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 Marx of our generation? Wait, how old did you say 2Chainz was?! Keep in mind, this is an event where Grimes and Kathleen Hannah talk feminism during the pre-show while Miley fingerblasts herself with a party hand later in the same 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 the award for most irrelevant network for like a decade straight. If you’re searching for meaning or substance from this donkey show, the joke’s on you. According to John McWhorter, the argument that Miley is “stealing” or “exploiting” something inalienably black for the sake of entertainment value is a misguided formulation based 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 and his music is wack. But would it be any less of a shame if the person winning over Drake was, say, Eminem? Recall, for a moment, the moral of the story: white people kill black people to 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, return to their lives as if nothing ever happened. Thankfully, 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 who 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 outside of race but entirely because 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 in the contrast of high and low or, rather, 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 pussy popping and being ratchet, which are things as class conscious as they are racially aware. 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 tokens of a landlocked redneck lifestyle that now belong 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.
Of course, the thing you’re actually lashing out against is the infringement of the mainstream on what you assumed was a rarified outlook, held by you and your inner circle of generic babes in fashion sneakers and guys who communicate through emojis. No wonder so many of the people bitching about the theft of black identity are white and employed by stylish downtown boutique publications known for popularizing that whole post-Y2K athletic aesthetic. Cyrus has been sold out since Hanna Montana but Korine still stands for uncolonized good taste. His films exhibit an exquisite sensitivity to the experience of poverty, though lucky for us, from the standpoint of aesthetics not morality. Her televised romp through the projects, meanwhile, reminds us just how commonplace our generational affinities really are. White people: do you love R.Kelly in an ironic way? Have you ever owned an article of FUBU clothing? Can you name all nine Wu-Tang members? OMG, did you see Birdman in Kenzo at the VMAs?! Do you say “nigga” out of the earshot of black folk? “What? It’s a term of endearment not a racial epithet!” Yeah, keep preaching to the choir.
McWhorter is one of a handful of commentators who doesn’t try to retrofit his reading of the situation to 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 to recognize the “increasingly cross-racial nature of the underclass.” Adam Carolla, whom I’ve quoted on this before, puts it in plainer terms: “That’s the ultimate race, poor people.” Still, it’s not transgression that’s the core 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. And, a basic 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 unleashed back into society without a social safety net to see them through the crisis of assimilation. The dubious virtue of capitalism is that it’s colorblind in the end. Sublimating class conflict as a race issue is the American Dream. After all, racial discrimination is an arbitrary and artificial form of superiority. But there’s nothing fake 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 Newark. Just look at Will Smith. He’s a Scientologist for chrissakes.
The only way to offset this unflattering reality without actually having to overhaul 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 accomplished 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 cultural production approaches a mean, everyone is equally worse off, but, hey, at least they’re equal.
In my previous post, I mentioned how Beyonce, Shakira and Britney Spears all look like the same person: a working class Venus with a microwaveable complexion, mermaid hair and petit bourgeois aspirations. McWhorter, meanwhile, points to the casting of Brandy in a recent TV adaptation of Cinderella and the distinctively “negroid” quality of Spears’ choreography to describe to what Leon Wynter has called the “browning” of American culture. Notably, the trend goes both ways; white people “act black,” but black people also take on roles traditionally reserved for whites in the collective consciousness. 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: this new moral neutrality has infiltrated all aspects of modern life and made an enemy of critique, so that unsubscribing from the narratives of forced multiculturalism and permissive pansexuality is automatically seen as a reactionary position. Thus, equality remains purely symbolic, continuing to operate on the surface level of images and their signifiers. The mechanics haven’t changed because, need I say, it’s in the interest of the ruling class that they don’t. On the bright side, everyone gets to keep their moral alibi. Enter the vanguard of poor taste.
In part, this is the failure of American government to cultivate the intellectual. In part, it’s the failure of the intelligentsia to make a distinction between healthy and unproductive forms of elitism, signaled by their retreat into the progressively more low-stakes game of squabbling over things like prolegomenons and Marxism. It’s fair to be disappointed by the lack of original thought coming from your audience but frankly condescending to demand that “respectable” news outlets limit their coverage to “worthy” topics like politics and religion. Nothing is sacred in a time when theoretical journals publish entire treatises on sexting.
In the end, Miley’s performance wasn’t racist, just “misbegotten,” to use Gloria Loring’s term (yes, that’s Thicke’s mom). But really, it had nothing to do with her, unless it’s specifically the human element that interests you. Think about who calls the shots for these types of things: not dreary old Reaganites but young, ethnic, queer industry professionals schooled in the nuance of imagery. To analyze Miley’s actions is to believe that there’s a conceptual logic flickering somewhere in that shrunken head of hers. But to characterize those actions as racially motivated is to dismiss the creative agency of other people, many of whom are black and/or gay. You tell me what’s more incriminating: that people freaked when Miley twerked or that Kendrick and 2Chainz got lost in the fray?