critical mass

Critics Roundup: What Everyone Said About Miley Cyrus’s VMA Performance

Miley Cyrus performs during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards at the Barclays Center on August 25, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Yesterday, on cue, the Internet exploded in debate over Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance. Vulture’s Jody Rosen critiqued the performance thusly: “as Cyrus stalked the stage, mugging and twerking, and paused to spank and simulate analingus upon the ass of a thickly set African-American backup dancer, her act tipped over into what we may as well just call racism: a minstrel show routine.” Others identified the implicit and oft-explicit slut-shaming to be found in many mainstream media responses. Here’s our roundup of critical responses. If there are any smart pieces you think we should highlight, please comment below.

“So here’s a fun theory: Was Cyrus’s and Thicke’s performance actually a thought-out response to ‘Blurred Lines’ criticism? Even before the song hit No. 1, ‘Blurred Lines’ and its oft-parodied video have been accused of treating women like objects and promoting rape culture with its ‘I know you want it’ hook, physical aggression, and subtle messages about alcohol and consent. Cyrus’s performance with Thicke played with several of these themes in a way that could be read as commentary — though, at best, failed commentary.” —Nolan Feeney, The Atlantic

“Sometimes a VMA performance is just a VMA performance. We may be a nation clutching our pearls, collectively raising one eyebrow, and asking in hushed whispers over our cubicle walls, ‘Did you see Miley last night?’ but all that means is that we got exactly what we wanted from the VMAs. We want unpredictability. We want provocation. We want Miley Cyrus to stick her face into a large woman’s butt crack because we want to be talking about it the next morning. That’s why we engage in heated debates over whether Miley Cyrus is racist based purely on a overly busy, tacky VMA performance. We look forward to overthinking it. We look forward to feigning outrage. The Parents Television Council fired out their annual ‘We Are Aghast!’ press release this morning in response to Cyrus’s antics, an opportunity they, as Deadline TV columnist Lisa De Moraes says, probably relish.” —Kevin Fallon, Daily Beast

“Sure, there’s nothing remotely “authentic” about her performance. But the spectacle of Miley twerking isn’t any more or less authentic than, say, Drake’s ‘Started From the Bottom,’ which was also performed at the same ceremony — unless, of course, you consider ‘the bottom’ to be growing up in a nice Toronto neighborhood and being on Degrassi. The portrayal of an image that doesn’t reflect reality is, again, as old as hip-hop itself — Biggie probably never really fussed when the landlord dissed him, but no-one holds that against ‘Juicy.’” —Tom Hawking, Flavorwire

“Cyrus’s approach to cultural appropriation is as sophisticated as Robin Thicke’s view of female sexuality, making it delightfully apt that they, inevitably, ended up duetting together. In a brilliant blogpost on the song, writer Wallace Wylie points out that while Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines,” doesn’t endorse rape, as some have alleged, it does present the most tediously reductive view of sex and women with the idea of “a good girl” just needing to be liberated by alcohol and a penis to become “an animal”. It’s an idea that was satirised six years ago in Superbad by teenagers and yet remains as credible in pop songs today as it does in porn. It’s one of life’s ironies that pop music is supposedly a progressive and young person’s art form, yet the messages it sends are generally as retrograde as the gruntings of an embarrassing middle-aged uncle at Christmas dinner.” —Hadley Freeman, The Guardian

“Like Nicki Minaj, who twists up her face routinely because she’s so striking that she can afford to do so, Cyrus was not afraid to look ugly on that VMAs stage. Though obviously choreographed, she exhibited a sort of hideous spontaneity that’s you don’t see as much in these safe, media-trained times watched over by St. Beyoncé. The carelessly tossed limbs and awkward fumbling stances reminded me of youthful experimentations with sex. Cyrus’ performance was a pop rendering of clanking teeth, an elbow to the face, bodies that never quite find the right rhythm.” —Rich Juzwiak, Gawker

“I’ve written about Miley’s race problems (or, racism, depending on how you take it), but here’s a quick summary: She’s gone around telling people she wants to make music that ‘sounds black,’ that she likes ‘hood music’ but isn’t ‘a white Nicki Minaj,’ and most recently proclaimed that she’s ‘not a white ratchet girl.’ Extending her master class on racial identity to social media, she told her followers that she is, indeed, aware of her skin color. The 20-year-old’s VMAs performance marks another chapter not only in Miley’s reckless use of black culture as proof that she’s subversive and no longer a Disney star, but of the entertainment industry’s casual co-signing of her team’s idiocy. How did no one, for example, think that having voluptuous, black backup dancers figure as meat for Cyrus’ slapping was offensive?” —Kia Makarechi, Huffington Post

“Cyrus’s performance was shocking, but for reasons not being discussed. It was jarring because, as opposed to the random, half-nude models we’re used to seeing prance around Robin Thicke, we were watching a 20-year-old woman — a household name, someone we ‘know’ — play the object in Thicke’s sexy sex dream. And as was the case during the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake Super Bowl fiasco of 2004, the focus has been on Miley’s performance choices and not Thicke’s compliance in them. While criticizing a woman for her actions might imply that she’s being given an agency that has been long denied, it’s not. It’s holding her to a standard not required of her companion, who got to sit back and enjoy the young ass shoved in his face. Whether Cyrus was doing it somewhat ironically (she didn’t exactly look sexy most of the time; the tongue wagging and pigtail buns were almost comical) doesn’t seem to matter. Her lack of clothes and movements spoke stronger than anything else.” —Kate Dries, Jezebel

“It is reductive and racist to present one subset of black culture as indicative as the whole, especially when there is a purposeful choice to choose the specific subset of culture that plays into existing white supremacist narratives about the stereotype of what it means to be black. Notice for instance, that Miley did not say ‘I want a black sound’ and then head for the Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, or remake herself in the image of Janelle Monae and dabble in Afrofuturism. Nope. Instead she headed straight for the ‘urban’ music, because that is, apparently, the entirety of black culture, and it represents all black people everywhere, regardless of individual experience.” —Ninjacate, Jezebel Groupthink

“What it all comes down to is that America as a whole—white, black and everything else—is subject to a jolly, messy and multiracial cult of openness, informality and raunchiness. Everybody seems to find that just luscious when describing Harlem 90 years ago. More recently, we have accepted this in rap—to diss the vulgarity is considered elderly, and grumbling about white rappers like Vanilla Ice as interlopers is yesterday’s conversation; Eminem is one of the boyz. But let a little white girl spin her posterior in open-hearted celebration of the “uptown” culture she has grown up drinking in and she’s a white man corking up and playing dumb sometime during the McKinley Administration. Sorry–this is people too caught up in yesterday’s battles to perceive the nation moving ahead. I believe you, Miley Cyrus.” —John McWhorter, The New Republic 

“Mr. Timberlake was on trend in one way, though: this was a banner year for clumsy white appropriation of black culture — the shambolic, trickster-esque performance by Ms. Cyrus, to whom no one has apparently said ‘no’ for the last six months or so, which included plenty of lewdness and a molesting of Robin Thicke; the ubiquity of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the edgeless and intensely popular hip-hop duo, who received three awards, including best hip-hop video. They also performed ‘Same Love,’ their gay-rights anthem, with the singer Mary Lambert, though when Jennifer Hudson emerged to perform the last part of the song with Ms. Lambert, it felt like an apologetic compensation for the night’s whitewash. (For good measure, Eminem announced the details of his new album in ads sponsored by Beats by Dre.)” —Jon Caramanica, New York Times 

“By implying that Cyrus is somehow creating a minstrel act of sorts by including black dancers in her act, you are implying that there is something lesser than about such an act. As if it’s completely impossible that she simply enjoys and respects the talents of those she chooses to work with. In short, it is inherently racist to imply that there is anything wrong with anyone other than black women twerking.” —Clinton Yates, Washington Post

“Miley Cyrus is a 20-year-old pop star in the middle of a very public, years-long image overhaul. She’s been working overtime to divorce herself from her earnest, sparkly Disney Channel beginnings, as well as to split from the shadow of her famous country father. She’s a KID, basically, trying to rebel and shock and titillate and reinvent herself. Which doesn’t — not by any means! — excuse her flagrant cultural appropriation and ‘race problems.’ But I CAN understand, to some extent, her crazy sexual antics, because I was the same way when I was her age (albeit on a much smaller scale). I was lucky — no one was WATCHING all my ill-informed attempts at being performatively ‘sexy’ in the relative secrecy of New England dive bars and college bedrooms. She’s doing it live, on stage, in front of millions of people. Which is her choice, obviously. And who knows? Maybe it’s a choice she’ll look back and bemoan, laugh about, or cringe at. Or maybe she’ll have no regrets at all.” —Laura Barcella, xoJane

What Critics Said About Miley’s VMA Performance