Essays

Miley Cyrus and Her Minstrel Show

Miley Cyrus does not lend credibility to hip-hop, nor can she take it away.

Miley Cyrus on stage during her “Bangerz” tour (photograph by Karina3094 via Flickr)

Why bother being disgusted by Miley Cyrus? I ask because there has been a deluge of recrimination hurled at her for the Billboard magazine interview in which she is said to have thrown hip-hop under the bus by remaking herself as a homespun country girl reaching out across the partisan divide to speak to supporters of the current president. Her transformation has even been called creepy. Reading through all the revulsion, what emerges for me is an uncomfortable, but relatively obvious truth that has both little and everything to do with Cyrus: that hip-hop culture is — in its mainstream, highly commercialized versions — precisely constructed to be a kind of costume one can put on and take off. That young white pop stars take on persona associated with people of color and shed them at will should not surprise us.

Sherronda Brown describes what Cyrus had done as a kind of minstrel show, concluding that “The ease with which she is able to achieve this almost seamless transformation is evidence for why cultural appropriation is a form of violence.” This seems more heat than light. But given this allegation, I have to remind myself what precisely a “minstrel show” is. There isn’t clear consensus on how it was structured, but there is broad agreement that it was a national art form that existed in the early years of the twentieth century and consisted of white people in makeup, or blackface, performing the role of blacks. There was often dancing, an exchange of jokes, singing, speeches and slapstick musical skits or satiric interpretations of popular plays. It was a kind of entertainment that was rooted in white supremacy and schadenfreude — demeaning others to secure and confirm one’s place in the social hierarchy while finding pleasure in all that. However, looking at what Miley Cyrus has done, I don’t see that kind of willful humiliation, but rather a kind of mercenary American calculus for achieving success: to pick up the traits, styles, and dress of a group with which to identify to profit from that identification — emotionally, socially, financially, or in terms of cultural capital. Cyrus took one of her star turns via hip-hop because mainstream, commercial, hip-hop dangled from populist, overly-produced videos is a culture that is the coin of the realm. There is at least $10 billion to be had.

MIley Cyrus in an earlier, more PG phase (photo by Mike Schmid via Flickr)

As pointed out by Chelsea Stone at Teen Vogue, Cyrus sliced into this pie, collaborating with hip-hop producer Mike Will Made-It on her 2013 album Bangerz, and has previously working with Snoop Dogg and Timbaland. More than her working relationships with hip-hop producers and rappers to identify with hip-hop, there was the costuming and performance: the bandana ties around her head, the twerking, the wearing of gold fronts, the sneering and throwing up gang signs, and the crotch grabbing. This playing dress-up has (rightly) earned resentment. As Dodai Stewart writes about Cyrus, “She can play at blackness without being burdened by the reality of it.” So Dodai makes it seem that Cyrus is slumming: hanging out for the weekend, getting her crunk on, only to get sober later and show up respectable to wherever she is expected.

But while her behavior is racialized, and exists within a long history of whites taking advantage of black culture, borrowing and stealing it for profit (I often think of that record producer who once said that the success of the Doobie Brothers was based on them being white men who sang like they were black), this is also an American issue: we reinvent ourselves all the time. Think of Don Draper, the main character in the TV series Mad Men — a man who reinvent himself with the theft of someone else’s name. Perhaps because the origins of our reinvention are so ugly and the theft so blatant, in the new iteration of ourselves we often express disgust and horror about who we were.

How Cyrus’s influences have been interpreted (image by Mariah McKenzie via Flickr)

But that appropriation is carried out by an entire culture, so when a white woman apes the hard-won inventiveness and discoveries of black people, many of us are livid. Some are made even angrier when she disavows the connection. In the infamous interview Cyrus says, “I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ — I am so not that.”

Still, I don’t see how is this violence — that is in the typical usage of the term to refer to the use of force to hurt, harm or kill, to use something with destructive intent? That accusation assigns to Cyrus much more malevolence than she has shown. She’s a 24-year-old pop singer who was a child television star and grew up in a family headed by a celebrity musician. That may sound like a delicious cocktail to drink, but I know it’s poison, and she drank it for a long time.

Now she insists, “The fact that ­country music fans are scared of me, that hurts me. All the ­nipple pastie shit, that’s what I did because I felt it was part of my political movement, and that got me to where I am now. I’m evolving, and I surround myself with smart people that are evolved.”

Of course, she’s said that hip-hop pushed her away, though she willfully associated with the Dirty South/crunk sort of hip-hop, the kind that is associated in the popular imagination with drug dealers and pimps and strip clubs. There are many kinds of hip-hop that are much more politically active and aware, such as “Alternative” and “Conscious” rap. She chose something else because it was profitable and maybe even fun to play in the dark.

Miley Cyrus performing in Vancouver in 2014 (image by Rob Sinclair via Flickr)

I think we waste time and energy denouncing Miley Cyrus. I don’t think it’s worth writers, fans, and cultural critics being angry now, when she was doing this several years ago, as if hip-hop — and by extension black people — have been demeaned and worse still, abandoned because Cyrus has moved on. Black culture is much wider and deeper than commercial hip-hop; they are not synonymous. It’s a mistake to buy what it’s selling: that it is representative of some deep black authenticity that gets eroded every time a white person adopts its language and tropes. Long ago it became a commodity in a culture that thrives on commodity consumption and presumes we are smarter because we are nimble, eclectic, and constantly in motion flitting from taste to taste.

The hip-hop of Snoop, Ludacris, Timbaland and others who are similar has long showed us that its culture is structured to allow a few people to profit extravagantly from it, precisely by copying the tropes and styles of the genre. Even Snoop complains that most rappers these days sound the same to him. However, he’s only apparently referring to the top of the food chain — the commercial acts — and isn’t cognizant of hip-hop’s underground, or its international following.

Miley Cyrus during the “Bangerz” tour (photo by Karina 3094 via Flickr)

Cyrus does not lend credibility to hip-hop, nor can she take it away. When she says, “I like to surround myself with people that make me want to get better, more evolved, open. I want to be super clear and sharp, because I know exactly where I want to be,” that is not a betrayal as much as a change of lanes for a millenial who understands lane changes to be necessary to get where you want to be.

Why should we care what she does? She is both warm and indifferent simultaneously, the definition of millennial coquettishness: “This record is a reflection of the fact that yes, I don’t give a fuck, but right now is not a time to not give a fuck about people,” she says. “I’m ­giving the world a hug and saying, ‘Hey, look. We’re good — I love you.’ And I hope you can say you love me back.”

Yes, this is ridiculous, but no less ridiculous than the brand of hip-hop that said we could pretend our way to stardom — fake it till we make it. And now we can’t help but fake it.

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