Most sources seem to agree that Miley Cyrus’s instantly-infamous performance at the VMAs was embarrassing. The question is, why? Jody Rosen called it a minstrel show, and Groupthink’s NinjaCate called it “easily one of the most racist displays [she’s] ever seen.”
From her insistence on twerking, to her use of all black women as literal props (they were teddy bears) to her smacking of her dancer’s ass and the simulation of rimming, it is very clear to me, that Miley thinks that black women’s bodies are to be enjoyed, devalued and put on display for entertainment purposes.
And from the other side of the political spectrum, the Parents Television Council was appalled by Cyrus’s “new signature dance move: “twerking,” which consists of bending over at the waist and thrusting the buttocks provocatively, often rubbing against another dancer’s groin.”
Thanks to Cyrus, the word “twerking” is bouncing around in the mainstream imagination (and recently bounced into the Oxford English Dictionary). Interestingly, the BBC-online report that announced the inclusion of the word in the OED included a picture of Cyrus– but not one in which she’s twerking. In the BBC picture, she’s dancing in front of Robin Thicke holding a foam #1 finger as an ersatz phallus.
Between the twerking and the foam phallus we have two cultural appropriations: on the one hand, what NinjaCate sums up as the “commodification of black female sexuality in Miley’s performance,” on the other the ironic gender performance of a drag-king show. Here’s an example from a Ponyboy performance:
And then there are the teddy bears. The giant bears (one of which disgorges Cyrus onto the stage at the beginning of her segment) are evidently intended to remind us of her unsubtle message: “look dad, I’m not a little girl anymore.” So let’s say the narrative of this performance is that of a young woman looking for her identity (always a potentially embarrassing proposition) amidst a deluge of media representations.
Yet what Cyrus seems to be doing is not so much performing identity as performing a performance of identity. You can’t shake the feeling that these are someone else’s fantasies of race, gender, sexuality. Cyrus is imitating imitations, simulating the culture industry’s gaudy mimicry of sex acts, its caricatured performances of gender roles, the exaggerated syntax of its racial grammar. How embarrassing.
Etymologically, the word “embarrass” comes from the French embarrasser, meaning (at that time) to ‘hamper or impede.’ That’s what Thicke’s horrid song “Blurred Lines,” one of the tunes in the medley, is ostensibly about:
I hate these blurred lines
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
But you’re a good girl
To the degree these lyrics make any sense, the point seems to be that the “good” girl’s “blurred lines” of embarrassed sexuality are impeding the singer’s desire.
If the “good girl” can get over her embarrassment, the singer offers “liberation”: “just let me liberate you / Hey, hey, hey / You don’t need no papers” (whatever that means).
Liberate you from what?
From the embarrassment of subjectivity, which serves only, it seems, as an impediment to getting what you “want.”
Fredric Jameson writes:
As for expression and feelings or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling. This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings—which it may be better and more accurate, following J.-F. Lyotard, to call “intensities”—are now free-floating and impersonal and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria. (Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 15-16)
Or as Cyrus puts it in “We Can’t Stop”: “We all so turned up here / Getting turned up, yeah, yeah.”
What Jameson calls the “waning of affect” in the (dwindling) postmodern subject might account for one of the most embarrassing aspects of the Cyrus’s performance at the VMA’s—her weirdly protruding tongue. Where Gene Simmons and Mick Jagger and Nina Hagen really seemed to mean it when they stuck out their tongues, Cyrus looks uncomfortable and a little surprised, like she just discovered someone else’s tongue in her mouth. It’s a simulation of salaciousness.
Meanwhile, Thicke looked a bit bored throughout the spectacle, apparently indifferent to—perhaps annoyed by—all the twerking and touching.
If Cyrus is simulating desire, Thicke is equally committed to feigning insouciance. The point is, neither seems terribly interested in the other, or even in what they’re doing. But, as Cyrus tells us, they can’t stop.
All this brings us to the real embarrassment behind the song “Blurred Lines” (besides the song itself, and the lyric “You wanna hug me / Hey, hey, hey / What rhymes with hug me?”):
If you can’t hear what I’m trying to say
If you can’t read from the same page
Maybe I’m going deaf,
Maybe I’m going blind
Maybe I’m out of my mind
Here, the “blurred line” seems to be the one between the singer and the listener, where the deafness and blindness of the former makes it impossible for the latter to hear or read. This blurring gets to the central paradox—or embarrassment—of postmodern art: if the subject is de-centered, empty, depthless, then who is making the art?
An artist like Andy Warhol celebrates the paradox by foregrounding the artwork’s flatness, derivativeness, and reproducibility, and thereby calling attention to systems of commodification and mass-production.
Whereas, in the alarmingly-titled “We Can’t Stop,” Cyrus (or the industrial system of music-production congealed in the name “Miley Cyrus”) insists, with highly symptomatic grammar: “We run things, things don’t run we/ We don’t take nothing from nobody.” If the lack of an object pronoun in the first line speaks to a feedback-loop of empty subjectivity, the double-negative in the second line shows the stakes of this emptying-out: a non-exchange of nothing takes place with nobody.
Even though Cyrus insists that “things don’t run we,” “things”—commodities—are omnipresent in her live and recorded videos, from the rather abject product-placements in “We Can’t Stop” to the oversized cardboard luxury goods dancing around on the stage during the VMA performance.
Wait, is that a Picasso back there?
What could be more postmodern than conflating “Seated Woman with Wristwatch” with a wristwatch?
But even here, the cultural reference is second hand. After all, it’s Jay-Z who says:
I just want a Picasso, in my casa, No, my castle
I’m a hassa, no I’m an asshole
I’m never satisfied, can’t knock my hustle
I wanna Rothko, no I wanna brothel
The difference between the phrases “I’m never satisfied” and “we can’t stop” is the difference between desire and drive, between the subject and the symptom.