Before we get started, I need to confess something: I don’t actually know what it means to “twerk.” I mean, sure, I’ve seen Instagram clips and Vines and Miley Cyrus’ video for “We Can’t Stop” (sadly, there are some things you just can’t un-see…), but as far as I can see, twerking consists of shimmying one’s buttcheeks as fast as possible.
Or, as one of my coworkers put it yesterday, “I think it’s just a new word for ‘ghetto dancing.’”
I guess that works, too?
No matter how you define the gritty details of twerking, the entire world- or at least the developed world that has occasional access to the internet- knows that Miley Cyrus put on quite a show at the VMA’s a few weeks back. If you missed it (which I know you didn’t, since you’re reading this, which means you must have internet access and therefore are part of the aforementioned developed world)…well, actually, you’re not really missing out on anything, but you can Google it if you think it will make you feel better. Everyone and their Uncle Larry was tweeting/facebooking/blogging about it. I’m fairly certain even the Amish were discussing it among themselves, probably via carrier pigeon. The consensus seemed to be that Miley’s display was shocking, displeasing, and according to many, offensive. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but it seems that we’re missing the point.
There are already so many people that have written about this in a more timely, thorough, and eloquent manner than that of which I am capable. But since I’ve never been one to pass up a chance to share my opinion (and preferably offend no less than two minority groups in the process), here’s my take:
For starters*, yes, Miley Cyrus is an adult. She may act like an attention-seeking preteen, but she is 20 years old and knows damn well what she’s doing. Who really cares if she chose to present her song-and-dance number as she did for the shock-factor, for the attention it would inevitably draw, for the sake of spiting the more conservative viewers, or to satisfy her teddy-bear fetish? We could discuss at length the dysfunctional environment she grew up with and how that affected her values, worldview, and sense of self-worth, but the bottom line remains the same. She knew what she was doing, she knew the general reaction it would invoke, and she chose to go through with it and she is responsible for that choice and the aftermath (including any shifts in public perception, for better or worse).
Now what about the 36 year-old man that stood on stage and smiled as the nearly-naked young woman rubbed her rear end in his crotch, all while he sang a song that glorifies the degradation of women and portrays them as subservient sexual objects? Why is no one up in arms about his behavior? If the salacious interactions between Thicke and Cyrus don’t disgust you, what about 16-year age gap between them? Or the fact that he’s married with children? Or the fact that the press and the general public seem happy to cast shame on Cyrus while Thicke remains virtually unmentioned? At least Cyrus can claim youth, an unstable family dynamic, and her Hollywood-upbringing as reasons (albeit not excuses) for her less-than-ideal performance choices. But for the love of Mike, Robin Thicke is a grown-ass man with a wife and kids, and he’s standing on stage at a nationally televised event while a girl nearly young enough to be his daughter gyrates against him. Does no one else find that even more reprehensible than Cyrus’ twerking? This is without even bringing up the subject of his lyrics, which could warrant their own blog post, but suffice to say are misogynistic, lecherous, and damaging.
If you’re angry, I don’t blame you. In fact, if you’re not angry, you’ve missed the point entirely, because this debacle at the VMA show is not the outrageous isolated incident that the media and your Uncle Larry have made it out to be. The fact that Miley Cyrus was twerking on live television and subjecting a foam finger to unmentionable behaviors for all the world to see is not surprising at all. I don’t mean that because she’s been on a downward spiral for the past few years and is only a couple of coke binges away from being Lindsay Lohan 2.0. It’s not surprising because the performance she and Thicke gave that night was merely a reflection of the culture that the American people have created for themselves. Nothing happened on that stage that has not been happening in mainstream music videos over the past five years. You know, the videos for the songs that we’ve been listening to on the radio and downloading onto our phones. The videos made by artists (or rather, “artists”) whose branded merchandise we eagerly purchase, and whose stories and photos we pore over in the tabloids that we refuse to admit we buy each week. It’s the very culture we’ve been promoting, simply on a scale of notoriety and publicity that had the whole nation watching at the same time.
Culture is not something that simply happens or is created on the spot. It is something that grows and evolves and transforms over time as a result of how it is treated. If cultural standards, trends, icons, or mores are fed- supported, indulged, purchased, publicized, etc.- they will grow in strength, spread, and influence. If a culture or an individual aspect therein is starved- ignored, rejected, shamed- it will die out or devolve into a taboo. Simple cultural Darwinism, you see?
Because of this, nothing that Cyrus or Thicke did in their VMA performance should so severely shock America. It may have been disgusting and depraved, and we are right to be sickened by it, but we are the ones who paved the road to this Corinth. As much as they are responsible for their actions on that stage, we are responsible for breeding the cultural quagmire in which they danced. It is the same swamp of depravity that so much of us allow ourselves to be steeped in, every day, in lyrics, images, slander, sleaze, and a hundred other little ways both conscious and not.
So when we are laughing at the GIFs from Cyrus’ and Thicke’s tom-foolery at the VMA’s and shaking our heads in disappointment at the degradation of Hollywood, let’s not forget that we contributed to the culture for which they are emblems rather than outliers.
The stage they twerked on is the one we built.
The songs they sang were the lyrics we inspired.
And that foam finger was the sum of our cultural fingerprints.
*Please know that I am focusing on the implications for cultural values in terms of sexuality and the like, rather than what this performance says about our culture’s view of art, music, etc. There is plenty to say on that point, but for now we will focus on former.