A Theory of Twerk

When it comes to race relations in America, the lines are increasingly blurred. 

It’s been nearly a week and people are still talking about Miley Cyrus. Her performance last Sunday at the 2013 VMAs raised as many questions as it did eyebrows: Are the VMAs racist? What does the proliferation of ratchetness say about our society? Is Miley the Madonna of our generation? Wait, how old did you say 2Chainz was? Remember, this is an event where Grimes and Kathleen Hannah talk feminism during the preshow while Miley fingerblasts herself with a foam hand in the next timeslot. (Meanwhile…somewhere in Calabasas, Kris Jenner is kicking herself for not having thought of it first.) It’s also an event on MTV, which has won every award for most irrelevant network for like a decade straight. If you’re searching for substance or meaning from this donkey show, joke’s on you.

According to John McWhorter, the argument that Miley is “stealing” or “exploiting” something inalienably black for entertainment value is an erroneous formulation steeped in the rhetoric of reflexive academic contrarianism. I call it an act of bad faith.

The real question is how can you like Spring Breakers but hate the white privilege and black exploitation of this year’s VMAs? The answer is you can’t, unless by the same leap of logic that you rep the ATL Twins and James Franco as RiFF RAFF but rip on Macklemore. Look, I get it, he’s soft. But would it be any less of a shame if the person winning over Drake was, say, Eminem? Recall, for a moment, the unintentional moral of the film: white people kill black people and usurp their cultural signifiers. That’s why the only characters who suffer in the end are Gucci Mane and his crew. The four white, female protagonists, meanwhile, go back to their prosy coed lives as if nothing ever happened. Fortunately, it was just a movie, though you might be reminded here of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, the Central Park Five and countless other young black males whom this happened to IRL.

Surely, there’s an irony to be found in the son of Alan Thicke and the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus, two idols of a bygone white-bread Americana, mastering blackness as the black community is harvested into penal colonies, but it’s an irony that’s largely incidental. What we have today in America is a kind of omnivorous compression of cultures and sensibilities that exists mostly in spite of race but entirely on the basis of class. Harmony Korine cast “wholesome” Disney poptarts Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens opposite the brand ambassadors of double penetration because there’s a certain erotic revelry to be had in the contrast of high and low, by which I mean, the dragging of the high down to the level of the low. This isn’t cultural appropriation, it’s cultural homogenization; it’s not that white people are colonizing black culture, it’s that everyone is colonizing low culture. Hence the cultural obsession with twerking and getting turnt and being ratchet, which are all things that are as class conscious as they are racially coded. On the heels of Mileygate, the term “twerking” has even been inducted into the Oxford Dictionary. Conversely, take the popularity of cheap beer, muscle shirts, cut-off denim and knuckle tattoos, all hallmarks of a landlocked redneck lifestyle that now belongs to coastal hipsters. Or, the revival of words like “gnarly” and “rad” on one hand and “sick” and “dope” on the other. Or, white girls named Tanya or Crystal who call their kids Unique and Messiah. Brace yourself people born before 1989, it’s only getting weirder.

What’s piracy with Miley counts as art with Beyoncé. In the promos for her last tour, Bey wears a powdered wig and petticoats in a Louis XIV-style interior, a mise-en-scène likely inspired by Yinka Shonibare, whose Dutch wax burlesques of European high society put him on the map as a YBA. Shonibare later added the honorific MBE to his name to further fuck with art establishment snobs; Beyoncé’s (and Solange’s) canny use of his aesthetic represents a gelded, bourgeois appropriation of radical art practice. Here, Beyoncé plays Marie Antoinette but keeps her head. Other times she’s the ride-or-die housewife to Jay-Z’s mafioso-turned-Mad-Man or the dazzling Marilyn to Obama’s JFK. Like all good pop stars, Miley and Beyoncé use race and sex roles in an ironic way, which is to say, they both understand the performance of identity as it was understood by the denizens of New York voguing culture. Beyoncé is a consummate performer, so no one experiences her shape-shifting as anything but what it is, a rehearsal of sexual personae. She is uniformly seen as calling the shots and being in control, having secured producing and writing credits on many of her records and cleverly publicized the fact, a one-size-fits-all embodiment of traditional femininity and contemporary feminism. Miley, through no less personal agency, has inherited a far less flattering public reputation. She is alternately a parent’s worst nightmare and Disney pawn, either way, her apparent business acumen and artistic vision are not her own. Beyoncé is a fertility statue, Miley is a gargoyle.

Of course, the thing you’re actually lashing out against is mainstream infringement on what you assumed was a rarified outlook, held by you and your circle of generic babes in fashion sneakers and guys who communicate strictly through emojis. No wonder so many of the people bitching about the theft of black identity are white and employed by downtown boutique agencies and magazines known for popularizing that whole post-Y2K athletic aesthetic. Yet Korine, arguably our greatest cultural colonizer south of Houston, still stands for a kind of undiluted good taste in bad taste. His films exhibit an exquisite sensitivity to the experience of poverty though, lucky for us, from the perspective of aesthetics, not morality. They dissemble their sources by turning them into consumables. Miley’s artless romp through the projects, meanwhile, betrays the essential contrivance of what are principally generational affinities. Millennials: do you love R.Kelly in an “unironic” way? Did you own any FUBU in middle school? Can you name all nine members of Wu-Tang? Do you routinely say “nigga” out of the earshot of your black friends? “What? It’s a term of endearment not a racial epithet!” Did you see Birdman at the VMAs? (Double points if you knew he was wearing Kenzo.)

The double standard persists even though it’s inherently more racist to assume that the dominant race can withstand satire while the minority is brittle, dear, in need of patronage and protection. This sort of thinking is the ultimate intellectual indulgence, for both sides, a way of advertising moral superiority in the absence of ideological rigor and emotional confidence.

Fortunately, McWhorter is one of the few commentators who doesn’t try to retrofit his reading of the situation to suit his personal agenda. The charge, “that [Miley] is making fun of black people in the guise of entertainment” is “reductive,” he writes. He’s also—literally—the only one brave enough to recognize the “increasingly cross-racial nature of the underclass.” Adam Carolla, whom I’ve quoted before, puts it in plainer terms: “That’s the ultimate race, poor people.” It’s not transgression that’s the main tenet of “modern American popular culture,” but abasement. As Alain de Botton once said, “The more dignity is widely and freely available in society, the less people want to be famous.” This isn’t pushing boundaries, it’s debauchery masquerading as courage. It’s also a symptom of our particularly aggressive and insensitive brand of capitalism, which gauges a person’s worth based on their ability to consume—things, but also images and ideas, rapidly, routinely, without pausing to understand their historical antecedents. Kanye is right, we’re all slaves now.

If it’s proof you seek, look no further than your own backyard, where young and idealistic people just like you are eagerly putting in long hours to be compensated in merch and cheap flattery. But also: America’s treatment of baby boomers, the disabled, the “mentally ill,” not to mention, veterans, who are released back into the general population without a social safety net to guide them through the crisis of assimilation. (Susan Sontag once said that the measure of a good society is the way it treats marginal people.) The dubious virtue of capitalism is that it’s colorblind in the end. Sublimating class conflict as a racial issue is one way of coming to terms with the collapse of the American Dream. After all, discrimination because of race is an arbitrary and artificial form of supremacy but there’s nothing phony about the privilege of wealth. I’ll bet my Margiela paperweight that the behavior of rich black people more closely resembles that of rich white people than people in Camden or Decatur. Just look at Will Smith—he’s a Scientologist for chrissakes.

The only way to offset the grim reality without actually overhauling the system is to partake in the illusion of equality. Of course, you can’t ask the underclass to rise to the level of the elite, but you can ask the minority to dumb itself down to the level of the masses. This is achieved by flattening the cultural registers that once set people apart from each other, leaving behind a ceremonial diversity but abolishing any meaningful difference that isn’t monetary. Nowadays, equality and diversity mean the same thing: moral neutrality. When culture approaches a mean, everyone is equally worse off, but, hey, at least they’re equal.

In a previous post, I mentioned how Beyoncé, Shakira and Britney Spears all look like the same person: a blue-collar Venus with a microwave complexion, mermaid tresses and a bourgeois penchant for acquisitiveness. McWhorter, meanwhile, points to the casting of Brandy in a recent TV adaptation of Cinderella and the distinctively “negroid” quality of Spears’ choreography to support what Leon Wynter has called the “browning” of American culture. Characteristically, the trend goes both ways; white people “act black,” but black people also take on roles traditionally associated with whites. This is the hard-won triumph of the civil rights movement or, as Quentin Crisp would have it, the indifferent triumph of the passage of time. But there’s a more sinister side to progress: the new moral neutrality has infiltrated all aspects of modern life and made an enemy of critique, so that unsubscribing from narratives of forced multiculturalism and permissive pansexuality is automatically seen as a kind of prudery. By this logic, all criticisms of liberalism are conservative and any judgment makes you a “hater.” In this climate of intellectual atrophy, equality remains purely symbolic, operating as it does on the most superficial level of appearances. But the mechanics of oppression haven’t changed because, need I say, it’s in the interest of the establishment that they don’t. On the bright side, everyone gets to keep their moral alibi.

This isn’t to suggest that there’s nothing inherently redeeming about low culture, which is the basis of pop culture, which is everything, even if the lifeless academe continues to deny the fact. Rather, it’s to lament the use of low culture as an assault on intellectual life, when in fact they cohabit perfectly well together, often in a single person. In part, this is the failure of American government to prioritize education. In part, it’s the failure of the intelligentsia to make a distinction between good and bad elitism, as signaled by the retreat into the progressively low-stakes game of squabbling over the applications of theoretical Marxism. It’s only right to bemoan the content farm that journalism has become but downright condescending to demand that “respectable” news outlets limit their coverage to “worthy” subjects. Politics is the butt of its own joke (see: Eliot Spitzer, Chris Christie, etc). Religion is for grandmas and pedophiles. Nothing is sacred in a time when literary journals publish entires treatises on sexting. Enter the vanguard of philistinism.

Think about who calls the shots for these things: not dreary old Reaganites but young, ethnic, queer industry professionals schooled in the nuance of imagery. To analyze Miley’s performance is to admit that there’s a conceptual logic flickering somewhere in that shrunken head of hers. But to characterize its bells and whistles as being racially motivated is to dismiss the creative agency of other people, many of whom are probably black and/or gay. You tell me what’s more incriminating: that everyone freaked when Miley twerked or that Kendrick got lost in the fray?