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With all the noise of so many problems confronting contemporary American society both domestically and throughout the world – the government shutdown and the hopefully dimming specter of war in Syria are just two prominent examples – it almost seems the height of absurdity that journalists and cultural critics have devoted so much time of late to analyzing and reanalyzing the phenomenon best described by the name Miley Cyrus. Her reemergence upon the stage of American society as a pivotal role in the tragicomedy that is Fall 2013 has left many scratching their heads and holding their ears as they attempt to answer the question “What is this all supposed to mean?”
Like any good act, the stage arrangement and props, the costumes and the extras, are all expected to signify something to an audience which has come to expect and anticipate that musical performances have a larger “message” or meaning that can be decoded though paying keen attention to everything that is happening within the scene at hand.
When this rubric is applied to Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance, the combined elements of twerking, her lyrics referring to “…home girls here with the big butt / Shaking it like we at a strip club,” and the visual imagery of said voluptuous women of color serving as her backup dancers, many accuse her of the perennial problem of American popular music: The appropriation of “black” culture and musical forms, presented and dressed up in the 21st century equivalents of minstrelsy tropes, and repackaged in a easily-produced presentation that fits the consumer demand of a frivolous pop music market.
For those who deeply understand the history of racism and its many iterations and appearances within the story of America, Cyrus’ antics on and off stage seem only to perpetuate old notions of blackness that the Harlem Renaissance’s artistic emphasis on the “New Negro” mentality tried to retire. But like the curtain call that seems never to end, the encore of all encores continues to feature Mammy, Uncle Tom, Zip Coon and Jezebel running back on the stage of American society, because the audience seems hell-bent on clapping for these characters and “huzzahing” them as they take their bows.
Paying too much attention to Miley Cyrus runs the risk of trivializing all discussions of race and racism to the level of MTV. And with pressing political issues like the Drug War and mass incarceration’s dual assault upon minority communities at disproportionate levels to the “mainstream” of American society, devoting any attention at all to a 20-year-old girl who sings auto-tuned ditties seems like an enormous waste of time and a giant diversion on stage left that keeps us from truly beholding the grotesque scene occurring on stage right. But instead of throwing my hands up in the air in frustration, I think the Miley Cyrus phenomenon needs to be reframed.
In Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture, French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss explained how culture functions as a large system of self-referential meaning, and that the “themes” of meaning within culture play out like the elements of a myth. All elements of a culture – its music, language, and mythology – all reveal different perspectives on the same deep questions that circulate in its discourse. But I return again to the first question: should Straussian structuralism and decoding really be applied so thoughtfully to Miley Cyrus? Is she a worthy site of examination for the mythology of race relations in post-Obama, “colorblind” America?
Instead of answering “no” and then jettisoning the entire exercise of cultural criticism as pointless and trite, I will still answer “no” regarding Miley but shout “yes” to Strauss and his insights regarding the interplay of mythology, language, and music. However, this effort can also be used to add true substance to the deeper conversations of our day with real political implications if we substitute the mythos of Miley for another VMA performance that society ignored in the chatter: Kanye West’s performance of “Blood on the Leaves.” I’m not sure why Miley’s performance received more attention versus Kanye’s: “Yo America, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish but Kanye had one of the most political performances of the night…one of the best performances of the night!” My hunch? Attacking Miley also allows us to play out another dimension of rape culture and slut shaming – Robin Thick was there too after all! – but that’s a digression for another post…perhaps this one from this very site!
In the aural and visual spectacle that has come to define the mythology of a Kanye West performance, everything he did at the VMAs was both masterly artful and seemed like part of a real discussion with issues of race and freedom endemic to the American experience. The title of the song alone, “Blood on the Leaves,” is a reference to the 1939 Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” which also appears on the track as a looping sample, though in its 1965 Nina Simone version.
The meaning of this particular song and its choice for inclusion by Kanye here is central to the message: The strange fruit swinging from Southern trees that Holliday voiced in lyrical frustration was a metaphor for lynching, itself a symbol of the larger system of Jim Crow oppression that characterized black existence for several hell-filled decades in the aftermath of Reconstruction. Holiday’s song existed in its time as a strongly political protest, and when Simone covered it in her time, once again its political meaning within the context of the Civil Rights movement was inescapable. For this reason alone, Kanye’s VMA performance immediately demands more attention of us, as we scratch our heads and ask “What is this all supposed to mean?”
For the performance, Kanye appeared on a blacked out stage silhouetted against Steve McQueen’s “Lynching Tree” behind him, depicting a Louisiana tree used during Jim Crow terror, and making a visual reference to the Holiday track. Kanye’s stage persona and movements built tension and passion throughout as he wailed in frustration: “you could’ve been somethin’ / We could’ve, we could’ve been somebody” – questions that seem deeply poignant if asked of the American promise of “liberty and justice for all.” But capping all of these interplaying symbols of meaning and screaming the political point the loudest is the fact that “Blood on the Leaves” appears on the soundtrack of the forthcoming McQueen film 12 Years a Slave slated to hit theaters October 18th and is being touted as “a brutal and honest depiction of America’s gravest mistake.” 12 Years is based upon the true story of the 1853 narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate NY who was kidnapped and illegally (as if legality makes slavery more just) sold into Louisiana slavery in 1841. Though Northup eventually refreed himself and recorded his tale on paper, his senseless storyline in the long theater show of American history is yet another tragic subplot.
From slavery through Jim Crow, up to the Civil Rights Era and including this very moment, the American myth of freedom, this guiding North Star of moral reference for the political soul of this country, has never quite made good on its promise of equal treatment before the law. As Michelle Alexander painfully points out, we are living in an age of the New Jim Crow. Instead of the distracting sideshow minstrelsy aspects of Cyrus’ performance, Kanye’s carefully chosen and arranged musical, visual, and linguistic references all underscore the real problems facing the “self-evident” truths of American liberal politics, and their seeming inability to ever be fully realized.
America, “You could’ve been somethin’…We could’ve, we could’ve been somebody.” Perhaps if we interrogate all of our mythology and ideology, we still can.
James Padilioni Jr. is a Young Voices Advocate and a Ph.D student in early American studies at the College of William and Mary focusing on slave culture and resistance and the musicology and political economy of jazz. James is passionate in his belief that liberty is necessary for human flourishing, which he views as the only thing that ultimately matters.