In the summer of 2013, Miley Cyrus seemingly broke the internet when a video of her “twerking” at a Juicy J concert appeared online. In the video, Cyrus is dancing on stage with Juicy J and two other African American women. Clearly feeling the beat, she begins to dance with the other women, grabbing their behinds and shaking hers to the crowd. Eventually, Cyrus makes her way to the edge of the stage where she drops in a series of power squats while writhing her lower back and jutting along to the beat. Thus, the twerk was born.
Except it wasn’t. “Twerking” can be defined as the type of dance wherein the butt is isolated from the body in a series of gyrations and movements to the beat. Kind of like what Black women have been doing in Caribbean cultures and BET music videos for quite some time – but we’ll get back to that.
Riding on the high of her renewed public image and finally free from her suddenly wretched association with Hannah Montana, Cyrus used her new (see: stolen) image as a way to reinvent herself as an artist. While many can agree that the growth and change in an artist are paramount to their success, what many failed to recognize is just why this type of behaviour was so celebrated in her specifically.
Following the release of the twerking video, Cyrus’ fame elevated, with “twerking” appearing as the number one suggested hit beside her name when typed into Google. Pop culture lost its damn mind. But again, why?
See, when Miley Cyrus entered the scene as Hannah Montana, she was marketed as every other white teen pop star. Her entire image centred around her association with blending country and pop, and evening out towards the latter as she got older. Her TV show, of the same title, evolved in similar ways, from being very “tween” friendly, to gradually getting slightly riskier in content (A kiss on the lips! With a boy!). Miley grew up. That is understandable, and though it’s no doubt that many parents did not appreciate this, with videos such as “Wrecking Ball” showcasing a nude Cyrus swinging from construction machines, her fans went wild.
It was obvious that Cyrus was desperate to flee from the suffocating image that Hannah Montana represented, as she was obviously no longer a fourteen-year-old girl. Again, understandable.
What is not understandable, however, is how Cyrus began to use Black culture and practices as a way to further her “edgy”, “sexy”, “bad girl” persona. Her demeanor, slang and attitude completely changed. She got grills, started celebrating and shaking her behind, and had actual Black people in her music videos.
The issue here is that everything Miley was using to rebrand herself – twerking, grills and the lot, were swiped directly from the minds and influence of Black people. Black women have been consistently shamed and called “ghetto” for the exact type of behaviour that Miley Cyrus was booking interviews for. Cyrus did not invent twerking, but the juxtaposition between the sweet-cream-and-blonde-hair image of Hannah Montana, and the new Miley popularized it amongst non-Black individuals for what may have been the first time ever.
See, when a dance, fashion, practice or look that has been historically and unwaveringly mocked, belittled and scorned against suddenly becomes popular when a person not of that culture begins to use it, that is called cultural appropriation. Miley Cyrus hand-picked the aspects of Black culture she liked the most (see: hair, style, lingo, attitude, dancing) while completely ignoring the aspects of Black culture that was not of use to her and her image (see: suffering, oppression, systematic racism, fetishization).
Miley Cyrus got so comfortable, in fact, that she started purposely acting and dressing in ways that heavily dripped Black influence, and even picked a fight with Nicki Minaj during the 2015 Video Music Awards. Minaj had previously shown displeasure in the fact that her music video, filled with Black women shaking their behinds, had been snubbed for an award, and Cyrus had quite a bit to say in response.
Miley Cyrus, with dreadlocks adorning her pale head, had deemed it appropriate to call out Nicki Minaj, a Black woman, for speaking on issues that affect other Black women, while dressing, acting, living and breathing in the depths of Black influence. Very interesting.
Fast-forward to 2017. As fast as Cyrus’ renewed popularity came, it receded almost as quickly. Following her confrontation with Nicki Minaj on stage, Miley just… disappeared. She dropped out the public light, even keeping the music she released low-key and relatively quiet. Following the release of her latest music video “Malibu,” Cyrus discussed her renewed return to wholesomeness, interestingly enough, while responding positively to Kendrick Lamar – a Black artist – and his new work. Cyrus speaks on her pleasure on Kendrick’s album, as she apparently had to distance herself from the vulgarities of hip-hop. She explains how the lyrics and style of hip-hop have pushed her “out of that scene.”
After milking dry her own bastardized version of Black culture, Miley Cyrus has decided to return to her roots. Her “Malibu” music video is as wholesome as skim milk. She has found her way back to the “old Miley” while kicking Black culture to the side like a pair of pants you change your mind about wanting.
Although Miley is not the first, and certainly not the last celebrity to use Black culture as a marketing tool, at the very least people are beginning to recognize appropriation for what it is. And while there will certainly be more Mileys on the social scene, at least we have Miley Cyrus’ face forever immortalized through YouTube, when Nicki Minaj asked the question on everyone’s minds: “Miley, what’s good”?
By Chloe Kirlew
Chloe Kirlew is a writer based out of Toronto. She specializes in creative as well as comedic writing. She can be found on her personal blog chloebeblogging.com.
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.