Miley Cyrus put on her best "look at me, I'm wild" act at Sunday's Video Music Awards, performing "We Can't Stop" (her take on the syrupy strip club anthems re-popularized as of late by Rihanna, a resurgent Juicy J and a host of other black acts) and fumbling her way through an instantly polarizing smorgasbord of lip-licking, wannabe twerking and (black) ass slapping.
All the elements of nu-Cyrus that critics have called foul on in recent weeks were on display: black people used as props (see above), black cultural signifiers like twerking used as a means of connoting that Miley's now wild and dangerous, and little in the way of new or evocative imagery.
I've written about Miley's race problems (or, racism, depending on how you take it), but here's a quick summary: She's gone around telling people she wants to make music that "sounds black," that she likes "hood music" but isn't "a white Nicki Minaj," and most recently proclaimed that she's "not a white ratchet girl." Extending her master class on racial identity to social media, she told her followers that she is, indeed, aware of her skin color.
The 20-year-old's VMAs performance marks another chapter not only in Miley's reckless use of black culture as proof that she's subversive and no longer a Disney star, but of the entertainment industry's casual co-signing of her team's idiocy. How did no one, for example, think that having voluptuous, black backup dancers figure as meat for Cyrus' slapping was offensive?
Well, some people noticed. Audience reaction shots during Cyrus performance revealed less-than-amused takes from One Direction, Drake and Rihanna (the latter, who knows something about being provocative, seemed hilariously bored), and a number of the biggest American cultural critics have bashed the performance.
Writing on Vulture, Jody Rosen calls it "a minstrel show routine" and says "her act tipped over into what we may as well just call racism":
Cyrus is annexing working-class black "ratchet" culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention: her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. (Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club.) Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil' Kim and the music of "the hood." But the reason that these affinities are coming out now, at the VMAs and elsewhere, is because it's good for business.
Over at the New York Times, Jon Caramanica noted that "this was a banner year for clumsy white appropriation of black culture," and ripped "the shambolic, trickster-esque performance by Ms. Cyrus, to whom no one has apparently said 'no' for the last six months or so."
In the pre-show telecast, red carpet host Sway asked Miley how she would follow up wild moments from previous pop acts like Madonna and Britney Spears. Miley seemed to bristle at the comparison to the (white) stars who came before her -- she was, after all, walking the carpet with Mike Will, a hip hop producer -- and promised "something crazier than the kiss." Whether or not she delivered is up for the lamest debate of all time, but let's not forget that even Madonna, Britney and Christina Aguilera's 2003 lip-lock was actually just some straight women playing bi-curious for the gratification of a mostly straight audience.
Of course, it's hardly new to say nothing is new in pop -- Beyonce's cribbed a healthy chunk of her career from subcultures and the words "Lady Gaga" and "Madonna" are basically superglued to one another. But try replacing the word "straight" with "white" and "bi-curious" with "black" and you've arrived at 2013 version. The formula, it seems, for supposedly "wild" but ultimately just uninspired and tacky performances at the VMAs hasn't changed much in 10 years.
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