9.02.2013

Nice Twerk If You Can Get It

A friend wrote me the following email last week.  He's a seasoned gentleman who has oft expressed to me disappointment when youth allow themselves to be entertained by the lowest common denominator. And to be sure, his response to the Miley Cyrus VMA performance was not unlike many other peoples regardless of age and sensibility:

RE: GRATUITOUS SEXUALITY
It might be helpful in future if that what's-her-name MTV performer -- Miley Gaga? Beyonce Cyrus? -- remembered that "twerk" rhymes with "jerk."

What is being lost in all this controversy is (popular) cultural context.  "Twerking" has its origins as a Hip Hop dance found celebrated in down South rap songs as early as the 1990s.  DJ Jubilee's 1993 call and response laden dance track "Jubille All" may be the first commercially available song invoking the phrase.


Before we indict Jubilee for unleashing such a pithy sexist commemoration of rhythm and gyration, at least one interview of the man during his heyday seem to indicate Jubilee understood his music to be aligned with that of any well intended after school program:
  
“I don’t use drugs. I don’t smoke weed. I don’t drink. I don’t gamble. I grew up around all that, I see it every day and I wouldn’t wanna live that life. It’s not me so that’s why I don’t rap about it.” As far as his image goes, DJ Jubilee takes his responsibility as a role model very seriously. “I’m out every day tellin’ kids who are on the streets sellin’ drugs—’You have a chance. You have a chance in life. Your chance is now. Go to school. Get your education.’”

The above is not an attempt to justify a man extolling the virtues of twerking but to place this dance in a larger, more confusing cultural context.  Jubilee may be hiding in a suit of male armored privilege but take that away and he still may be a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist.

The "subculture" of Hip Hop from the Dirty South has always been characterized by its illicit nature in both lyrics and dance.  It is often equally praised and criticized for it's all out celebratory nature.  I am not the first to do it, but I describe southern Hip Hop to the uninitiated or close minded as embodying the same festive nature of 1970s "Old School Sugarhill" rap records: flash, cash and pizzaz.  However, many Dirty South artists combine that aesthetic sensibility with a contemporary disregard for sexual taboos or enlightened gender relations.

What's more, an armchair anthropological study will find similar moves movements found in the African dance, Mapouka. Here a workshop held in Poland explores the dance:


Same Difference:
Objectification
In a sense, the outcry about the lack of virtues of twerking is a tangled ethnocentric debate.  An argument can be made both ways.  A (black) woman should not allow herself to be objectified and used in such a salacious fashion.  Another point of view argues that no man, especially white, has any business telling what a woman to do with her body and that her sexuality is her tool and pleasure to do as she sees fit.  Further, note that in a world of epidemic eating disorders, Mapouka and Twerking prize a supple (African) body as healthy and desirable as opposed to Western idealized rail thin (white) body.

But what is even less easier to discuss are the issues of class and race that Miley Cyrus so easily transcends by being a mass media magnet that reduces the conversation down to headlines and hashtags.

Meet the new boss,
same as the old boss
The problem with Miley Cyrus' twerk is that she gets all the publicity and none of the socio-cultural backlash.  Sure, she may be blasted by those of us who find it distasteful and those of us who are clearly aware it was a publicity stunt to assure her long time fans she is growing up.  "Look at me now" her pose says as her publicists position her as a fully realized tart, ready to use her sexuality in order to distance herself from her Disney roots.  But the disgust matters little to her handlers.  Mission accomplished.  By twerking, Miley Cyrus will never be considered a little girl and can compete with her elders like Gaga and Ke$ha.  Let's be sure to indict the entertainment biz's largely male button pushers and bean counters who profiting off of such senseless sex and violence.

Furthermore, what Miley leaves on that stage is the racial and class stigma associated with twerking that perhaps a black woman working at a strip club in Atlanta will likely have a harder time transcending.  Moreover, this hypothetical young black woman is somehow used as a marker for her fellow young black woman- a discredit to her race.  Examples of this can be found in formal media and educational discourse and likely in informal discourse amongst family and peers as well.


Miley gets to Twerk and I doubt anyone will say to my daughters, "What's wrong with young white women today?"

Our Bodies,
Express Ourselves
One last thing.  In my mind, Miley Cyrus actually makes Madonna that more of a compelling figure.  Madonna was a woman who also brazenly revealed herself and reveled in her sexuality in the 80s and 90s but did so as means to disrupt largely white Catholic perceptions of what a woman can and cannot do with her body.  Madonna writhed on stage while still declaring a love for God and her church, a post modern duality that I think created further acceptance of diverse representations of women, sexuality and religion.

Miley Cyrus and company are simply cashing in and selling the nuances of Hip Hop culture and the African American woman short.  If there's a body part to blame, it's hipsters.

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