The words “oral sex”, “ratchet”, “disgusting”, “raunchy” and “humiliating” were used on morning news shows this week to describe Miley Cyrus’ VMAs performance.
Many networks covered this within the first 30 minutes of their broadcast. Parental groups and critics have called for a boycott of MTV. Social media networks experienced some of their highest volume of traffic during and after her performance. All of this as the president of the United States weighs military options in Syria.
The reaction and overreaction by the general public and news outlets has been astonishing. It’s like America forgot about Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera kissing at the 2003 VMAs.
It’s like America forgot about Britney Spears’ multiple stripteases.
It’s like America forgot about the generations upon generations of risky songs, videos, and performances.
All of these moments received some level of backlash but nothing has compared to the scrutiny that Miley Cyrus has faced in the aftermath of her VMAs performance. I agree with what NBC’s Today Show anchor, Matt Lauer said, “The only surprise is that we are surprised by Miley Cyrus’ performance.”
Hip-hop is expanding and maturing
In my opinion, America has to chill out, but we also have to ask ourselves this question, what makes Miley Cyrus so different from past ‘risky’ performers? Why the increase in criticism and outrage?
One of the things that make Miley Cyrus different is that she has been criticized for her connection with and immersion within rap culture. That criticism is confusing to many of us who have seen the genre grow into this international force. Hip-hop has made amazing strides as it turns 40 years old.
The culture has grown from a little house party at 1520 Sedgewick Avenue in 1973 to a multi-billion dollar industry that spans across race, age, and nations. We’ve seen Hip-Hop artists win multiple Grammys, Emmys, and Oscars and perform on some of the world’s most famous stages.
Hip-hop artists have partnered with some of the world’s top brands from Budweiser to Samsung to Reebok to Pepsi.
The genre is more racially diverse today than at any point in its history with artists such as Macklemore, Mac Miller, Action Bronson, Yelawolf, Iggy Azaela, and MGK emerging as some of the top talent in the business. Beyond race, hip-hop has expanded to include artists from all backgrounds ranging from J.Cole, a magna cum laude college grad, to Drake, a Jewish-Canadian actor.
This expansion has led to the broadening of topics and scope within the culture. For someone like myself who loves this culture, these are all great things as they grow the fan base and culture making it a “big tent party”.
We’ve seen the code and language of hip-hop integrated into mainstream America and all the way to the White House where President Obama, from time-to-time, “dusts off his shoulders” and Capitol Hill where Sen. Marco Rubio quoted Jay-Z during a filibuster.
America still fears the hip-hop generation
Even with these advances, in some parts of America, hip-hop culture is still viewed as this gangster, ghetto, thug glorifying, misogynistic, arrogant, ignorant, bling-bling lifestyle. This distorted perception of hip-hop portrays what some Americans consider the dark corners of black culture and that scares them.
And for them to think that “Hannah Montana” has embraced this lifestyle, sends fear through many homes across the country.
In 2006, the Disney Channel launched a TV series that focused on a teenage high school named “Miley Stewart” (played by Miley Cyrus) who was a student by day and a famous pop singer by night. The show was an instant hit as it premiered with 5.4 million viewers making it the most watched premiere in the history of the Disney Channel. It grew to a multi-million dollar clothing, film, and concert franchise.
Million of little girls across the country wanted to be the next “Hannah Montana”. Part of what made this successful is that the character, Miley Stewart, was so closely aligned to the actual person, Miley Cyrus, blurring the lines between fiction and reality to the point where people would just refer to her as “Hannah Montana”.
This ultimately became an issue once the show ended in 2010 and Miley Cyrus went on to create her own identity and brand. Many Americans still saw and see her as “America’s little girl” and that had to be frustrating for her. Jay Z took on this topic while talking to Hot 97 in July, following the release of his Magna Carta Holy Grail album which features a Miley Cyrus twerk reference in a track called “Somewhereinamerica.”
“I like what she’s doing right now. She’s fearless,” said Jay Z, “Just watching the situation, people want her to be something and she’s like, ‘I’m not that. I was like 6 years old. You want me to be 6 years old forever?’ And this is her reaction to it. Maybe it’s loud, but it’s understandable.”
It’s that transition and reaction that has many scared. When Miley Cyrus moved from the “Hannah Montana” brand into the “Miley Cyrus” brand, she brought a mass following with her. Young girls look up to her, idolize her, and emulate her and the last thing American parents want is to come home to their children having twerk contests to J. Dash’s Wop”.
Some parents fear their children starting to explore the culture of hip-hop and become intrigued by the music and lifestyle. Some parents fear them going from listening to Taylor Swift to listening to Taylor Gang. A part of that trepidation also ties into America’s fear of young black men which are always synonymously tied to rap.
Can I understand the fear of these parents, grandparents, guardians, and media critics? Of course.
One, because as parents you want to protect your kids from anything you perceive to be dangerous, negative, or hurtful.
And two, many of them have a distorted and uneducated view of hip-hop and black America. People fear things they don’t understand.
Human beings grow and learn
What I think we all have to do is take a step back and remember where we were when we were 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21 years old.
Think about how much you have grown and matured. Think about the mistakes you made back in high school and college. Think about the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, and how you saw the world. Part of growing up is experiencing the world and finding out who you are -– that is truly at the core of the basic human experience.
Miley Cyrus is going through this growing process as we speak, it just so happens that she is going through it with millions of people watching her. She has embraced the culture of hip-hop and it has embraced her right back.
Many producers and artists who have worked with her have consistently said that this is her, this is who she is – she loves the music, the dance, and the unapologetic personalities who just want to make great art. Hip-Hop at its core is has always been about aspiration, inspiration, authenticity, expression, storytelling, and inclusion. Those core tenets are why the culture and genre of music continues to grow. These are things we should grasp, embrace, and explore.
It’s imperative that as a society we open our eyes and use empathy to dig deeper to understand one another. That is the only way we become a better society, a better country, and a better world. In my eyes, Miley Cyrus stepped into a predominately black culture and built relationships with people who have different backgrounds than her, look differently than her, speak differently than her. The culture just saw her as a genuine soul looking to expand her art.
We all need to do a better job at opening up to those who may seem different than us on the outside but in the end, are just like us on the inside.
From that perspective, Miley Cyrus at her core isn’t America’s worst nightmare; she is America’s Dream.
Rashad Drakeford is a social commentator and marketing consultant based in New York City. Follow Rashad on Twitter @RDrakeford