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The twerk that worked … when Miley shook her money maker.

Posted in Life & Love, and Women's issues

Miley-Cyrus-performance-at-MTV-VMA-2013-2223057 Miley Cyrus got her freak on at the VMAs last week and started a lot of bleating. For those of you who don’t know (or care, which is more likely) the VMAs are the Oscars of the music world. Every year we used to trek to either LA or NY or, for the European awards (which took place in the winter) a freezing tent somewhere in Berlin or Oslo or Dublin. And spend hours watching a predictable show that the business had paid for, that the artists held us to ransom over, and that MTV made money from.

The upside was a spike in sales, the down – that winning artists were suddenly convinced they could walk on water. Or do our jobs better than we could. So, getting them to agree to any promotional work that wasn’t ‘on another level’ for the next year became impossible. We all learned we just had to wait out the cycle – what goes around is someone else comes around.

But, because music is really the stuff of dreams and art and love… every now and then there would be a surprise win – a real artist with no nonsense attached. And our hope cups would be filled for another year.

Miley has grown up since she giggled and shimmied her way through Hannah Montanna. I’ve watched almost every episode of that show with the nans – and knew her father Billy Rae back in the day. All good clean fun – but no real substance. The VMAs showed us another side to the girl – butt in the air, (disturbingly long) tongue out, grinding into Robin Thicke’s r’n’b crotch. There were Teddy Bears gyrating onstage (a hipster reference that I must have missed) but The Teddy Bear Fund didn’t: “Miley made a poor choice to use a universally loved children’s teddy bear in an offensive way.” they sniffed.

All in all it all felt rather chaotic and teenage. But – it was what it was. And it moved 90 000 downloads of her single in the next few days. The income from which probably covered her wardrobe for the event.

The interesting part was the backlash. There was the usual moan about vulgarity, references to drugs, lesbianism (she slapped a female dancer’s bottom) and then the big guns: white women disempowering black women, racism and cultural appropriation. All of this centred around the dance move “twerking” – which has become mainstream via hip hop and rap videos. Both, art forms that have become important parts of modern musical culture.

xmiley-cyrus-grab-ass.jpg.pagespeed.ic.BcAt_J5JaRThe Urban Dictionary defines twerking as: “The rhythmic gyrating of the lower fleshy extremities in a lascivious manner with the intent to elicit sexual arousal or laughter in ones intended audience.” Basically jiggling your bum and slapping your thighs to music. It’s been around for a while now and has become a you-tube sensation with people posting clips of themselves making fools of themselves in car washes, supermarkets, drunken states and unclothed.

I infuriated a bunch of youthful activists when I responded to a facebook post (ok, so it was a slow day) that cast Miley as a ‘she-devil anti Christ’. “Since when”, I asked “did dance belong to only one section of the community? When did an idea have to stay the property of a particular group?” Wasn’t she responding to a trend? After all – smart artists and loving acceptance from all races had moved hip hop and rap into the mainstream … and global sales. Did that not mean everything associated with that musical form had become publicly owned? Wasn’t all this wailing a bit like Lead Belly suing Keith Richards (and everyone who ever subsequently played guitar and sang the blues) for intellectual property theft? Where do we draw the line on ownership of a trend?

Aren’t we all in this together? Can’t we share?

They didn’t think so. One fellow reprimanded me: “u (sic) gotta remember that white people will plainly never understand what cultural appropriation/novelty-making means/feels like or even is because they wont (sic) ever experience it, and it’s difficult to empathise with something you can’t comprehend.”  I am assuming he included himself in this statement as he was a bleached-blonde-skinny-bummed-little-caucasian-fella.

OMG (as Hannah M would say)… so everything us white folks have ever done in music, art, dance, film is worthless. Surely not? Does this mean Eminem has to give his royalties back?  That Elvis was nothing but a thief? If so ..should Jessye Norman be disqualified from opera? And Misty Copeland and Alvin Ailey be dis-barred?

When I riposted that dance moves don’t wholly define any culture other than dance – I was told: “the mere fact that you don’t recognise twerking as a part of a culture says enough”, (i.e. the writer had deduced that I am racist). He continued “esp. when the whole charade is saying ‘look at black women and how fat their buttocks are, i (sic) want in on that”.

But isn’t that the whole point of twerking? Look at me, want me, dance with me, laugh with me?

All this was followed by a lot of on-line bother about black women being characterised as only ‘T+A’ in this performance. Apparently, all the fault of all white women. It seems we are actively working together to keep our black compadres in gender subjugated.

I don’t think so. No woman was compelled to be on that stage. They chose to shake their booty in front of millions.

But – I do think the casting was skewed – I know I would have insisted on a wider ethnic mix of dancers.  And caused a problem by doing so. But I would have been ok with that. After all …if we are going to exploit women – let’s be all-inclusive. Yes?

But here’s the real question: why did this 23 year old girl get all nasty on stage? Why did the female dancers have their bits out? Why was she touching her lala with a big foam finger? I believe Miley twerked because that’s how women are portrayed in her world. And she is ok with it.

If there is anything we should be criticising – there it is.

It wasn’t racism, or cultural theft. It was another moment in the skin trade.  Sex sells … so let’s get the women thrusting and feeling themselves: that’ll get our ratings up. That’ll get the masses chattering and foaming. That will buy us a boatload of exposure. That’ll work.

And – my lovely, angry young things –  it did.

(note: All images in the public domain. Should you be so inclined, you may learn how to twerk here)

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  1. I can’t believe I am even going to comment about this, but I have read a lot of different perspectives on this, and they are all very interesting. For now, will keep it simple. I liked yours the best. I like how you explained it and I agree with much of what you said. Great post!

    September 4, 2013
  2. silvia

    Interesting discussion, too culture bound for me.
    But I couldn’t resist and watched the tutorial. Its true it might come from African tribal steps and tradition but then ballet codified second position with feet apart and knees bent. Should the heirs of ballet syllabus ask for rights everytime we take that position?
    My point here is that today contamination in any art field is beyond any classification.
    And by the way without knowing it I happen to twerk from time to time

    September 4, 2013
  3. Interesting discussion. My take? I think the argument accusing her of appropriating black or ratchet culture are valid – although, like most things about culture, it’s nuanced. You can be both appalled at the way Miley treated the black woman’s body AND happy to see that so many women of color with non-conventional body types were cast as dancers – and presumably, paid.

    I think the biggest offense of the night was that it was not only in poor taste but also really dull, without much imagination, without much thought, utterly unsurprising and pretty lame. I mean, if you want to get really crazy with imagery onstage, see Madonna, missy!

    I think it takes a special kind of fail to be both offensive and dull.

    September 3, 2013
  4. I also wondered about the symbolism of the bears and the overall meaning of the performance. Was it to simply entertain and get ratings up? Or was there a deeper meaning? There was an interesting article on concerning this performance ( I’m not sure as to how true the allegations are, but I do think, as I did watching the performance, that we are in a turning point of sorts. A sort of societal coming-out if you will. For better or worse, I guess it depends on where you’re standing

    September 3, 2013
    • I was curious about that too. What’s with the bears? And the tongue?

      September 3, 2013
  5. What a crazy discussion all this has led to. I didn’t see it myself but it seems like Miley has hit the age where she’s fed up of being clean, she has discovered sex and her own sexuality and she wants EVERYONE to know about it. She. Doesn’t. Care. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it. It seems like there is a lot of philosophical discussion going into something that really didn’t come from some thought out plan to disempower someone. She just wanted to. As you say, sex sells so everyone else was fine with it. Done.

    September 3, 2013
  6. I don’t think Twerking “belongs” to black people and I thought the slut shaming regarding Miley performance was ridiculous.

    That said, there have been many articles and many discussions about Miley’s appropriation of ratchet culture. We cannot compare her with Eminen. One, he grew up in the environment of which he raps about and two, (and very importantly) we are not props in his world.

    Re: Elvis, that’s more complicated.

    Miley grew up wealthy and mostly in L.A. What the hell does she know about ratchet culture? I get that she trying to shake off her Hannah Montana image and trying to find herself. That’s cool but it’s not authentic and that is why she has zero credibility among her peers (Rihanna’s expression was priceless). It’s a shame because Miley does have talent.

    There IS a history in America in which the dominate culture (which is why bringing up black people singing opera is a non-starter) using our culture for profit (hello, UPN, CW, FOX) or “hipness” while the people who created it received nada/very little or are shamed/disrespected for the same behavior. At the end of the day Miley is rich and white. She can try on ratchetness and it won’t impact her life.

    A black woman who is really ratchet or grew up in that culture is kind of screwed. Other than being on reality shows, nobody (including most black people) will take her seriously.

    Anyway, Dodai at Jezebel had a interested article here:

    And this person sums up how a lot of black women feel about her performance. Miley didn’t even know who Jay Z (!!!) was and now she’s down? Get out of here.

    September 3, 2013
    • There is a history of domination of one sort or the other in our world. I completely agree with you on that. And don’t condone it. Ever. But I don’t think that’s what was went on here. The creation of an ‘event’ like this for an awards show is never done by just one person – there would have been dozens involved – from the top of MTV on down. And I think we need to remember that there were men on the stage as well, beside Robin – Two Chainz was up there shaking his stuff. ALL of them were complicit in this spectacle. As were the MTV Corp honchos, choreographers, dancers, make-up artists, stylists, wardrobe people, record company folks, managers, parents, etc etc etc. So whacking all the blame on a pair of 23-year old shoulder is a bit naive. And unfair.

      As to Miley not knowing who Jay-Z was – here’s what she actually said “I’ve never heard a Jay-Z song” … this in response to a question about her referencing the artist in her hit “Party in the U.S.A” (which she didn’t write). She was 16 at the time, dressed as Pocahontas – and apparently not allowed to listen to ‘pop music’. I just wonder if we should stillbe holding that utterance against her? As she moved out of the Hannah Montana/country music/touring with daddy bubble – she would at very least have learned that he is Beyonce’s husband. And a ‘musical artist’. Even my mom knew that – in fact, those are her words, and she is 75.

      We very much were props in Eminem’s world – if the ‘we’ you are referring to here is women … he wrote about us, featured us in his videos and imagined killing one of us (his wife Kim). Rap and Hip Hop have evolved in different ways since the early days on the mean streets of Compton, Bed-Stuy etc. Many of the men who created the form are in their late forties, even fifties now (Ice-T even has a reality show on E!). And the women have evolved from hard-spitting toughies into pop powerhouses with their own fashion lines, businesses and millions of twitter followers – think Nicki Minaj. But we need to remember they came up by way of Missy Eliott, Lil’ Kim, Queen Latifah – who helped break down barriers for them in what was very much a boys club.

      As to ratchet and how the women of that’culture’ are perceived – if what you are saying is common in the USA (we don’t have the ‘culture here) then that’s a shame. But again – there is choice involved. Don’t go on the Jerry Skinner show, don’t put yourself in derision’s way. And if the true definition of ratchet (again the Urban Dictionary) is: “A diva, mostly from urban cities and ghettos, that has reason to believe she is every mans eye candy. Unfortunately, she’s wrong….” then Miley shouldn’t be excluded. Because that definition does not include a skin colour reference. Anyone can dress the part.

      It’s worth remembering that Ratchet is also used to describe behaviour (rude) slovenliness and places (nasty). Has the same genesis as the English phrase “rough as a bag of spanners”.

      An apt epitaph for that performance.

      September 3, 2013
      • Sofagirl, regarding Eminen, I was referring to black people and culture not women.

        I forgot that you don’t live in America and are not American. It hard to explain to a non-American the whole ratchet culture craziness. In UK it’s not tied to race. Any person or thing could be ratchet. Not in the States. The word has a very specific connotation.

        I get that Miley grew up in a bubble but as a teenager she never heard a Jay-Z song (mind blown) and now she’s telling songwriters “(She was like), ‘I want urban, I just want something that just feels Black.’” Okay, can you see why folks are giving her the side-eye? Urban does not = Black. SMDH.

        I think MTV is ridiculous. They are loving this controversy as it reminds people they still have an awards show. That said, I do think the discussions about Miley, Kreayshawn, etc. is interesting.

        September 3, 2013
  7. Hi Sue, I was actually wondering if and when you were going to cover that 🙂 thank you for the great post, it’s the first time that I read a balanced piece on that story. So far, it was just about MC looking high and the disempowering of black women. (On this last part, I lack the cultural references for a proper understanding of the matter).

    September 3, 2013

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