Was Miley Twerking Or Just Trying?

Miley Cyrus' provocative performance at the MTV Video Music Awards got some people clapping, but many more fingers wagging. Host Michel Martin talks about the cultural implications of twerking.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Finally today, we want to wrap up with some music, although the music is not really what people are talking about in connection with this year's MTV Video Music Awards. It was Miley Cyrus's performance - air quotes - especially her performance with R&B star Robin Thicke.

(SOUNDBITE OF MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS)

MARTIN: Cyrus has been working to shed her wholesome Disney star image as Hannah Montana. Her performance at the VMAs captured how far she has gone - or come. She wore a skimpy costume, and she twerked all over the stage. That's a dance which originated in black neighborhoods. Days later, social media and commentators are still arguing about whether it was artistically bold or just trashy, and whether it paid homage to African-American culture or exploited it.

We wanted to talk about this, so we've called Danielle Belton. She's a writer and editor-at-large at Clutch Magazine Online. She's also author of the blog "The Black Snob." Jessica Hopper is also with us. She's a music critic and columnist for the "Village Voice," and music editor for "Rookie" magazine. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

DANIELLE BELTON: Thank you for having us.

JESSICA HOPPER: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So Jessica, why don't you just start us off - where are you on this?

HOPPER: I'm definitely in the critical category, you could say. I really think that while yes, this performance of Miley's was shocking, it wasn't - to me, perhaps it wasn't shocking in the way that they were hoping that it would be - transgressive and edgy. To me, it was shocking in how it engaged historical racism about, you know, black female sexuality and black women's bodies.

MARTIN: You write for "Rookie" magazine, which is aimed at young women - younger women; and you're also a parent, and so you've got three hats here. You, you know - you're a critic, a mom, you know, in the world of culture and a consumer yourself. OK, so which of those three things do you think is - kind of most informs your opinion about this?

HOPPER: Well, my - I'm speaking, you know, purely as a, you know, a feminist culture critic and one who tries to look at performances like these with, you know, an informed perspective, hopefully. My sons are much too young to - you know, what they see on TV is, you know, PBS and "Sesame Street." It's - we're not up to the point where I'm concerned about them seeing Miley shaking it on the VMAs.

MARTIN: But to that point, though, because, you know, as I think we know, if teenagers, whatever, preteens - what's marketed to preteens - what's marketed to teens, preteens want to see. What's marketed to preteens, younger girls want to see, which is why there are a lot of little kids who are very interested. And if they'd heard that Hannah Montana was going to be on the VMAs, might have been begging their parents to see it. Well, Danielle, what about you? Where are you on this, "The Black Snob"?

BELTON: Well, there's part of me that, you know, agrees and thinks that, you know, it was in really, really, really, really poor taste. And there's part of me that thinks all of it's extremely silly. She was obviously going for shocking, and it wasn't even titillating. It was very - just vulgar, and kind of crass...

MARTIN: Yeah.

BELTON: ...It was poorly choreographed. It was poorly sung. It almost seemed like she was doing a parody of what she thought was what people call ratchet culture, of a very raunchy kind of a strip club-based culture. It felt like she was just making a big scene of all of it with giant teddy bears, and it just - it just was over the top and ludicrous in so many different ways.

MARTIN: Well, why do you think it was silly? I want to talk more about why many people particularly think it's racist. And I just want to talk a little bit - 'cause I'm not sure everybody would necessarily understand that - but the silly part of it, just the parody part of it. What do you think is silly?

You think the performance was silly, or you think what people are making of it is silly - 'cause this is still a big issue in social media; and also what's interesting is traditional media. A number of traditional, you know, columnists and commentators have been...

BELTON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Talking about this.

BELTON: Well, I - it's a little bit of both 'cause in some respects, this is what the VMAs - this is what they do. They let Britney Spears go on stage shortly after her meltdown and perform, and she was completely out of it. They've let Madonna roll around on the stage and, you know, simulate various things. They have a whole history of trying to set things up to be purposefully shocking. So I'm not going to act surprised that they put on this performance with Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke.

I can understand the people being upset at the cultural appropriation that took place, but it was appropriation of something that I don't particularly care that much for, in the first place. So it's almost like, I'm not going to get all upset and stand up and defend something that comes out of, you know, basically out of stripping. So...

MARTIN: OK. Jessica, you said that, you know, as a feminist critic, you also - you kind of surfaced this question of the racist aspect of it. I mean, there have been a number of posts on this. I'm thinking about, you know, Tressie MC. She's actually a scholar who blogs as Tressie MC. But tell about you. Talk to me about this, if you would, 'cause a number of - there have been some feminists who have defended this performance as kind of flipping the script on Robin Thicke because a lot of people have been, you know, talking about this particular song, "Blurred Lines," which is - he performs in the video.

It also includes Pharrell Williams and T.I., where these guys - these men are fully clothed and there are, like, four women of different races who are underdressed, let's say, and they're prancing around them in kind of a very suggestive way. And some people say, well, you know what, this is flipping the script because in this case, you know, Miley Cyrus is the provocateur. She's the one being kind of aggressive and that kind of upends the hierarchy there, but other people are saying this is just racist and ratchet. So talk to me about why do people say that?

HOPPER: Well, I think there's a few things driving it. You know, it seems like Miley is using and engaging with, you know - as we're calling racquet culture - as a way to transform her image. And that's the point that - Jody Rosen has widely reposted and tweeted a piece on Vulture, where he said, you know, that she's using ratchet culture to reinvent herself and that, historically, white performers have used minstrelsy as a sort of shorts - shortcut to self-actualization, is what he said. And I mean, I definitely see shades of that. Watching this, you know, just in how Miley engaged - you know, at one point she's - has a trio of dancers - the L.A. Bakers, who were also in her video for the same song - and they're dancing behind her.

But then, you know, at a different point she went out and engaged sort of - kind of did a sexual drive-by on the body of Amazon Ashley, who is a 7-foot-tall stripper, burlesque dancer of some renown - and the way that she engaged with it is what a lot of people say - and what I believe too - that the way she engaged with the body, this other woman's body, really reinforced, you know, some, you know, horrible cultural stereotypes about black women.

MARTIN: Well, she got up close and personal, she made a big point of highlighting her behind. I mean, let's just - people need to know...

HOPPER: ...Yeah.

MARTIN: ...What we're talking about. OK, so, I mean, I know we're being very polite about this but the politeness is the opposite of the point of this. I think we have to be honest about it.

HOPPER: She was intimate with that dancer's butt basically. And, you know, some of the critique has - of her - has come from, you know, people who are within that culture, you know, Big Freedia, who is, you know, the name in New Orleans bounce right now, who's been at this for 15 years, you know, there was a widely circulated interview, Big Freedia did on Twitter yesterday about how, you know, Miley couldn't even get the dance right and that was, like, the most embarrassing part, you know.

So she doesn't - you know, Big Freedia's sort of contention was that wasn't even really twerking. And, you know, then other people just sort of being mortified at the whole thing and, you know, there's even theories that this was just sort of large-scale performance art. And, you know, I had...

MARTIN: ...Well, it was a performance but was it art? It was a performance. But was it art?

HOPPER: It was performance, the art, you know, is really in the eye of the beholder. Last night on Twitter, I got into it with Diane Martel, who is the director of both Miley's video and the VMA staging and that came out of her video and "Blurred Lines" and said, you know, that they were just trying to be playful and that the whole thing was basically this big play on, you know, teen-selfie culture - you know, with her tongue out and posing and, like, being, you know, really provocative and sexy. And that she never thought about any of the aspects of race. And, you know, to me...

MARTIN: ...Well, isn't that interesting, she never thought about it? Well, Danielle what about that? Let me just give Danielle the chance to get back in this conversation. I mean, on a number of levels - I mean, first of all, I don't know that everybody realizes that all of those background dancers were African-American. In her video it's multiracial. On here - and one of the posters on Clutch magazine said that - why is it that when someone wants to be offensive that they link that to black culture. So do you think it was minstrelsy?

BELTON: Oh, most definitely. It was, most definitely. Miley Cyrus has been on a path for like the past year where she's been hanging out with Juicy J. She's hanging out with Snoop Dogg. She's hanging out with rappers. She's showing up at concerts and doing her very poor form of twerking at these concerts. This has been a precession that has led up to this finely crass vulgar moment that she had at the VMAs.

MARTIN: But do we care?

BELTON: I personally - I don't care. I did find it tasteless and disgusting but I don't care enough to get upset about it.

MARTIN: Jessica, do you care?

HOPPER: I mean, big picture, I don't care about Miley Cyrus musically or otherwise, but the thing I do care about and that I engage with as a critic is, you know, that pop music is as descriptive as it is prescriptive towards culture. And that's - you know, that's part of the reason that we love it and, you know, of course it's interesting to get in there and pick it apart. And, you know, there's a - you could put a thesis, you know, as thick as a phonebook in here.

MARTIN: OK, we have to leave it there for now. As unfortunately we don't have time for that phonebook but I'm sure we'll be talking about this again. Jessica Hopper is the music editor for Rookie magazine. She joined us from Chicago. Danielle Belton is editor-at-large for Clutch Magazine, also author of "The Black Snob" blog, and with us from Washington, D.C. Ladies, thank you.

BELTON: Thank you.

HOPPER: Thank you.

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