Update, 8/30/13: Read Noah Berlatsky's reply to the response that this piece has received, here.
There's been a lot of contradictory commentary on Miley Cyrus's VMAs performance, but everybody seems to be more or less agreed on one thing: It wasn't very good. Cyrus's choreography alternated between "wander helplessly," "thrash awkwardly," and "thrust desperately," while her thin, whiny singing seemed to be designed to boost Britney Spears's ego, if she happened to be watching. Robin Thicke has come in for less sneering, but was actually, almost impossibly, worse. Cyrus was trying to shock somebody (anybody) with the nude bikini and the finger, and at least she did that. Thicke, I presume, was attempting to be sexy, and instead managed all the subtle vocal charisma of a constipated water buffalo. His phrasing was so wooden it sounded like he was reading the lyrics off a cue card, or maybe off the inside of his stupid sunglasses.
The awfulness of the performance is clarifying in some ways. Miley's artless twerking, to say nothing of her artless groping of her dancer, makes it unusually obvious that what is at stake here is not art, but the exploitation of racial signifiers for fun, controversy, and profit. As Hadley Freeman noted at The Guardian:
On stage as well as in her video she used the tedious trope of having black women as her backing singers, there only to be fondled by her and to admire her wiggling derriere. Cyrus is explicitly imitating crunk music videos and the sort of hip-hop she finds so edgy – she has said, bless her, that she feels she is Lil' Kim inside and she loves "hood music" – and the effect was not of a homage but of a minstrel show, with a young wealthy woman from the south doing a garish imitation of black music and reducing black dancers to background fodder and black women to exaggerated sex objects.
Because of racist stereotypes, black women are seen as embodying sex. Cyrus wants to revamp her image so she appears more sexy and knowledgeable; therefore she has black female dancers on stage and indifferently imitates a style associated with black performers. There's barely even a pretense that Cyrus appreciates the music or likes the dance or what have you. The racial motivation, and indeed the racism, is unsullied by talent, genius, or even interest.
But the Cyrus/Thicke rolling aesthetic disaster can also obscure some things. Specifically, the performance is so dreadful that hating it becomes almost too easy. All you have to do to hate the racism is hate the performance — and how could you not hate the performance? Aesthetics and virtue are perfectly aligned. You don't want to watch bad pop music performed badly by hacks? Hey, you're on the side of the angels.
The problem is that Cyrus isn't racist because she's awful — or at least, her racism can't be reduced to her awfulness. Because there are performers who are not awful who have used race much as she does. Performers like Madonna, who bell hooks famously called out for her appropriation of black styles and of black bodies as props. And, also I'd argue, performers like Janis Joplin.
Joplin didn't use black dancers that I'm aware of, and she didn't use black woman, or black women's bodies, as a code for sex, as Cyrus does. But there are still uncomfortable parallels. Joplin, like Cyrus, deliberately referenced and used a style associated with black women — not twerking, for Joplin, but the female blues singing tradition associated with Bessie Smith. And Joplin, like Cyrus, used that association, and the stereotypes linked to it, to shape her own image against a traditional white femininity. Cyrus uses blackness to be sexual; Joplin used blackness to show she was earthy and real. Her strained version of "Summertime" evinces an almost Cyrus-like desperation, blasting through the songs' subtle longing, fear, and hope, as if she can become one with the black narrator through sheer glottal power.