Like much of the Internet, I was among the many who were rather confused and taken-aback by Miley Cyrus’ performance on the 2013 VMAs. Lacking cable, I saw it roll out in articles and gifs before I saw the video clip from MTV, but it was nonetheless still pretty shocking. However, there’s a difference between “shock factor” and being “bothered” by the imagery. You can have plenty of shock factor – “I can’t unsee/unknow this!” – and not be bothered at all really. While I didn’t care for the sexual moves and supposedly provocative dance styles of Ms. Cyrus – as her song goes “It’s our party we can do what we want to” – I don’t agree with anyone who is “slut shaming” or telling her to seek religion or mental health advice. She seemed to be having the kind of fun some people might have on a silly night out when you’re – oh, I don’t know – her age.
But therein lies the paradox here. Despite the rampant use of social media and public information sharing, most people her age are not on stage performing for an international audience. As an artist, especially one that yields a large audience, you are shaping and sending a message; your actions have intention. I realize that when you’re young and partying and having a good time, the point is generally the meaninglessness of it all. It’s just life happening and enjoying the moment. But when you are an artist whose artistic decisions and behavior includes adopting moves and mannerisms that show a lack of awareness about cultural appropriation, you’re no longer in the “oh whatever; I’m young and partying” space. I was hopeful that some of the commentary that came out when her We Can’t Stop video came out might have brought up some cultural consciousness, but the VMAs showed otherwise.
What I was bothered by isn’t some line in the sand of “who” Miley Cyrus is supposed to be. She’s an actress and a singer. She used to be a Disney star that had a clean-cut, squeaky image because of a character she portrayed and it’s rather unfortunate that she’s had such difficulty shedding this image if, perhaps, that’s not who she feels that she is. But whereas I don’t know Miley Cyrus and I don’t pretend to know her, the thing about her most recent image makeovers are her stake in the claim, her voice trying to reach out to the masses. So while on one hand I think she knows exactly what’s she’s doing – getting attention, learning to be her own person, establishing herself (good things!) – I also think there’s something vitally missing. There’s a layer of consciousness and compassion that seems absent when an artist is shown dancing not with others, but establishing those dancers as others by having them be associated with and used as props, i.e. slapping the butt of a faceless black woman dancer on the stage and black women dancers wearing teddy bears whose job in the performance is to look on and openly celebrate as the main (and also white) artist twerks on stage for all the world to see. I don’t care what Miley Cyrus does to herself to declare herself (so long as its fairly safe and doesn’t endanger her overall well being), but I do care when her own desires for self-declaration seems to require the exploitation of others.
If a twenty-year-old begins to appreciate and adopt certain behaviors primarily associated with another culture, it’s their personal exploration. If it’s layered with a “whatever” attitude, then it’s within their social circle whether or not that’s accepted or okay. And if you don’t recognize it for what it is, then it’s sad and unfortunate, but hopefully one day you will. But when that twenty-year-old has a global audience for doing something like wearing short shorts, the same rules don’t apply because you’ve made it your business and livelihood and your artistic brand. It goes beyond “sad,” “unfortunate,” and “maybe one day you will,” because by popularizing it, you’re telling others that it’s okay and they should do it too.
As Sesali Bowen wrote in Feministing:
…Pop culture trends like twerking, “aint nobody got time for that,” or even just using the word ratchet to define the wild things that happened at last night’s party are all rooted in someone’s lived experience. Sometimes it’s your lived experience, but if it’s not, please stop for a moment to consider your privilege and what role you may be playing in the appropriation of someone else’s exploitation.
Speaking of artists with music that should speak of personal and cultural awareness, I think I’ll close with Macklemore’s VMA 2013 rendition of “Same Love” featuring gorgeous vocals by Mary Lambert and Jennifer Hudson. If only this had the brightest spotlight of all.