Celebrating a Small “Victory” in the Wake of Cultural Mis-Appropriations at the VMAs

Just when we thought that Miley Cyrus and the overtly racist bubble she’s been bouncing around in for the past few months might soon float into oblivion (or popular culture purgatory) as summer winds down, we get her performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards last night.

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As Jody Rosen, from New York Magazine’s Vulture, explains:

“Cyrus has spent a lot of time recently toying with racial imagery. We’ve seen Cyrus twerking her way through the video for her big hit “We Can’t Stop,” professing her love for “hood music,” and claiming spiritual affinity with Lil’ Kim. Last night, as Cyrus stalked the stage, mugging and twerking, and paused to spank and simulate analingus upon the ass of a thickly set African-American backup dancer, her act tipped over into what we may as well just call racism: a minstrel show routine whose ghoulishness was heightened by Cyrus’s madcap charisma, and by the dark beauty of “We Can’t Stop” — by a good distance, the most powerful pop hit of 2013…”

The backlash towards the song lyrics, the music video, and her live performances of “We Can’t Stop”, has predominantly (and rightfully so) been about race–more specifically, about her re-appropriating black culture in ways that essentialize, objectify, and minstrel-ize. It is an exercise in white privilege at its ugliest. Rosen hits the nail on the head:

“Cyrus’s twerk act gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin. [She] is annexing working-class black “ratchet” culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention: her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur.”

Miley’s performance at the VMAs was very similar to what goes down in the official music video in terms of the people and objects utilized as props. The most jarring are the first few lines of the second verse and the images that accompany them: To my home girls here with the big butts / Shaking it like we at a strip club / Remember only God can judge us / Forget the haters cause somebody loves ya. In every performance that I’ve seen, Miley surrounds herself with 3 or 4 heavy-set women of color wearing spandex or booty-shorts that show off every curve (and create a stark juxtaposition with Miley’s increasingly small and more revealed figure). They twerk and shake around her and then the woman in the forefront turns around so she can be subserviently smacked on the ass by Miley, who makes contact and then walks away.

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….And then Robin Thicke came out to sing his highly-contested song, “Blurred Lines,” in a duet with Miley–a song whose first music video contained so much female nudity that it was initially taken down by YouTube (but ultimately re-posted with a parental advisory warning at the beginning of the video…very effective). An explanation of this song the controversy surrounding it deserves its own post (or dissertation), but in a nutshell, the lyrics reinforce a multitude of stereotypes surrounding male sexual domination and control over women, heteronormativity, and despite what Thicke has inanely said, I’m gonna go out on a limb and disagree with him that “if you listen to the lyrics, it says, ‘This man is not your maker,’ [laughs]…it’s actually a feminist movement in itself…” I just can’t. I don’t have the mental energy or capacity to dive into this one right now.

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But hold up, THE KICKER about Miley’s performance last night?? She didn’t sing the second verse of her song! So, not only did she still have four black women dancing around her for no reason (now that there weren’t even lyrics that they could be used to illustrate the song’s brilliant story line–I’m being flippant), BUT we must wonder about the who, what, and why of the missing verse…were there concerns of controversy? Was there just not enough time for the whole song? Hmmm…I wonder. This performance at the VMAs and the politics surrounding it are nuanced and I acknowledge the many directions that the conversation could go in from here as well as how one might critique my argument, call out what I’m not talking about, or question why this is even worth talking about. Here’s another great response from Jezebel’s Ninjacate.

But I’m writing about it today and think that we have to keep talking about the dominant narratives about gendered, racial, and sexual norms and practices that are perpetually reinforced in events like awards shows. If we don’t talk about them–especially with our young people–then we not only condone these behaviors, but more importantly, we prevent and deny youth (the ones who are most invested in and influenced by these pop culture icons) from becoming more critical and informed consumers [and producers] of media. I do have to acknowledge the privilege of what I’m saying here: because of my positionality as a white woman, it is much easier for me to say that we ‘will make a difference just by talking about these issues.’ (Read more on the recent global Twitter conversation via #solidarityisforwhitewomen and about how feminism is racialized here.) But as I’ve said in previous posts, it’s important for me to write on issues around white privilege and feminism as a means to continue my own social identity work and how I can keep contributing to “The Work” as an ally. I write in attempts to make sense of things (which doesn’t always happen), but I at least document what and how I’m thinking about something in that moment in time.

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Macklemore, a White hip-hop artist, also performed at the VMAs last night. But the presentation of his song, “Same Love,” fall on a very opposite end of the spectrum from Miley’s shenanigans…and here’s why:

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The first time I heard “Same Love” on the radio was in June while driving with my sister in Philadelphia’s Center City. The latest release from Macklemore’s album, The Heist, was playing on the city’s Top 40 station. We screamed, turned the volume up until we felt the bass in our stomachs; and when it came time for the refrain, we rolled the windows down and harmonized with Mary Lambert as goose bumps crawled up and down our arms in power and pride. 
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(A friend introduced me to the song in January, just before “Thrift Shop” made its way into the mainstream music scene. If you don’t know about Macklemore–his story, his other songs, namely, “Wing$”, “White Privilege,” and “Ten Thousand Hours”–do yourself a favor and check it all out.) Fast forward to the middle of July, and I heard “Same Love” on New York City’s Top 40 station in for the first time…it was spreading. I’m excited about how much attention and air-time the song is getting, but am also very aware of the lack of meaningful conversation happening around the song, namely, what it really means that it’s being played and well-received via a mainstream media source like the radio. If you’re unfamiliar with the song, the excerpt below (the second verse) is the most powerful to me:

If I was gay / I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments lately? / “Man, that’s gay” / Gets dropped on the daily
We’ve become so numb to what we’re sayin’
/ Our culture founded from oppression
Yeah, we don’t have acceptance for ’em
Call each other faggots / Behind the keys of a message board / A word rooted in hate,
Yet our genre still ignores it / Gay is synonymous with the lesser / It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion / Gender to skin color
Complexion of your pigment / The same fight that lead people to walk-outs and sit-ins / Human rights for everybody / There is no difference
Live on, and be yourself / When I was in church
They taught me something else / If you preach hate at the service / Those words aren’t anointed
And that Holy Water / That you soak in
Has been poisoned / When everyone else
Is more comfortable / Remaining voiceless
Rather than fighting for humans / That have had their rights stolen / I might not be the same
But that’s not important / No freedom ’til we’re equal / Damn right I support it

I’m not going to sit here and argue that Macklemore’s even close to the best hip-hop artist out there (**cough cough** Kendrick Lamar), I don’t think he is; nor am I going to argue that he doesn’t flirt with that sell-out line from time to time by virtue of the fact that his music has gone mainstream; but it’s hard to deny his talent and it’s impossible for me not to call attention to the significance of “Same Love.” I respect Macklemore for weaving socially conscious content into his wordplay and catchy beats, pushing his fans (and his critics) to listen to his lyrics, which often push against normative ideas and practices. “Same Love” is a powerful text to me because of its multimodality–the lyrics are important; the music, particularly Mary Lambert’s soulful refrain, moves you; and the official video is beautifully shot and puts [multiracial] faces to this story of love being equal and universal. Watch it now if you haven’t.

Politics about him winning best ‘hip-hop’ video aside, the important difference between Macklemore and Miley is that he has a respect for hip-hop [and black culture] and also understands there are certain aspects that he will never know/have access to by virtue of the fact that he is white. That’s crucial to recognize and understand.

I chose to bring “Same Love” into my media arts class (with 5th and 6th graders at a charter school in Harlem) in April. Although I was nervous, I ultimately made the decision to discuss it feeling confident in the safe space that I’d created in my classroom over the previous 7 months. While I typically first have students read song lyrics so that they can develop their own images and understandings of the text, I decided to show the music video first. As mentioned above, the video has a beautiful message and I thought it might help to have this as our anchor text. After the video, we talked about the story being told and it was powerful to hear my students’ responses. It was great because they were already familiar with Macklemore because we spent 3 weeks with his song and music video for “Wing$” while talking about sneaker culture. We then read began to read through the lyrics–everyone got a copy and a pen to underline words and phrases that stuck out to them. This part of the lesson proved more challenging than I anticipated–some of the students had never heard the word “homophobia” and while I of course know what that means, I realized in that moment that I’d failed to consider how I might define it for a 10-year-old. I had one student who was very adamantly and verbally opposed to the song, the lesson, and me that day, due to her family’s religious beliefs. I hadn’t prepared myself for something like that to happen either.

While there are other “highlights” [read: incredibly challenging learning and teachable moments] from the day that left me feeling defeated and disappointed in the moment (holding back tears after the student who opposed the song threw the lyrics sheet on my desk and stormed out), two boys came up to me at the end of the class to let me know how much they liked the song, and how cool they thought it was that we got to watch the video and talk about it in class. They expressed they they felt that love should be equal and that people should be able to marry who they love. It was those comments and in the conversations that I was able to have with colleagues after that day that reminded me to focus on the positives that day, namely that perhaps having this conversation–breaking down lyrics, and thinking critically about media representations–something that rarely happens in schools, might change the way that a handful of young people continue to think about social justice and equality as they grow up. I choose to dwell in these thoughts, while remembering the lessons I learned when bringing challenging content into learning spaces.

I can only continue to hope that songs like “Same Love” and this one eventually find their ways not only onto the airwaves of mainstream radio stations but into classrooms and dining rooms across the country. I’m workin’ on it.