Miley Cyrus finally announces the end of her minstrel show, proving once and for all the violence of appropriation
By Sherronda Brown
“When I want something, it’s fucking easy for me.” – Miley Cyrus, the self-ordained savior of our nation
The words “Dumpster Fyre” hover above the head of Miley Cyrus on the cover of Billboard Magazine. Even though they refer to the debacle at Fyre Festival in which rich white kids were finessed out of thousands of dollars and found themselves in a trash pile with bologna sandwiches rather than at the lavish resort they were promised, these words are perhaps more fitting for the interview with the 24-year-old.
Billboard explains that the Disney Alum “has left behind the pasties, hip-hop bangerz and, yes, weed for her new incarnation: countrified singer-songwriter and hopeful unifier of a divided nation.” Standing among waist-high greenery with her hands in her free-flowing hair, Miley dons a simple pink farm girl dress with frilly lace about the sleeves and bodice. The expression on her face is plain and unassuming. Save for the sporadic miniature tattoos peppering the length of her arms, she is a vision of white Southern Belle innocence and propriety.
This is just the latest edition in “one of the most inimitable, unpredictable careers in recent pop history.” Circling back to something more akin to her original country image for her next album, Miley is “eager to unpack her latest thinking on everything from her alienation from hip-hop to engaging with Donald Trump’s supporters,” and places herself firmly into the role of a white savior, promising “to reach the other side of the aisle” and inspire Trump voters to abandon their bigotry.
The ease with which she is able to achieve this almost seamless transformation is evidence for why cultural appropriation is a form of violence. Not only does she have the ability to effortlessly slip in and out of Black aesthetics while maintaining her white privilege, but she also uses this moment of resurgence to paint hip-hop as the Big Bad Wolf that scared her away, being too debaucherous for her delicate sensibilities:
“But I also love that new Kendrick [Lamar] song [‘Humble’]: ‘Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.’ I love that because it’s not ‘Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock.’ I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ — I am so not that.”
Defining oneself against Blackness is the modus operandi of whiteness, especially white womanhood. Miley illuminates this by defining her new image not by what it is, but by what it is not, simultaneously asserting herself as both a victim and a savior.
Miley became a minstrel act in 2013, using moments of performance and on her social media platforms to imagine herself inhabiting a Black body. This appropriation was done as a pointed rebellion against accepted ideologies about suitable behavior for a young white female artist and Disney protégé.
Describing her MTV Awards performance as a “strategic hot mess” in her MTV documentary, she equated her appropriation of Blackness with deviance and radical behavior, and used that to construct an identity which was provocative to her audience while thriving on shock value. Throughout all of this, she always had the ability to easily wipe away the Blackface without ever having to experience the oppression and discrimination Black people are subjected to for performing our Blackness, and without using her status, privilege, or voice to advocate for Black people.
In contrast, during her Billboard interview #MinstrelMiley demonizes rap and hip-hop, while ignoring similar patterns in country music. She is not alone in this sentiment. Many a writer and commentator have produced works on the misogyny, sexism, and homophobia among the lyrics of rap and hip-hop artists. This focus on and separation of these ostensibly Black styles of music as inherently more misogynistic and dealing in excess than other genres of music is rooted in anti-Blackness. What allegedly “pushed [her] out of the hip-hop scene”– the cars, commodities, excess, objectifying and sexualization of women – are the very same leitmotifs that can be found in her precious country music.
Remember that time Rihanna saved country music with “FourFiveSeconds”? That same year, Maddie and Tae straight dragged Blake Shelton n’ dem with “Girl in a Country Song.” They fired shots at the repetitive themes and lyrics about pick-up trucks, cold beer, and the infantilizing and objectification of barefoot ”girls” in painted on cut-off jeans and bikini tops. “We used to get a little respect/Now we’re lucky if we even get/To climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut and ride along/And be the girl in a country song,” they sing, with accuracy and conviction.
YouTuber Sir Mashalot released a mash-up of six popular country music songs that sound altogether the same in terms of chord progression, tempo, and lyrical refrain. One country music fan did a content analysis of songs from the past fifty years and found that there are four major themes within the genre, and with each passing year, songs about “partying” have become more and more popular – the types of songs which include the lyrics that Maddie and Tae are subverting in their “Girl in a Country Song” number.
Blackness is the benchmark that others use to calculate their own value and humanity, and this truth is evident in Miley’s effortless and hypocritical demonization of hip-hop. When Miley inserted herself into hip-hop culture and wore her ideas of Blackness as an act of deviance/defiance and to gain glorification, engagement, and applause from an audience during the last few years, she did so at the expense of Black people whom she later and are always ridiculed, shamed, and demonized for that same performativity. Minstrelsy is nothing more than a practice in devouring the Other, and white supremacy is insatiable in its desire to consume and colonize.
Let’s be clear: it is a good thing that Miley has abandoned her appropriative persona. Yet, with her ability to do so and then proceed to throw Black people, culture, and music under the bus with such ease while positioning herself as a white savior and painting the country genre as inherently more conducive to revolutionary work, she reveals how whiteness – especially white womanhood – requires the violence of anti-Blackness in order to maintain its image of virtue and importance.
Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies. You can support her work at https://www.paypal.me/SherrondaJBrown