No Such Thing as Grace: Notes on the New Miley
Video for “23”, by Mike Will Made It, 2013, Interscope
by Eli S. Evans
When the video for Miley Cyrus’s pre-album “We Can’t Stop” dropped last summer the immediate reaction was that the bitch was going crazy – that what we were witnessing here was yet another public display of hysteria, that special kind of madness reserved for the onset of a female sexuality decoupled from the logic of reproduction and domesticity. But almost from the start, Miley could hardly have made it clearer that she was not hysterical – that this was not a mental breakdown but instead a rather virtuosic performance of just the sort of mental breakdown made popular by people like her pop predecessor and purported idol, Britney Spears.
Before the straight-faced rendition of the power ballad “Wrecking Ball” at the American Music Awards, during which an enormous animated cat projected on the screen behind her took over crying duties during the song’s emotional climax, and before the hyper self-aware parodies of the “We Can’t Stop Video” and her rupture with the worn-out Hannah Montana persona on Saturday Night Live, there was Miley explaining to anyone who asked what was going on with all the drug references and masturbatory writhing and skulls made out of French fries that she was growing up, and part of growing up was making her own mistakes. The not-so-subtly subversive element of that explanation, of course, was that to whatever extent they were intended to facilitate her maturation the mistakes she appeared to be acknowledging in fact could not have been mistakes, properly speaking, but at worst bad decisions: mistakes, by nature, are not made on purpose.
So that left us to turn our attention to the unimpeachably offensive offense of cultural appropriation. In addition to hiring Mike WiLL Made-It, who is black, to see to the production duties, the new Miley who announced herself to the world by way of the “We Can’t Stop” video reportedly instructed her songwriters (who were also black) to make her a song that felt black. The problem, as many were quick to point out, was that in her efforts to feel or at the very least appear to herself as black, Miley was simultaneously equating black culture with a handful of decontextualized signifiers – twerking, layered gold jewelry, press-on nails, sounding very much like Rihanna – and, from her position of relative power, effectively reducing it to the same. In the very act of imitating blackness, in other words, she was also defining it in and according to the terms of that whiteness to which it was being appended like one of those gaudy press-ons. Alas, she may not have been having a public meltdown, but at the very least she was faithfully racist – just as we should have expected from the daughter of hillbilly crooner Billy Ray Cyrus. Cue the aggressive righteousness.
Needless to say, I’m not buying it, and not merely because – as others have pointed out already – hip-hop and its habits, though rooted in black culture, have always been migratory. I’m not buying it because I’m not convinced, all the twerking and the gold grilling and upside down peace sign gang signs notwithstanding, that Miley was ever really performing ‘blackness,’ or that ‘black’ was ever really the social position she was setting out to occupy with that conspicuously snow white body of hers. Consider, for example, that all along the spectacle of cultural appropriation has been inseparable, in Miley’s ongoing performance of the new Miley, with that of the objectification of the female body: not just the bodies of her mostly (exclusively?) black back-up dancers, but as well her own, which as much as theirs becomes a thing to be grabbed, rubbed and admired.
Indeed, on stage and in videos Miley has appeared just as bemused by the grabbable parts suddenly erupting from her own body as by the tits and asses incessantly jiggling in its immediate vicinity. “Bopping up and down the catwalk in hair-twist devil’s horns and a flesh-colored latex bikini,” griped Camille Paglia in Time magazine following Miley’s immediately infamous number at the MTV Video Music Awards, “Cyrus lewdly wagged her tongue, tickled her crotch with a foam finger, shook her buttocks in the air and spanked a 6-ft. 7-in. black burlesque queen.” Both Miley’s buttocks, shaken in the air, and that of this apparently towering “black burlesque queen,” spanked, are objectified in Paglia’s account – abstracted from the organic whole, become part.
If there is a subjective position defined by the twinned sins of cultural appropriation and sexual objectification, of course, it is the dominant one, occupied, in that Western tradition to which we seemingly remain confined despite our best intentions, by the figure of the white male. And ultimately, I think, it is to this position that Miley’s performance of the new Miley aspires. It is a counter-intuitive claim, I know, but for evidence of its validity one need look no further than her hostile takeover of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” during the VMAs. Here, to the ecstatic horror of everyone from Paglia to Rush Limbaugh (on his radio show the next morning he pronounced it “pure, unadulterated rot” and located it “just this side of on-stage pornography”), Miley clambered out of her stoned teddy bear onesie to reveal, beneath it, the aforementioned flesh-colored latex bikini, and donned the same giant foam hand, white with red fingernails and index finger extended, that she would later wield in Mike WiLL Made-It’s video for his ode to Jordan brand sneakers, “23.” Her theft of the show – for better or for worse, everyone knew she had stolen it – was also, as that giant index finger between her legs made unequivocally clear, a commandeering of the symbolic (white) phallus, and so divested of it that Thicke, recently sprung from his career as a middling rhythm and blues singer thanks to the summer’s rapiest hit, had nothing to do but gyrate around pathetically like a neutered dog humping the air or one of those stupid air-filled balloon people one sees dancing in front of car dealerships and mattress shops.
This usurpation is rehearsed in the opening scene of the “23” video, a back-to-school number passingly reminiscent of Eddy Money’s “I Wanna Go Back.” The first character we meet in “23” is, the nameplate on the desk informs us, Principal Berman, as stiff and insufferably white as the high school genre demands. Mid-conversation on the phone with some anonymous and invisible interlocutor, he is interrupted by the sound of what the viewer knows is a basketball bouncing down the stairs and hangs up go investigate. Enter Mike WiLL Made-It and an accomplice through the door left unwittingly ajar. While his accomplice closes the blinds and locks the door, Made-It, all sunglasses and Chicago Bulls snapback and glitzy watch, settles into the principal’s chair. A bit of product placement: he uses the same Beats by Dr. Dre Pill Speaker featured in the video for “We Can’t Stop” to drop a beat through the intercom, a combination of class bell ringing and warped siren sound pre-empting the monotony of the school day. Made-It chuckles. “I’m so fresh, man,” he mutters into the intercom microphone. “Man y’all scared to do it how I do it.” Cutaways show, among others, featured rapper Juicy J, unaccountably hanging out in the school’s hallway with a well-dressed woman. Then a black-and-white shot of Wiz Khalifa laughing, and at that the floor is ceded, and the microphone symbolically passed, to the girl’s bathroom, where Miley, propped on the windowsill in a custom Michael Jordan jersey bikini and red Chanel bracelet, starts in rapping (shittily) about being in the club, “high off purp …with [her] J’s on,” etc.
Superficially, there could be no more obvious an instance of the white pop star appropriating the signifiers of black culture than this moment in which Miley symbolically takes the microphone from Made-It. But it is worth recalling that the Made-It from whom she takes the microphone is one who has already conned his own way into Principal Berman’s seat. Thus, in occupying the place in the symbolic order (that of the high school, in any event) that corresponds to Made-It, Miley is in fact occupying the place – the panoptic center of power – of the balding white man, his necktie knotted a bit too tight, who now bangs haplessly on his office window imploring Made-It to let him back in.
So appearances aside (but then again this is exactly the point) Miley’s “drag,” in her ongoing performance of the new Miley, may not be comprised of the gold chains and the jiggling booty so much as of the act of putting on the clothes and slapping the booties (both her own and her dancers’). She is decked out in the garb of dominant subjectivity, wrapped in the trappings of old school, center-periphery authority. And it is perhaps not especially difficult to understand why. When Principal Berman is interrupted in the opening scene of the “23” video, this is what he has just been saying into the telephone receiver: “I’ve been running these meetings for quite awhile. Just sort of in the background – I think you know what I’m talkin’ about here.” Growing up, Miley was a Disney product – an artist, to some extent, but one whose expression was entirely managed and orchestrated, from somewhere in the background, by the interests of wealth and corporate power, which is to say, of power as such. Now that, as her team’s repeated insistence that she was the creative force behind her recent work alerts us, she is eager to seize control of her own modes and forms of expression, it only follows that this – and not that of the gangsta, or of the ratchet girl – would be the place into which she would feel compelled to insinuate herself in order to do so.
But the opening scene of “23,” when Made-It slides into Principal Berman’s chair, also lays bare the delusion that so often informs such usurpations of the old guard by the new. In the video, what is displaced from the principal’s seat is lame, and that by which it is replaced is better: Berman’s suit and tie is swapped for Made-It’s crispy Jordans and MC Hammer pants; a school assembly is transformed into a trap party; chemistry class becomes a psychotropic adventure; and the basketball that bounces down the stairs and into the hallway at the beginning of the video ends up bedazzled, glimmering like the Hirst skull the French fry skull in the “We Can’t Stop” video references, in Miley’s hands at the end. In reality, however, no such exchange is possible when it comes to cultural appropriation and sexual objectification, which in all their terrifying lameness are ultimately not the estate of this particular subject or that – white or black, male or female – but rather the constitutive gestures of old school, center-periphery authority, the very respiration of hegemony. So while Paglia may have been right to describe her lascivious bopping about at the VMAs as “clumsy, flat-footed and cringingly unsexy,” in so doing she overlooked the particular virtue of Miley’s performance of the new Miley, which has been to remind us that there is no such thing as grace in the will to power it embodies.
About the Author:
Eli S. Evans is a writer and a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He writes regularly for magazines such as N+1, in the United States, and Quimera, in Spain, and has work forthcoming from Zg Press and in a collection of essays about the late writer and social theorist Monique Wittig. His academic research focuses on the intersections of modernity and postmodernity in twentieth century Spanish literature and philosophy.