Miley Cyrus and the Cultural Tangle

The question of “the authentic progenitor” remains unsettled for scholars. The upset over Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs as well as appropriations of certain Black cultural identities is not new but an unfortunate part of a long history of the “the cultural tangle” – the struggle between multiple identities and points of view. The fact that Cyrus’s song, “We Can’t Stop,” was originally meant for Rihanna does not simply put a white face on a black song, but reveals the process of music production as the larger culprit.

For example, Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” was written by Diane Warren, a prolific songwriter who wrote the song originally for Celine Dion. Beyond being perhaps the most un-rock-and-roll song origin imaginable, this suggests that the face and even the voice are inconsequential in the music industry. The act of placing any musician, of any caliber, in the position for success, reveals that the end result — a top rank, high grossing single — matters more that individual effort and creativity.

Similarly, Cyrus’s song involved several producers and songwriters, and their willingness to provide a song for anyone to sing should also be questioned. And as I will comment below, the visibility of twerking — with dancers and choreographers essentially advertising how-to’s — adds another level of  participants to the act, as those who are allowed to know.

Briefly, I would like to consider the use and abuse of the “Harlem Shake.” We are aware of the most recent phenomena, which I think is most aptly defined as kind of “meme-bombing” — that is, the appearance of normalcy that is quickly and abruptly replaced with complete nonsense. To many sociologists, African American studies scholars, and culture critics, it is a racial appropriation of the dance of the same name from the 1980s. Of course the irony is, you need to search YouTube for “the real Harlem Shake” to find the actual dance.

I am wary of labeling the meme appropriative simply because the field of knowledge is so vague on the Internet: most scholars who focus on the Black experience are aware of the original Harlem Shake but cannot trace a line from there to the meme. The people who do the new Harlem Shake, although predominantly white, may actually know that what they’re doing is not the original Harlem Shake, or that they are simply doing something based off the single audible line from the song. Admittedly this becomes even more tangled when considering the identity of the artist behind “Harlem Shake,” Baauer — a West Philadelphia born artist who has spent his life living abroad until settling in Brooklyn. How do we take stock of a transnational background when creating music that has apparently “appropriated” a style of dance from the Black community in America? Of course internationalizing the phenomena makes it even more complicated, as this classroom in India shows.

I bring this up not only as it relates to the origins of twerking, which we poked fun at last week, but because the origins of the Harlem Shake, as I have said, are quite tangled. Consider the Charlie Chaplin masterpiece, Modern Times, a comedic criticism of modernization. Near the end of the film, Chaplin’s character dances and sings to a packed bar. Instead of performing something singular, he goes full universal — something cosmopolitan and polyglot. Mixing all the cultures of the Lower East Side, the Bowery, and SoHo, Chaplin unifies all things foreign. If one watches carefully, you’ll see a shuffle of the shoes that resembles modern shuffles (at 3:06). I do not wish to revoke or move ownership out of any culture of identity or to argue “the death of the author.” I simply want to consider the genealogical project of origin and ownership – who owns these performances and what is the relationship between cultural identity fixed in time and a performance with roots in the past?


In the case of Miley Cyrus’s use and abuse of twerking, I do not doubt the claims of racism, sexism, and cultural theft. But I believe the blame should be spread around — not only to her management or to MTV and the music industry as a whole. The truth that confronts us about Cyrus’s appropriation is that capitalism, as it presents itself in the music industry, constantly gets away with small and large theft. The visibility of twerking, jazz, and the blues opened the opportunity of theft, while limiting any sense of reciprocity. The theft and reappearance of musical gestures is a constant occurrence.

Frequently, aspects of a culture get filtered and mediated by the means of production — what became blues, for example depended on who had money, who was discovered, and who could distribute music and market it as something desirable. Now, consumers can upload to YouTube, Instagram, Flickr, and other online locations where we lose the rights of our material as it gets internationally distributed. The ability to search YouTube for Tuvan throat singing throws authenticity for a twist. If someone has attained a form of knowledge along traditional means but wishes to put it “out there” for the world, how do we then understand that the gates and doors that would keep knowledge sacrosanct, now make it secular? This may seem far afield but this is without a doubt how the knowledge of twerking was not only able to reach Cyrus but also to inform our very understanding of twerking.

We, the consumer — the viewer — were able to not only watch her performance but go on the Internet and compare it to the real thing.

I’m unsure if there is a way out of this process—one that is at once critical yet creative. It continues to tell us what is authentic and inauthentic by relying on deeming culture creators as outside of the field of knowledge and certainly not one with an active presence on the Internet.

The claim follows that these communities of creation, be they around twerking, folk traditions, or even the Tuvan throat singing, are inaccessible and inauthentic. Yet, if I wanted to learn isicathamiya, I could attempt to do so over the Internet — most famously brought to prominence by Paul Simon, another person criticized for appropriation — or I could go to the site of its creation, South Africa, and come back with a more authentic experience.

The question to consider going forward is how space, in its most shared literal tradition has a hold on how we contemplate and understand authenticity. Authenticity has a location that makes creative art real in a way the Internet does not. However, we know this not to be true when something is within our culture, such as taking guitar lessons or learning modern dance over Skype. Perhaps, again, the answer is that we remain in our space, the Internet, like what now constitutes our culture includes the Internet. No longer can we talk about the Internet as a medium. Instead, we must understand it as, indeed, part of our landscape and part of our American space.

photo credit: Miley Cyrus on Instagram