Allow me to begin this week by apologizing to the reader for once again forcing you to consider Miley Cyrus’—what exactly are we calling it, anyway?—thing she did at the VMAs. I’m tired of it already, and by the time this goes to print, Miley Cyrus and her public cry for help will be as passé as the “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That” lady.
But speaking of caricatures of black culture virally embraced by white America, it’s interesting that the word “twerk” has become the pop culture fascination of the moment. In all the commentary and mockery, a central problem with what Miss Cyrus did on that stage has gone largely unmentioned. Plenty of people commented on the impropriety of a white female, brought up in a life of staggering privilege, adopting the ratchet aesthetic.
For the uninitiated, “ratchet” refers to a particularly ghetto kind of strip club culture, at least in this context. It can also be used to refer to a gun. Or I suppose it could mean a tool you use to repair your fixie, you hipster trash… wait, where was I?
Right, Miley and her ratchetness. Most of the criticism I read that focused on the episode from a racial angle took the young performer to task for adopting a mode of expression for which her life had given her no authentic understanding, and then seemingly convincing herself that hiring a few black dancers and hanging out with French Montana makes it ok.
This is valid. With Miley and her newfound “edge,” the entertainment industry has once again found a way to repackage something that originated in the ghettos of America with a white face for big profits. I honestly thought we were getting past this shit.
But that’s not the real problem with what went down in the Barclays Center. While the above-mentioned criticism is valid, it’s nothing new, and you certainly can’t expect the Mileys and the Biebers of the world to turn down fame and fortune out of some kind of cultural deference. Besides, some pretty great music has come from young white kids trying to emulate the black musicians who inspired them.
While her catalogue doesn’t necessarily qualify as great—or even good—music, one could argue that you have to put up with the Miley Cyruses of the world to get the Adeles and Justin Timberlakes. And either way, you’re not going to stop the white kids trying to make black music phenomenon; not as long as our culture remains segregated enough for there to be such a thing as “white” and “black” music.
To understand what made that particular rendition of “We Can’t Stop/Blurred Lines/Generic Pop Rap Song” so offensive, we need to go back to June, when it came out that, in preparation for her new album, Miley told her songwriters that she “just wants something that feels black.” They gave her “We Can’t Stop” (originally written for Rihanna), and she gave it, such as it was, to the world.
For Miley Cyrus, and a huge swath of young white Americans who don’t know any better, the drugged out, twerktastic (for lack of a better word), animalistic world depicted in the video is what “feels black.” To these kids, black people represent the untamed beasts they wish they could be, and that’s why they are so attracted to what they perceive as black culture.
But black people aren’t untamed beasts; any more so than white people, at any rate. Without taking a scientific survey, I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that the vast majority of black people are just regular-ass human beings trying to make the best of what they have, like everybody else. Except, unlike everybody else, they have to contend with a society that views them as untamed beasts.
This can manifest in awkward and ultimately harmless ways, which is what we were treated to at the VMAs. But it can also manifest in tragedies like the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Kimani Gray. Miley’s embarrassing molestations are ultimately of little consequence, but there is a fine line between her misguided fascination with black “wildness,” and the fear of it that led George Zimmerman to put a hole through a harmless teenager’s chest.
I heard plenty of people questioning Miley Cyrus’ “right” to use forms of expression that are considered black and/or ghetto, especially considering her objectively poor execution of said expression. But there was relatively fewer conversations being had about the way rich, young white kids define “black,” and where they get those ideas from.
Until we have that deeper examination—which would require some rather uncomfortable self-confrontation on the part of white America—we will continue to reap tragedy born of ignorance and prejudice.