This comes from Mockingbird friend Chelsea Batten. You can read more from her here.
Everyone’s mad at Miley Cyrus, and not for the reason you think. Well, no, it is for the reason(s) you think. But also for some new reasons. The little darling has made herself a whole new group of enemies with the racial overtones of her performance at the VMAs. In case you’ve just recently been released from prison, I’ll explain:
Ms. Cyrus performed her current radio vehicle “We Can’t Stop” at the Video Music Awards, surrounded by a slew of able-bodied African-American women. These women, backup dancers in name only, were employed to wear large teddy bear costumes and serve as props for Ms. Cyrus to pose against and…yeah, other things.
Following this number, Ms. Cyrus joined Robin Thicke in a duet of his song “Blurred Lines.” For this performance, she dispensed with half her previous costume and twerked. To spare the blissful ignorant from having to look this up on the internet (a sight which will make you lament, like Mr. Thicke’s mother, that you cannot unsee it), it suffices to leave it at this: it is a dirty dance move. (If you need more, NPR does its best to offer an intelligent elucidation. Did you know you had “upper hips and lower hips?”) For her insistent proprietary assimilation of this move, Ms. Cyrus has been dubbed the “queen of twerk.”
And that, friends, is the problem.
Twerking is considered the intellectual property of a particular subset of African-American street culture. This subset, known as “ratchet,” is not regarded with particular pride even within the African-American community. It’s parodied even by those who make a living off glorified street culture. The point of Ms. Cyrus’ newest haters is that if anybody’s going to twerk to mass appeal, it should be the people who have been doing it all along. But no—instead, it’s a blue-eyed Caucasian minor. Again.
Whether or not you believe that Ms. Cyrus wields much control over her own career, I feel like everyone should cut her some slack…on this issue, anyway. She’s probably not as racist as she sounds. When she says she wants to make music that “feels black,” she clearly doesn’t mean more like Duke Ellington or Janelle Monae.
She means what decades’ worth of white performers have been doing—apeing the grittiest aspects of street culture, where white people are never more than interlopers. They’re not doing it simply to be disrespectful. They’re doing it to make money. Ms. Cyrus, or whoever makes her decisions, knows that North American pop culture will pay more for imitation than they will for reality. It’s why the movies always make more money than the books they’re based on, leading authors to start writing books with the movie in mind. It’s why Glee musical covers go to #1 on iTunes, when the real versions of the songs don’t. It’s why The Daily Show can consistently skewer political foibles yet nothing changes in the voting booth from one election to the next.
But my repetitive consumption of Ms. Cyrus’ simple, sugary scandal-fodder might never have been interrupted, were it not for Mr. Thicke’s adorably articulate mother, whose trenchant observations ought to earn some kind of journalistic prize: It was so over the top as to almost be a parody of itself. It was as if someone had knocked the hard candy from my mouth.
When I subsequently learned of the Onion‘s mind-bendingly meta-clairvoyant prediction of this very event in Ms. Cyrus’ career—complete with year!…well, the irony was only all the more delicious for having laid aside my moral firearms—aesthetic, sexual, and even racial. Ms. Cyrus was, after all, only doing what we pay her to do. Begging the question, of course…why do we pay for imitation over actual art? I think it’s fairly simple: Art is dangerous. Real dangers are scary. But imitated dangers are fun.
Take twerking. Performed by a grown woman with mature curves and a practiced instinct for it, twerking is considered criminally vulgar. (Unless it’s done in private.) Similarly, a physically imposing man who spits invectives about drugs, police, and political unrest, while thrilling, is censured as a public menace. Real people doing real things to people has a powerful effect. It’s hard to consume too much of it, without being powerfully affected. But there’s nothing to be afraid of when a child does these things, because she poses no real threat to anyone but herself. It’s still vulgar, but not it’s dangerous—merely distasteful.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates disparaged art as being essentially worthless, because it was mere imitation; it didn’t create anything real. Artists, he said, merely represent things they have no practical understanding of, with other people’s pleasure being the only goal. For all modernity’s high talk of aesthetics and number of government endowments, I think most people secretly agree with Socrates.
That’s why Ms. Cyrus stays in business. That’s why, next year, the VMAs will offer another pageant of bling, bodies and electronic beats indistinguishable from this year’s. We’ll pay more, more often, for the pleasure of predictability.
It’s possible for art to present startling new realities, and for that experience to be pleasurable. But such things take a while to settle. They ask us to grapple with intuitive complexities, reexamine preconceived ideas, and confront instinctive fears. Imitation never disrupts us by revealing anything new. It is what it was and will be again. Like a GIF file, or like Ms. Cyrus’ “did-you-catch-it-I’ll-do-it-again” tongue flicking, we know what’s coming before it gets started. Underneath the shock value, we still feel safe.
In the western world, we like that best of all. If you think I’m overthinking all this, you’re in good company. But it seems to me that this issue of imitation concerns more than just the future of art. (Really…how much time do we want to take thinking about that?)
It’s about the future of how we live. We who consume imitation will only ever produce imitation. At the same time that Ms. Cyrus was scandalizing a roomful of entertainment professionals in California, President Obama was publicly advancing his intention to launch air strikes against Syria. The numbers since revealed that Americans viewed twelve times as many pages on Ms. Cyrus’ antics as on the Syria situation.
The VMAs scandal was easy to digest—look, listen, and distance yourself from it with judgmental mockery. The threat of another Middle East entanglement is not so easily disposed of. But it will be, soon enough. We’ll stay distracted with imitative forms of life until someone deals with reality on our behalf. We will grow familiar with life in the wake of whatever gets done in Syria, responding only with repetitive conversations that keep us at a safe remove from the decisions being made and the people making them. Given the choice, we’ll always take the easily digestible story. And they’ll keep giving it to us, because that’s what we’ll pay for.
It could be that living in reality doesn’t pay anymore, in the western world. It could be that the best hope of artists-who-would-be-culture-originators is to get hired as props, posing in the periphery of imitators to lend them authenticity without the attached danger. Is it weird that I think this is good news? I think so for two reasons.
First, Darwinism. As pop culture grows more plastic and prefab, it will force a conscious choice. Some will plunge whole-heartedly into their addiction to it; the rest will lose their taste for it. A niche market has already established itself for homemade food and handmade goods…I feel like pure aesthetics can’t be far behind.
Second, a new edge. As imitation becomes more flagrant and more offensive, I’m hopeful that the forefront of artistic innovation will become honesty itself. So that there will be hope for skinny Caucasian 20-year-olds brought up in privilege to begin shocking the world with who they really are, instead of with what they choose to pretend at.