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.
The 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)