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.
"Ball and Chain" is a much better effort. But it's still a song emphatically, and even ostentatiously, associated with a black woman, in this case Big Mama Thornton. The metaphor of manacles makes unusually explicit the thematic undercurrent of a lot of blues; the parallel between personal pain and social injustice, and the necessity of endurance in the face of both. In making the song one of her signatures, Joplin picks up on those layers of meaning while erasing their context. Black women's experiences become white women's experiences, and in the process the specificity is lost. The black woman for Joplin becomes not a black woman, but the signifier "pain," as for Cyrus she's the signifier "sex." And in both cases the white woman turns the black woman into one, single thing, in order to sell that thing at a higher price, and to a bigger audience, than the black woman herself ever could.
Of course, Joplin isn't Cyrus. She spoke often about her love for Thornton and Bessie Smith and other performers, and listening to her it's obvious she has an affinity for their music. As a result, her use of the blues tradition of pain and sorrow seems less like simple appropriation, and more like sharing or sisterhood— an effort to connect the troubles and the pain that both black women and white women have in common.
Joplin's talent, then, is a bridge over, or at least a detour around, the impasse of race. Traditions belong not to black people or white people, but to whoever can grab hold of them convincingly. Ray Charles can be a country artist because he says he is; Joplin can sing the blues because she can sing the blues; Miley Cyrus can't twerk because…well, you saw the video.
But like other talented white artists, from Elvis to the Beastie Boys to Eminem, you sometimes wonder if Joplin's talent isn't a bridge so much as it is a distraction. That Cheap Thrills album cover has a blackface caricature or two on it, after all, and it's not exactly clear what good sisterly solidarity is if it doesn't even inspire you to keep ugly racist cartoons off the authentic product you're selling. For that matter it's Cyrus, not Joplin, who performed in an integrated context, which means it was Cyrus, not Joplin who was at least willing to pay some actual black women directly in return for stepping on them.
Not that I want to stick up for Cyrus or anything, any more than I want to stick up for Robin Thicke. Bad art is easy to condemn. It's a lot less easy to talk about the unpleasant racial implications of Joplin's work. I know I don't enjoy the racism in Cyrus's performance, because I don't enjoy her performance. But with Joplin? What am I responding to? I'd like to say I'm responding to the passion, or the technique, or the emotion, but all of those are so embedded in the drama of racial appropriation that I don't know how you separate them out. Unless you do what Cyrus does, and, with a clumsiness approaching inspiration, jettison the passion, the technique, and the emotion altogether, until the audience is left gazing at the racism that in other contexts, with just a sugar-coating of competence, they've managed to love.