In a way, I pity Miley Cyrus.
I don’t pity her because her hapless attempt at twerking and tongue-twirling at the recent Video Music Awards had more people asking, “What the hell?” than saying “Wow!”
I don’t pity her because many are condemning her act as racist – among other things, she fondled and slapped the humongous buttocks of a black woman on stage as if the woman was the Hottentot Venus reincarnated.
I pity the former Disney star because in her frenzy to boost her career by cherry-picking parts of black life – months ago she apparently told songwriters Timothy and Theron Thomas that she wanted “something urban, something that feels black” – the poor child apparently never took the time to learn the difference between imitating black culture versus merely being influenced by it.
Not knowing that difference is the thing that can sink her career after her outrageousness at the VMA’s, like so many other outrageous acts before hers, becomes a faint memory in the public’s mind.
To be sure, Cyrus isn’t the first white singer to be fascinated by black life; by our music, our dance, our talk, our attitude and flavor. On one level, such artists benefit from it because society is still being somewhat segregated. That makes it easy for white performers like her, once their act becomes stale, to freshen it up by trolling urban culture, in hopes of finding a piece of it to introduce to the larger culture as something new.
But everyone is influenced by something or someone – and if a white artist uses the influence of black culture in shaping his or her own work, that’s not a bad thing.
On the other hand, if an artist like Cyrus imitates the most sensational aspects of the culture, such as twerking and affinities for ample buttocks, then that’s a bad thing because among other things, it sends a message that black people are more suited to be caricatured than admired.
Somehow, a number of white artists managed not to do that. Cyrus, in fact, could stand to borrow a page on that from The Beatles.
On The Internet Beatles Album, there’s a page that lists all the artists who influenced the Fab Four – and most of them are black. Among them are blues legend Muddy Waters, The Shirelles, The Marvelettes, Chuck Berry and The Miracles. The Beatles admired those R&B artists enough to cover their songs on stage and on albums, and used their sound to shape their own.
What the Beatles didn’t do, however, was don Afro wigs in an attempt to look black, or imitate Berry’s duck walk on stage, or try to sing his “dirty,” song, “My Ding-A-Ling,” probably because they were about art and not titillation.
The Beatles also didn’t try to mimic the choreography of the Miracles, either – probably because they knew they’d look more ridiculous than, say, a butt-less and rhythm-less Cyrus trying to twerk.
They knew better. She did not.
Still, I pity the fact that this child apparently has so little talent, or so much desperation, that she has no clue as to how to dig deeper into a culture to find an aspect of it that doesn’t reduce her to a punch line, and, in turn, make that culture fodder for observations in pathology.
Since Cyrus’ VMA performance, for example, ABC published a story online in which a fitness expert analyzes twerking, and The New York Times published a piece in which a writer tries to explain how parents should explain twerking to their children.
They need to get a grip.
Obviously Cyrus was aiming for attention, and she got it. But what’s sad is that because she went for the sensationalism, the pressure will be on her to out-outrageous herself, not to turn her pathetic attempt at imitating an urban dance trend into something more original; into a performance that won’t have audiences giggling or grimacing.
Or, for that matter, throwing up in their mouths.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her @tonyaajw. Or like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.