By Jay Kirell
I watched MTV for the first time in about 15 years Sunday night. A night that will be forever known as the night Miley Cyrus stepped into the American zeitgeist and became a thing for a few days.
To recap, (for those who have been avoiding the topic out of disinterest, disgust or court order) a former Disney teen idol – spawn of Nashville country roots – turned 18, decided to ditch the Disney, Super Size her adult urban credibility, and put forth the image of a drugged-out party girl with an overeager appreciation for black culture.
This is her performance at the awards show:
These are the people that performance offended:
As you can see, it managed to pull off the rare feat of upsetting both liberals and conservatives, young and old, black and white and women and men. Everyone found something to shake a fist at a cloud about.
Some people ran to twitter to complain black culture was being appropriated in the worst possible way. Some people used their television platform to scold the young singer for her moves and choice of outfit. Some blamed MTV and the people who put on the show. Everyone who saw the performance had something to say about it, from other performers to 45-year-old white guys with no connection to anything.
Now, even though I watched the awards show Sunday night, I missed the Cyrus performance. It wasn’t until shortly before I wrote this that I actually sat down and watched the whole performance from start to finish. Having viewed it, I walked away with the following observations.
1. It says a lot about America that the whole dancing MDMA bears really either flew under the radar or nobody gave so much as a crap about them that they are the least talked-about aspect of the performance. Maybe Miley will break out dancing spoons and needles if she wants to manufacture more outrage next year.
2. I wouldn’t have noticed the appropriation of black culture at the time if I didn’t read about it on twitter. The three black female dancers – the huge big-booty black woman with the candy – the ass slapping – the hip-hop tropes that seemed to fail miserably at engaging the few minority celebrities the cameras cut to in reaction shots.
The appropriation of black culture is a fascinating issue worthy of discussion for which I am woefully unqualified to lead. Instead I’d point you towards this quote from TheGrio:
On its face, there’s nothing wrong with Miley’s fascination with the twerking craze. Twerking is a fun, fast paced, provocative dance and it’s not shocking that any 20-something in the United States in 2013 is interested in that dance. The issue with Miley is that she is in the midst of providing a textbook example of cultural appropriation.
In her own words, she is looking to make music that sounds “black” and apparently to her taking on this “black” sound includes rapping on tracks with popular hip-hop artists, wanting a “big booty hoe” for her birthday, having a grill and of course a team of twerkers to adorn her performances and videos. Oh, and did you see that very NSFW cake she got her fiancé last year that was shaped like a gigantic black penis? Miley has been pretty clear about how she defines “black” and it all falls along well-worn stereotypes of hyper-sexualization and celebration of gluttony.
3. The big focal point of what outraged the Baby Boomer generation – the alleged twerking and grinding – was the least interesting part of the performance. Having not watched MTV in 15 years, I assumed the famed awards show had ramped up its shock factor significantly since the late 90s.
Maybe my expectations were set too high, but I assumed 14 prior MTV awards show had pushed the envelope enough to where anything that’s still capable of shocking people must be the worst of the absolute culture-scraping worst.
And what did we get?
A foam finger and a flesh-toned bikini. If that’s all that’s left in the Baby Boomers’ shock envelope, we must be rapidly approaching peak outrage.
I’d say that is good news for those of us who reserve our outrage for times that need it – times of war, for instance. It’s not like that’s in the news or anything.