I’ve given Miley Cyrus’s performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards a few days to digest.
At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what bothered me the most. Was it the bizarre way she kept sticking out her tongue? The Dances With Furries? Her stiff movements and butt-wiggling — what the media erroneously refers to as twerking and what my daughter more accurately called the Hokey Pokey? Her weird “Blurred Lines” duet, with Robin Thicke doing his best Beetlejuice imitation? The way she jiggled a black woman’s ass and pantomined sticking her tongue in it?
All of those elements were disturbing, but consistent with the Miley 2.0 — or is it Miley 2.2? — she’s been promoting in these months leading up to the release of her new album, Bangerz (groan). In the video for “We Can’t Stop,” she seeks to rebrand herself as edgy and badass by slipping gold fronts on her teeth, feeling up on girls and boys alike, throwing up fake gang signs, and — yes — doing that wriggle she calls twerking.
Hanging with rappers is a terrible way to show the world you’re all grown up. Being black is not a suit that white girls can don at will and then leave on the floor when the party’s over.
But after re-watching Miley’s video and MTV performance, it finally struck me that what irked me most about Miley’s new act wasn’t the elements of black cultural appropriation, but the sheer LAZINESS of it all. Miley succeeded in creating a spectacle, but failed at generating any excitement for herself as an artist.
We excuse cultural appropriation all the time. We knew Madonna copied voguing from black gay men, but we accepted it because it was so well done. It was obvious that Britney Spears “borrowed” Janet Jackson’s dance moves and stagecraft, but we stopped complaining about it because — well, because Britney was good. Watching Britney wasn’t quite as fun as watching Janet in her heyday, but she was a terrific performer.
And even the Britney-Janet comparisons lead down a slippery slope. Britney took moves from Janet, who took moves from Michael, who borrowed from jazz and tap and the blues and soul and R&B. Each of these artists used the influences of their predecessors to create their own signature style — styles that evolved over time.
Call it jacking. Call it paying homage. But when it’s done with respect for the source; when it’s done with precision and attention to detail and respect for the art and the craft — even when we call it “appropriation,” we can acknowledge and even reward talent and hard work.
Miley did nothing well.
Her singing was subpar — not unusual for the VMAs, and her singing was the least of it. Frankly, Miley’s dance moves — or, I should say, “dance” “moves” — were terrible. On more than one occasion, her furry friends had to run to reposition themselves. It’s unclear if they were out of place, or if Miley was. For someone who has occupied a stage for most of her short life, she looked uncomfortable. Maybe the plastic bikini under the bear onesie was chafing.
And it bears repeating that sticking out your butt and shaking it from side to side isn’t twerking.
Miley could have learned proper twerk technique. Yes, there is such a thing. Compare what Miley does to the Twerk Team (possibly NSFW):
What else could Miley have done differently? She could have learned how to dance. She could have shared the stage with real twerkers — perhaps even added some New Orleans bounce to the mix, to show that she understood where twerking actually came from. She could have left the furries in Pittsburgh. She could have worn a dancer’s onesie, not a toddler’s Halloween costume. She could’ve left the foam hand with the red nail in the gift shop.
The trouble with Miley isn’t that she was twerking. It’s that she was too trifling to bother twerking well. We can accept cultural appropriation that either pays homage to the original creators, or imbues the work with the artist’s own originality. Lazy appropriation is like a bad movie bootleg — it’s much harder to tolerate.
Still don’t see any difference? Compare Pat Boone’s cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruitti” with Little Richard’s original. Pat Boone didn’t pay tribute to his predecessors — he copied his black contemporaries and recorded their music for white audiences. Miley has the talent (not to mention the financial backing) to become whatever kind of artist she chooses. But until she puts in the work and further develops her musicianship and stage presence, she’s just a modern-day Pat Boone.
Miley could have come out and put on a show that made us forget all about Hannah Montana. Instead, we’re longing for Hannah Montana’s return. Had her act been passable, we’d be excited for Miley — not embarrassed.
Let’s hope that in her next appearance, Miley Cyrus works a bit harder to gain not just our attention, but our appreciation.