Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan were the starlets of my youth and I will never slander them. For some vague and stupid reason, I consider them long lost friends who took a wrong turn. No number of DUIs or ill-advised haircuts could make me feel otherwise.
But Miley Cyrus did not come of age with me.
The Disney princess turned tongue-wagging weirdo is four years my junior. (In high school terms, a grade 9 to my 12.) And lately she’s begun to resemble a tawdry version of Julia Stiles’ character in Save the Last Dance: a white urban transplant, who despite extensive dance lessons and a cool boyfriend, does not — and will never — win the approval of the cool girls in the grades above.
Rihanna, another pop star to whom I remain inexplicably loyal, is metaphorical ringleader of the group to which Cyrus longs to belong. If you haven’t been following the Hannah Montana star this year, you’ll have missed her “big girl” transition, during which she started to style her hair like Rihanna and dress like Rihanna. Cyrus’ current chart topper, “We Can’t Stop,” was originally written for Rihanna. (Riri, as she is affectionately known to her fans, turned it down.)
As it turns out, Riri is not so hot for Miley Cyrus.
While Cyrus was trying to twerk her way into our hearts at the VMAs, cameras caught Riri in the audience. She did not look happy. Neither did anyone else. Riri’s stone-cold expression hinted at the media frenzy and Twitter Haterade to come. The Parents Television Council (of which Cyrus’ famous country star dad is a member) issued a complaint and the editorials poured in: What does this all mean? Was Miley being ironic? Does Rihanna think Miley is a racist? Is she a racist? Is America dead inside?
On the racism angle—I’ll admit parts of her performance, in particular the bit where she tongue-grazed the backside of a masked African American woman, were, as they say in liberal arts college, “problematic.” Huffington Post feminist blogger Anne Theriault suggested the twerking and bum slapping are proof Cyrus is “playing at being black without even trying to understand what the lived experience of being black really is.” I’m still not sure what she means by “lived experience” — is there any other kind? But Theriault’s piece, and others like it, got me thinking: Is it fair to lay on one particular dance move, style, or affectation, the entire weight of a cultural identity? Does erratic butt shaking belong to the domain of young black women? Is the moronic interrogative, or fro-yo for that matter, exclusive to white Jewish girls? I hope not.
As one black woman tweeted to Theriault, “Shaking one’s butt on another’s crotch is NOT part of the black culture.” And if it is, in someone else’s estimation, is it really a cultural component significant enough to elicit such intense outsider protectionism?
In the end, what’s interesting about the so-called sin of cultural appropriation is that when it works (Paul Simon’s Graceland, The Police, Eminem, dreamcatchers, Matisyahu, Tim Horton’s bagels), we don’t remember it most of all, for its racial or cultural implications, but for its merits. Rihanna wasn’t stone-faced during Miley’s performance because it was racist, I suspect. She was stone-faced because, let’s face it: girl can’t dance.
Maybe, then, we should hold off on the PhD-style dissertations on cultural appropriation and call this what it was — a twerk botched by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.