Whether she's appropriating black culture or selling sex, Miley Cyrus is guilty of all manner of crimes. Or so we, her outraged audience, like to think. But what if there's nothing deeper going on, beyond a bad case of manufactured mimicry? Tetsuhiko Endo shares his thoughts.
New York Magazine recently reported, in that faux seen-it-all-before tone that New York writers love so much, that Americans currently view twelve times as many web pages about Miley Cyrus as they do about Syria. The implication is that Americans should be shocked and embarrassed by their own disinterest towards foreign affairs. Naturally, we aren’t. The electricity is on, the water is running, gas is still cheaper than in Europe, and food is plentiful. World domination, it turns out, is pretty cushy for those who sit – excuse me, lounge – on the right side of the electrified fences and police cordons.
Of course, Syria isn’t the point; Miley Cyrus is the point.
Everybody loves them a bit of Miley. Even the people who hem and haw at her every hip gyration can’t resist feeding her bloated ego with reactionary diatribes based on something they read in an undergraduate gender studies course. Sexuality, race, body image, privilege, and truckloads of sweet, sweet money all come together in this little hobgoblin with the big, anti-freeze blue eyes and perennially lolling tongue.
The fact that the American debate on sexuality has been reduced to talking shit about a twenty-one-year-old woman says a lot about the current state of our culture. The truth about Miley Cyrus, the only truth under the layers of makeup, dumbass dance moves, cultural appropriation, awkward Lolita shamming and gratuitous nudity is that there is no deeper truth to Miley Cyrus. Here is a creature who has been denied most of the experiences that are integral to shaping human life. The whelp of a cut rate country star, she was incubated on a TV set by a multinational corporation that specialises in using children to sell things to children. Naturally, she is incapable of conveying, or even convincingly mimicking the emotions, experiences and ideas that form any kind of non-Disney human condition. She is a cartoon princess brought to life and made to dance – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – on the thick marionette strings of assembly-line culture.
In the last year she has been variously accused of selling sex, being pornographic, appropriating black culture, and numerous other forms of indecency. All of these accusations miss the larger point because they presuppose some sort of coherent ideology behind the person/brand called Miley Cyrus, which of course, doesn’t exist. Her only real talent is to cipher the ideas that more able people dictate to her from behind the production boards of music studios and the oaken desks of corporate offices. Make no mistake, there is a skill to this sort of cultural channelling, but it is nothing more than a single streak of talent mixed with an incredible willingness to please.
In the filthy cant of PR folk, we might say that the supremely pliant Cyrus transcends genres, but that’s not quite right; she has a genre, it’s just not one that we talk about much anymore. The minstrel shows of nineteenth century America were a grotesque parody of African American culture. In them, White entertainers painted themselves in blackface and put on live comedy shows that took everything about Black people and their culture and warped it to please the leering gaze of a White audience whose hatred towards Blacks was second only to their fear of them.
Despite the history of the word, Miley Cyrus clearly demonstrates that there is nothing inherently racial about minstrelsy. Incapable of conveying anything authentic, the modern-day minstrel can create a parody from anything they see. Cyrus does not do sexy, how could she? Instead she is the minstrel siren – too much makeup paired with over-accentuated movements into the camera lens. There is no sex in this; it’s pure desperation to do anything that approximates the shadows of real sexiness that she has seen in music videos and women’s fashion magazines. In the same way, she does not do Black music – whatever that is. She does Back minstrel – popping on the gold grills, dancing in silly ways outside of any context that would give the movements meaning, surrounding herself with big black mammas so that the world gasps at the taboo of young, feminine Whiteness surrounded by the psychosexual threat of the Dark Other. Perhaps most sadly, Cyrus’s most transparent minstrel act is her cheap parody of youth. She sings about drugs and staying up all night while dropping platitude after ridiculous platitude about how she can “do what she wanna” and “say what she wanna” when, in fact, those are exactly the things that are denied to her kind, the public faces of multinational corporations. These creatures were never young and they aren’t allowed to get old. Instead, they are stuck in the netherworld of public blandishments and manufactured controversy.
When I look at Miley Cyrus’s face in the opening close-up of her new video, ‘Wrecking Ball’, I don’t see black face, per sé. I see layer upon layer of assumed faces, each more preposterous than the last. From sex pot, to defiant warrior, to spurned lover, she can parody them all with her minstrel mug, but only in the most ham-fisted manner. If you were to peel each of her faces off, like the petticoats of Cinderella’s dress, my suspicion is that the most you could expect to find underneath is the briefest sketch of a person.
Whatever truth might lurk in Cyrus’ soul is impossible to discern from this side of the camera. Trying to draw any type of deeper meaning from the dreck she releases to the public is like trying to find the end of a mobius strip. It is, of course, exactly what Miley Inc wants you to do because that way you won’t notice how sterile and ridiculous their product actually is. Like all minstrels her cheap aping aspires to nothing higher than a cheap sign of validation. A throwaway laugh, a smirk of superiority, or best of all, a flash of self-righteous outrage – these are the most that Miley Inc can provoke in people and the reason that she is eventually doomed to obscurity.
And yet there is still the latent belief that Cyrus somehow represents a phantom culture whose mores stand in direct opposition to the fair, enlightened and morally righteous culture of upstanding Americans. We the people who are eating and medicating ourselves to death; we the people who repealed the Voting Rights Act and still haven’t given full rights to gays and lesbians; we the people who suck the fat out of our pictures with photoshop and out of our bodies with liposuction; we the people who have spent the last two decades bombing the hell out of various places in the mid east and central asia and gunning down our own school children without so much as batting an eyelid; we the people who do all of this with our hands over our hearts and our flags waving in the front yard. We believe we deserve something more than Miley Cyrus.
It seems to me that Miley Cyrus represents exactly who we are – a decadent people enamoured with our own degenerate culture.
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Tetsuhiko Endo: @jacknastyface