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.