disney child star. She’s about as unhip as it’s possible to be. Indeed, for years now it’s been perfectly acceptable for online commenters and even some bloggers to call her a hillbilly or white trash, without repercussion.

2) In what way is Miley Cyrus “appropriating” anything? Look, I’ve argued many times against the existence of a monoculture in America, but if there is one, it’s hip-hop. Miley Cyrus is 20 years old. Hip-hop is at least 35, maybe 40 if you’re stretching it a little, and at the time of her birth in 1992, it was in a golden age, and beginning an era of commercial and cultural dominance that shows no signs of fading. She, like millions of other children, has grown up in a world where hip-hop is the lingua franca of pop culture.

To say, as Powers does, “For Cyrus, hip-hop is a corporate legacy, not a lived one; like virtually every privileged kid her age, it was sold to her like sneakers and soda,” is absurd. There is basically no way for anyone under 30 to avoid “living” hip-hop; it’s everywhere, at all times. There is underground hip-hop, but hip-hop is not underground, and it hasn’t been for at least 25 years. Are underprivileged kids presented with hip-hop in some pure, non-corporate way? As far as I know, black kids watch the same YouTube videos as white kids. But maybe they just osmose this stuff. You know, like “natural rhythm.” 

For Powers, Jezebel's Dodai Stewart and other critics, the problem with Miley Cyrus is simple, even if it must go unsaid within the polite confines of NPR: She’s white, and rich, which given the state of contemporary pop-culture/Internet-social-justice discourse means that her pleasures, her tastes, are always suspect. To any critic with correctly aligned racial and class tunings, she can never be anything but an exploiter. Powers asks whether “Cyrus genuinely like[s] and participate[s] in the cultural expressions she's now taken on,” but for her, the answer seems clear: it’s “just another case of artistic theft.” 

Based on what evidence? This argument (and calling it that is being generous) is two-pronged: On the one hand, we are asked to believe that white participation in hip-hop is still, nearly 30 years after the Beastie Boys, somehow suspect, and on the other, we are asked to infer that Miley Cyrus is the puppet of outside songwriters and producers (it’s apparently very important that “We Can’t Stop” was submitted to Rihanna, who rejected it, before Cyrus bought it), without individual will or an aesthetic perspective.

But the facts just don’t support that interpretation. Miley Cyrus hasn’t just posted Instagram photos and YouTube clips of herself twerking, and incorporated the dance into the “We Can’t Stop” video; she’s also shown up at a concert by rapper Juicy J (of the Oscar-winning Three 6 Mafia—how underground!) to dance onstage. But somehow she’s forever an interloper, an exploiter, never a true fan.

Meanwhile, in 2007, when the rap group Shop Boyz had a massive hit single with “Party Like a Rockstar,” the chorus of which featured slang that was 20 years out of date (it ran “Party like a rockstar/Totally, dude”), no one went after them for (totally) misunderstanding rock culture. Similarly, the pre-teen, all-black metal band Unlocking The Truth, whose live videos are a YouTube sensation, aren’t being questioned about what "culture" they might be “appropriating." When they talk in interviews about not liking hip-hop, nobody asks if they “genuinely like and participate in the cultural expressions [they’ve] now taken on.”

There’s a strong vein of racial essentialism running through this discussion. In some way that’s never clearly explained, black people’s experience of pop culture is apparently radically different from white people’s experience of that exact same pop culture, even though they’re both getting it from the same websites, radio stations, and cable channels. Even though no hip-hop album can go platinum without attracting a significant number of white buyers, critics like Powers (and others) continue to insist that white listeners are still somehow outsiders to this culture they’ve been subsidizing for three decades. They're also desperate to elevate street culture, as when Powers makes sure to point out that twerking "has roots in African dance," as if Africans invented ass-shaking and African-Americans are taking folkloric study to the club. Why must hip-hop be homework?

And another thing: Was it really hipsters who “reduce[d] black masculinity to thug primitivism and femininity to door-knocker earrings and big, juicy butts”? That seems like a convenient way to exonerate hip-hop for its own messaging—apparently, hip-hop is like Communism; it cannot fail, it can only be failed. (Mostly by white people.)

(Note: Lizzy Acker also has an excellent rebuttal to the Jezebel piece.)