Why They Won’t Stop: Miley Cyrus and the Formula for Profit

Miley Cyrus 2013 VMAs

During the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus simulated analingus before slapping her black backup dancer’s ass—three times. That moment captures the two biggest issues I have with Miley’s new image: the exploitation of black culture and the exploitation of queer culture.

As NinjaCate articulates in her excellent Jezebel article:

“[…] historically, black women have had very little agency over their bodies. From being raped by white slave masters to the ever-enduring stereotype that black women can’t be raped, black women have been told over and over and over again, that their bodies are not their own. By bringing thesehomegirls with the big buttsout onto the stage with her and engaging in a one-sided interaction with her ass, (not even her actual person!) Miley has contributed to that rhetoric.”

She goes on to cite evidence that Miley is “more than aware of what she’s doing, and has consciously made the choice to dabble in traditionally black aesthetics and sound in order to break away from her good girl image and further her career.”

Step 1: Link Yourself with Black People
As Miley herself pointed out, she is merely one of many. Twelve years prior, Britney Spears, the “Queen of Pop,” broke away from her own image as a virginal Catholic schoolgirl in order to express “unbridled” sexuality during her third album Britney (2001). Much like Miley, her way of expressing that sexuality meant surrounding herself with black bodies—though more male than female. Unsurprisingly, her career skyrocketed with the singles “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Boys.” More so than any previous video, both “Slave 4 U” and “Boys” featured people of color whose roles were to eye her; grope her; “protect” her from an obsessive fan (played by DJ Qualls in the “Boys” video); and prostrate themselves before her. As NinjaCate so clearly articulates, the quickest way for a female popstar to further her career is to become explicitly sexual. And the way to do that is to deliberately link that sexuality with black people, and—as it appears for Miley and many of her predecessors—with bisexuality.

Step 2: Appear Bisexual
By coupling such “crazy” images as sideways lips and the slicing of fake fingers to girl-on-girl sexuality in her “We Can’t Stop” video, Miley also exploits the experience of LGBTQ people by associating queerness with deviance in order to titillate a primarily straight audience. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes of female popstars from the ’90s and early aughts, “implying you were bisexual was a career-enhancer, something that painted you as adventurous and rebellious”—a truth that has not changed. In the same way that kissing Madonna onstage only increased Britney Spears’s and Christina Aguilera’s popularity in the midst of very public relationships with men, Miley’s popularity (and music sales) have only increased with her staged sexual interactions with women amid her much-publicized relationship with Hunger Games star Liam Hemsworth. Similarly, Fergie, who does identify as bisexual, told The Advocate in 2009 that it was her idea to grind on the female extras in the Black Eyed Peas video for “I Have a Feeling” because it “was so naughty” and “a big tease.” By portraying expressions of non-heterosexuality as taboo and shocking, Miley has become the latest in a long line of female celebrities who profit from the stereotype that bisexuality is code for hypersexuality—or that a person is never genuinely attracted to both sexes, but in actuality gay (as often assumed of bisexual men), or straight (as often assumed of bisexual women). Again, Miley has the privilege of putting on and taking off this image of queerness without suffering from the same oppression such stereotyping creates.

Step 3: Kill Your Idols
So to better understand the outrage that feminists and people of color are expressing over Miley’s new image is to look at history. In the same way Miley’s “We Can’t Stop” single was a Rihanna reject, both “Boys” and “I’m a Slave 4 U” were castoffs of Janet Jackson’s All For You (2001). When “I’m a Slave 4 U” came out, many critics noted its resemblance to Prince, another black pioneer who, like Marvin Gaye, has a legacy that’s been dismissed in favor of a modern white performer’s success. Like Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You” or Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Pharrell Williams of The Neptunes fame is behind the production of these co-opting white artists. What’s shameful is that these same performers profit from the very culture they attack. In 2004, after forcefully exposing Janet Jackson’s breast on live television during their infamous Super Bowl halftime performance, Justin left her—the sister of one of his professed idols—to endure the criticism alone. Ironically, this was during the promotion of her All For You album that could have contained “Boys” and “I’m a Slave 4 You.” Three years later, Timberlake also took it upon himself to swipe at Prince after the icon stated that “sexy never left.” Similarly, Thicke has filed a countersuit against Marvin Gaye’s family over his “Got To Give It Up”-sounding hit, “Blurred Lines.”

Step 4: Get Pharrell On the Track/In the Video
As history repeats itself, there are the usual suspects. Those Britney singles came courtesy of Parrell—the same Pharrell featured in “Blurred Lines.” But there’s a reason why the exploitation continues. Just one year ago, an MTV poll ranked Britney’s 2001 “Slave 4 U” VMA performance as the award show’s most memorable moment: the same performance that featured a full-on “African” theme  with hanging cages (’cause that’s not problematic); black backup dancers in “tribal” headdress and “war paint”; a live tiger; and of course, the infamous albino python. In this case, Britney rode one of her backup dancers like an animal. Just as we saw with Miley, Britney’s sexuality was on display, in a way that fed the colonial stereotype that black people are “savages”: unable to control their bodies, their sexuality, their very selves.

Within the last 15 years alone, the same marketing formula has been at work. Disney-affiliated girl (or guy) captures the tween market with a wholesome popstar image. Then that carefully constructed image is replaced with an ultra-sexual adult one—one that is inevitably associated with troubling notions of race. Look first at the women. Despite what The Guadian’s Boya Dee claims in his July 2013 article, Rihanna did not “pioneer” this good-girl-gone-bad move. Remember when the word of the day was flossy, from Fergie’s song “Glamourous”? Like Miley’s “twerking,” there is no evidence that Stacy Ann Ferguson, the daughter of devout Roman Catholic school teachers and a former cast member of the Disney-syndicated Kids Incorporated, knows anything about “the ’hood” as suggested in her video for “Glamorous.” Because when it comes right down to it, “ghetto” is a place for white celebrities to gain edginess, their own version of “street” cred—not an impoverished place afflicted by the effects of institutionalized racism.

Step 5: Hire Larry Rudolph (This is Step 1, Actually)
So if you’re a white popstar (versus someone like Rihanna) it appears that the way to propel your career and income is to surround yourself with black people and pretend to be “street.” And in the case of white female celebrities, grind on women. As Vulture’s Jody Rosen identified in his VMA recap: “For white performers, minstrelsy has always been a means to an end: a shortcut to self-actualization.” As Miley herself said on the red carpet before her VMA performance, what she had in store for the audience would be “even crazier than the kiss” between Madonna and Britney. “Crazier” indeed. Though Rosenberg states that Miley and other starlets are “[e]ager to shake off the squeaky-clean images […] and often the management and creative collaborators […] who they believe are standing in between them and creative freedom,” I would argue that even this transition into ultra-sexuality is engineered. Following a string of low-profile movies and underwhelming sales of her third album, Miley dumped her long-standing manager Jason Morey for Britney Spears’s manager Larry Rudolph this past spring. Given that Rudolph has been through this before with Britney’s own “shocking” VMA performances, it would appear she is merely the next in line to follow what has proved to be a tried-and-true formula for profit.

Step 6: Get Ludacris On the Track/In the Video
Which brings us to the men. Justin Timberlake was just the forerunner to another former boy band member who co-opted black culture to catapult an already successful solo career. Frequent Disney collaborator Jesse McCartney teamed up with Ludacris for a remix of his song “How Do You Sleep?” from his R&B-influenced third album Departure (2008), where he reinvented himself as a “bad boy” brunette—in direct contrast to the blond heartthrob of Beautiful Soul (2004). Which cues the second coming of Justin—another blond heartthrob—a mere two years later. History has shown that the power of marketing means that the same people can always be exploited, and that it’s not just the “good girls” who go bad in order to make more money. In 2010, Justin Bieber released “Baby”—a track that also featured Ludacris. (Are we seeing a theme here?)

Stop (Buying) It
The cycle continues, with white celebrities using black people and homophobic notions of sexuality to advance their own careers. Since her record-breaking VMA performance, Miley has asked the public to consider how many times the same controversies have played out in pop music. “Madonna’s done it, Britney’s done it,” she told MTV.  Which again, alludes to the fact that she knows exactly what she’s doing. Miley claims that “[critics] are thinking about it more than I thought about it when I did it,” but it is exactly her denial that she is exploiting other cultures that makes such exploitation so insidious. When she sings, “We run things/things don’t run we,” she makes it clear that the “we” she is discussing does not include the marginalized groups she mines from. When she sings, “We don’t take nothing from nobody,” it is an outright lie. The very “we” her actions have defined have, in fact, taken—and continue to take—from the same minority groups she claims to support.

Following the death of Trayvon Martin and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it is clear that the media continues to shape attitudes. While I agree that those who perform at the VMAs want “to make history,” Miley hasn’t so much made history as repeated it.  For as “shocking” as Miley’s new image is, what is truly shocking is how often we forget that this type of casual racism is exactly what keeps equality from being achieved.

2 thoughts on “Why They Won’t Stop: Miley Cyrus and the Formula for Profit

  1. Thanks for the education. I feel like I’ve been living under a rock after reading this! I read all the hyperlinks too. I can’t sound any smarter about this, I’m actually a bit overwhelmed by it all. How do you keep up with all this (you cite so much pop history!)? Nice writing.

    1. Thanks, Huong! I am very much obsessed with pop/celebrity culture, namely because of what it says about the society we live in: what we value, what we respond to, what messages we accept (or don’t)…what we take for granted as “true.” Media and marketing are so inextricably linked that I can’t help but think about how various groups are marketed and marketed to, and what value system is being enforced and reinforced in the process. I am fortunate too, in that I have a partner who is much more knowledgeable about pop history than I am, who helps me see things in terms of patterns, cycles. As he says, pop history is really just history, and sadly, history tends to repeat itself. But I do believe there can be change. The media definitely reflects and shapes attitudes that directly affect policy and people’s quality of life, and one excellent example is in the Trayvon Martin case. Jen Wang from Disgrasian did a fabulous blog post last year about how the racist attitudes toward Rue’s death in THE HUNGER GAMES directly reflects the racism revealed in the death of Trayvon Martin. It is a must-read: http://bit.ly/GUnFoh.

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