The cultural crimes and white privilege of Miley Cyrus
Miley Cyrus seems to equate blackness to wickedness and whiteness to virtue
For Miley Cyrus, ‘the dreadlocks and gold grill are gone, replaced with pigtails, pink dresses and puppet shows’. Photograph: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images
Miley, what’s good? Not hip-hop any more? Cyrus’s latest rebirth attempts to strip away the pop star’s sardonically provocative, supposedly sinful, “will somebody please think of the children” image, and cast her as a reformed, fresh-faced, all-American starlet. Instead, this stylistic shift just serves as Exhibit A in her trial for cultural crimes against black America.
Four years after busting her way out of the Disney Channel and into broader pop infamy, Cyrus’s new album Younger Now deletes the hip-hop beats for a more twangy, Nashville-influenced sound. The dreadlocks and gold grill are gone, replaced with pigtails, pink dresses and puppet shows. Cyrus has long resisted accusations of appropriating black culture to launch her star. Now, she has shamelessly executed her white privilege to reverse the transformation.
Music history is stacked with teen idols attempting to shed their image by transforming into a more adult form. Cyrus’s bombastic tactics smashed planet pop like a meteorite. There was the wild outfits, surrealist stage shows, drug references and a tongue permanently pointed towards her brow. “Is Miley okay?” read the headlines. For me, though, this was an outrageous piece of pop performance that satired such transformations by daringly pushing the friskiness to its absolute limits. A lot of the music was fun. She knew what she was doing.
Vital to the change was a pseudo-thuggish version of the ex-Hannah Montana star that drew heavily from crunked up, dirty south-style hip-hop and jewels out, bling-bling sensibilities. On her 2013 record Bangerz, Cyrus often tuned her voice to a rap-like flow. She spent the phase throwing up hip-hop hand gestures and, of course, she twerked. Man, she twerked a lot. Never mind that the dance has been around for years: twerking became synonymous with Cyrus and her new ratchet image.
Now here comes Younger Now, a clear attempt to ditch the persona and replace it with a more picturesque image of white innocence: “Feels like I just woke up,” she sings on the title track. “Like all this time I’ve been asleep.” Sleeping through what? The last 48 months? A couple of kisses on the neck aside, the video frames Cyrus alongside a collection of wholesome imagery. She awakens from here long slumber like a singing Goldilocks. It’s a near-storybook caricature of purity. Ratchet Miley is nowhere.
In a May interview with Billboard, Cyrus tried distancing herself from rap entirely. Speaking about the Kendrick Lamar song Humble, she said: “I love that because it’s not, ‘Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock.’ I can’t listen to that any more. 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.”
Hip-hop continues to suffer misogyny problems (as does a lot of sections of the entertainment industry) but this simplified cherry-picking of the rap canon is a bit rich when Cyrus herself has been accused of commodifying black women’s bodies in the video for We Can’t Stop. She may complain now about Rolex boasts, but Cyrus revelled in hip-hop materialism to forge her image. You don’t get much more money-oriented than a mouth full of floss.
Cyrus later rolled back on the Billboard quote, but the interpretation is clear: she has either always had a low regard for the very culture she mimicked, or is happy to put a bullet into its heart for the benefit of the next stage of her career.
But here’s the real rub: in both her new image and quotes simplifying hip-hop culture down to its most thorny elements, Cyrus equates blackness to wickedness and whiteness to virtue. The message seems to be that Miley has been cleansed of that horrible, horrible blackness that led her astray. She doesn’t so much want to pretend her previous incarnation never happened, but instead leverage it into a narrative of spiritual rebirth. And it’s her white privilege that makes it all possible.
Hip-hop is black American culture. Not white culture, but black culture. That doesn’t mean that white people can’t take part and even add whole new ripples and flavours: I’ve never heard anyone say they couldn’t. What it does mean, though, is that they must be respectful of its meaning and history.
Appreciation versus appropriation is how this conversation is often framed. David Bowie and the Beastie Boys come to mind as white artists who engaged with music of black origin with respect and swagger. But the actions of Cyrus are a clear-cut case of why people of colour are protective of their art, particularly from what they see as cogs in the white capitalist machine. She is free to ride black inventiveness to huge success without engaging in the ongoing societal struggles African-Americans face.
Further pain is heaped when white artists receive greater rewards than their black counterparts. Iggy Azalea and Mackelmore might have a genuine affinity for rap music, but their songs are little more than occasionally catchy. And yet, they’re bestowed with the awards and acknowledgement that should go to the pioneering black artists who receive so little credit. I’ve no doubt that most people think Miley invented the twerk.
Nicki Minaj joined the backlash against Cyrus in 2015 after she criticised Minaj’s comments about being overlooked for the MTV Video Music Awards because of her race – this was the origin of the famous “Miley, what’s good” on-stage call out.
“If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that,” Minaj told the New York Times.
Cyrus is free to try on other stylistic cloaks. Reinvention is at the core of pop (hell, Miley’s follow up to Bangerz was a barmy psych-rock record). But her crimes underline why the expression “cultural appropriation” has recently been popularised. It’s useful language in calling out damaging infringements that serve nothing but the self.