A few days ago Jezebel.com ran an article calling out pop starlet Miley Cyrus for cultural appropriation in her latest video “We Can’t Stop“.
“We Can’t Stop” is Miley’s first single from her upcoming studio album and follows a string of collaborations and appearances carefully engineered to stress Miley’s new identity as a grown, sexually viable party girl. Recently we’ve seen her twerk on stage for Juicy J; on YouTube doing ‘the wop’ in a onesie. One minute she’s sitting next to Lil Kim telling us how ‘twisted’ she is; the other she’s lending her vocals to stoner anthems by Snoop Dogg and Israeli DJ Borgore. Her image and sound are pointedly ‘of the moment’ – all in all here emerges a white Rihanna, the most successfully culturally pervasive female artist in recent years.
The ensuing controversy has paid off, with the song as a strong-contender for the #1 spot in the coming weeks.
While the likes of Lady Gaga might challenge her in album sales, the Rihanna machine has carefully established her as the fashion-forward front-runner of her generation. In the wake of Aaliyah‘s death labels scrambled to sign and release R&B starlets who could fill the void she left: Beyoncé, Ashanti, Ciara and Jamelia (UK-side) were merely the A-list of a much larger swarm, working with the same rappers and producers, and most of whose releases never even saw the light of day. Remember Amerie? Lumidee? Frankee? Lil’ Mo? Nodesha? Truth Hurts? Tweet? Yeah. Record labels are lazy, lazy, lazy entities. Once they find a mold that strikes a monetizable cord with an audience, any audience, they will replicate, remix and repackage it unto exhaustion.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
As trap and rap music threaten to supersede dubstep as the genres du jour the associated aesthetic and culture of ”ratchetness” has gained increasing currency in mainstream and online discourse. Rihanna has perfectly packaged, marketed and sold (in the millions and millions) ratchetness: it’s unsurprising that her competitors are rushing to catch up. Cue Lady Gaga rapping about her money as she writhes (“twerks”?) in cake, Beyoncé dropping her feminism schtick to diss her haters and establish her own street cred on a trap record of her very own, Britney Spears playing the sex kitten on a ‘super black man remix‘ of a trap-infused smash hit, and Ke$ha – well, whatever it is Ke-dollar sign-ha is doing nowadays.
Ratchetness is big, big money right now: best evidenced by the box office success of “Spring Breakers” starring newly sexually-emancipated starlets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens ratcheting it out alongside James Franco (pictured right). The film stars Franco in open parody of viral rap star Riff Raff, the braided and grilled counterpart of Trinidad James, Juicy J, Danny Brown and fellow ratchet-caucasians Kreayhsawn and Iggy Azalea. This is the context in which Miley – having commercially bombed with her first “I’m-grown-and-sexual-now” record – finds herself preparing to release the album which will dictate whether or not she can continue as a viable music act into her 20s. Unsurprisingly her former tween-star peers Gomez and Hudgens (or rather, their teams) tread a similar path.
Jezebel is upset by Miley’s association with what it defines as “dirty south/crunk hip-hop associated with strip clubs, pimps and drug dealers“. Or what you and I might call ratchet music – inane, vulgar, explicit, in-your-face, STD-ridden music. Miley is then called out for “playing” a minority from a lower socio-economic level – because of course, non-whites with no money are vulgar, uncultured, sexually available drug-using victims who objectify their bodies to make rent. And of course it is wrong of women to objectify their bodies to make rent. Miley heinously appropriates the precious “accoutrements” of black people on the fringes of society – golden grills and twerking, so it seems. Finally Miley is attacked for playing the centerpiece in her music video, in which she appears dressed in striking bright white while her backing twerkers appear in dull, darker attire.
She is derided – for being the centerpiece – in HER music video.
The article rounds off weighing privilege, citing corrections facility statistics and concluding that it is distasteful to play at being poor.
Cultural appropriation is the term used for when one culture adopts specific elements from another culture. Say Japanese youths see a Scotsman wearing a kilt, think it looks hot and start wearing kilts themselves. Or say middle aged white women decide a Hindu spiritual practice might make for great exercise. That’s cultural appropriation. Nowadays, especially on the internet, the term is often used with negative connotations – usually the white mainstream thieving from underprivileged, victimized minorities. For context, similar accusations were leveled at Elvis Presley and The Beatles in their time.
I do not mean to disassociate hip-hop from street culture and the harsh reality minority youths face, nor do I mean to gloss over the wider context and history behind twerking, gold grills, drug use, violence, and so on. I must, however, point out that a certain suspension of belief has to be undertaken whenever approaching the output (including aesthetics) of modern day recording artists. Pop and rap stars are consummate salespeople, under constant pressure to shift enough units to make their sales quota. They provide entertainment calibrated to please and receive payment in exchange.
When Miley appears center-stage in her music video, she does so because she needs people to see her and associate her with the product. The others, all of the others, regardless of color, are indeed props. Furthermore, they are props because they want to be props – I’m sure for each cool hipster or bootylicious twerker appearing in the clip there were many more who were turned away from auditions they eagerly sought out and showed up to.
When Miley underlines her emancipation by channeling the strip club/drug dealer aesthetic already made popular by Rihanna and Nicki Minaj – and before them, by a multitude of male rappers – she is angling for maximum exposure and sales numbers. She does it because others before her have established that it is cool and desirable to do so – not to mention highly lucrative.
Every pop star – certainly every rapper – plays at being poor. They also play at being rich. Some do it so well they actually do become rich in the long run. They play at being heartbroken or defiant too. They are play-actors, eager to represent whatever it is we demand of them. White men with velvety voices mimic the great soul singers of yesteryear – see Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake. Happily married Beyoncé wails about love lost; multi-millionaire Ciara sing-songs about not knowing where her next meal will come from.
For Jezebel it seems if poverty and vulgarity are not only interchangeable, but in some way the prerogative or cultural treasure of black people. It does not seem to occur to them that sexually-explicit dancing in minimal clothing to vapid, meaningless music is very, very far from being representative of all black and/or poor people. I do not mean to attack or put down trap, or rap, or even vapid music: they all have their value, their time and their place in the world. What they don’t have, however, is any meaningful place in the experience and legacy of African, African-American and other Afro-composite cultures.
Contrast for example with gospel music – birthed from the negro spirituals which brought hope and freedom of expression to enslaved Africans throughout the United States. I have lost count of the number of times gospel choirs or gospel singing has been used for a cheap laugh, as well as scenes from predominantly African-American churches with people fanning themselves, banging tambourines or being “slain” in the Spirit.
Now ultimately all culture is remix culture and I personally have no problem with gospel music making its way into the mainstream. It is part and parcel of human history that symbols and forms are constantly being swapped, reordered and repurposed. No matter how many hipsters or pop stars use a mock headdress, it should never be able to diminish the perceived spiritual or magical value of a real consecrated headdress has to its wearer or Native American culture.
If a war is to be waged to reclaim the accoutrements and aesthetics of African-American culture (which is very far from being the definitive expression of “black culture”, by the way) is twerking and fake grills in music videos really the battle ground? Are they really the definitive style and movement of black people, all black people, everywhere? Really? Poverty and blackness are not the one and the same, and whatever it is Miley is doing in her music video, it’s erroneous – and frankly, downright offensive – to present it as defining those two incredibly loose tags which encompass a ridiculous variety of people all around the planet.
The year is 2013 and it’s time people stopped delineating what clothes or music people are restricted to because of their skin colour.