But we all knew this was coming, right?
Miley Cyrus ditching the “ratchet rap” act, I mean. We all knew there was going to be a moment where she decided to detach herself from the quasi-hip-hop rebel image she’d so clumsily been crafting for the better part of four years. Cyrus, in an interview with Billboard this week, talked about her rootsy new single “Malibu” and her forthcoming album, which will follow a similar musical vein. Since 2013, Cyrus has been presenting herself as this sometimes-rap, sometimes-punk parody rebel, pushing buttons via shock tactics and embracing the more hedonistic aspects of hip-hop iconography (blinged-out jewelry, tossing money, gold grills and flashy cars) for the sake of presenting herself as the “edgy” superstar of our times.
But in a new Billboard interview, while using language about “unifying” as she gleefully embraces an image more in tune with her country roots, Miley made it clear that she is being deliberate in stepping away from the presentation she milked for years.
“I…love that new Kendrick [Lamar] song [“Humble”]: ‘Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks,’” Cyrus told Billboard. “I love that because it’s not ‘Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock.’ I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’—I am so not that.”
No, she’s not that. But she seemed to be okay with having the world think she absolutely was that. Even if she now claims to know that hip-hop is also not limited to that presentation, she’s making sure that the new Miley is as far from that world as Blake Shelton. Her words ring hollow when one looks at how Miley has played this ever since she reinvented herself post-Hannah Montana.
The Billboard interview has sparked an understandable backlash. Miley posted a response to the criticism via Instagram.
“So, to be clear I respect ALL artists who speak their truth and appreciate ALL genres of music (country, pop , alternative …. but in this particular interview I was asked about rap) I have always and will continue to love and celebrate hip hop as I’ve collaborated with some of the very best! At this point in my life I am expanding personally/musically and gravitating more towards uplifting, conscious rap! As I get older I understand the effect music has on the world & Seeing where we are today I feel the younger generation needs to hear positive powerful lyrics!
Cyrus is one of several contemporary pop stars who have superficially taken hip-hop iconography and adopted it as their own, only to “mature” out of it and embrace a more milquetoast “all-American” image. Initially finding fame as pop-rap star Marky Mark, Mark Wahlberg even went so far as to record a hardcore follow-up to his gold-selling 1991 debut Music For the People. That sophomore album, the best-forgotten You Gotta Believe, tanked, and the rapper would soon dabble in reggae before completely abandoning his music career. By the late 1990s, the erstwhile Marky Mark had reinvented himself as red-blooded American actor, bristling at any mention of his rapper past and discarding hoodies and baggy pants forever. One could argue that this was simply a young man growing up a little, but for young white artists (in this case a young white artist with a history of racist violence against non-whites) it’s all too easy to appropriate blackness in the most reductive way, then move on when they’ve decided they’re over that particular “phase” of their life and career.
Kid Rock struggled as a rapper for almost a decade before breaking big in the late ‘90s with a string of rap-rock hits like “Bawitdaba.” His image was that of a blinged-out white trash pimp—half trailer park and half block party. The son of a wealthy auto dealer from suburban Detroit, Kid Rock truly came from neither world, but rode that image to multiplatinum success. But as the rap-rock fad died in the early 2000s, Rock began to emphasize the more red state-friendly side of his persona, scoring country hits and eventually abandoning hip-hop altogether. He blasted his rap-rock era in a 2015 interview with The Guardian.
“Rap-Rock was what people wanted at the time, and they still love those songs at shows,” he said. “But it turned into a lot of bullshit and it turned out to be pretty gay…If someone says you can’t say ‘gay’ like that you tell them to go fuck themselves. You’re not going to get anything politically correct out of me.”
That same year, Rock drew the ire of Beyoncé fans after he dismissed her talent—and her looks.
“Beyoncé, to me, doesn’t have a fucking ‘Purple Rain,’ but she’s the biggest thing on Earth. How can you be that big without at least one ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ or ‘Old Time Rock & Roll?’” Rock told Rolling Stone. “People are like, ‘Beyoncé’s hot. Got a nice fucking ass.’ I’m like, ‘Cool, I like skinny white chicks with big tits.’ Doesn’t really fucking do much for me.”
Rock famously dated black adult film star Midori in the late ‘90s as he was becoming a superstar and when she was one of the more visible black women in that industry. The fact that he felt the need to specify that he likes “skinny white chicks” in 2015 suggests that his past relationship was just fetishizing or that Rock feels the need to pander now. Maybe both are true. Both are telling. Of course, Rock is now a loud conservative firebrand who shouted “Fuck Kaepernick” at a show in September during the embattled quarterback’s protest of the American flag. He’s also been a vocal Donald Trump supporter.
Which brings us back to Miley. Like Rock, Miley has sought to claim an identity from both rap and country circles—two worlds that rarely comfortably coexist. Taylor Swift can rock B-girl gear in videos and Nelly can chart with Florida Georgia Line, but when it comes to hip-hop born of a more sociopolitical ethos, it’s a lot harder to negotiate the kind of right-leaning politics embraced by much of that audience. There is a real bitterness born of racism and xenophobia; that gets downplayed for the sake of euphemistically pining for “unity.” And Miley Cyrus has shown that she likes to play oblivious to the realities of racism while softly co-signing the views of much of that audience she so willfully seeks to re-embrace now in the Trump era.
Back in 2013, Miley mused on how hard it can be to be a white woman cynically “borrowing” black culture while also further stereotyping said culture. She was reflecting on the backlash against her VMA performance that year, which featured black dancers and was part of her “intended to shock” reinvention.
“Me and [producer] Mike WiLL were talking about it,” Miley told Rolling Stone. “He said, ‘For me, my biggest achievement has been working with a white girl—but for a white girl to work and associate with black producers, you’re being ratchet.’ He’s like, ‘Why am I on the come-up if I work with you, but if you work with me, it’s like you’re trying to be hood?’ It’s a double-standard. I didn’t really realize it, but people are still racist. It’s kind of insane. Like if I had come out [at the VMAs] with all white-girl dancers, and done the fucking ‘Cha Cha Slide’—same outfit, same everything—it wouldn’t have been bad. But because of who I came out with, people got upset. Because they were girls from the club. They had thick asses. They were twerking. That’s what I want, though—I want real girls up there who can really party. The Baker girls [her backup dance crew, the L.A. Bakers] don’t give a fuck about me. They love me, but they’re not kissing my ass. They’re just excited to not be dancing at the club.”
Miley only decided that “people are still racist” after she was criticized for her race-evoking VMA performance and presented herself as a benevolent white savior to these girls who would just be “dancing at the club” were it not for Hannah Montana. But in the same interview, Miley acknowledged that what she was doing was for shock value—“I know what I’m doing…I know I’m shocking you”—so how can one divorce her performance from the idea that those black women were props for her provocation?
In her recent Billboard interview, Cyrus once again paints herself as the charitable person helping uplift a black creative with whom she’s decided to collaborate. “When I met Pharrell, before [his Robin Thicke hit] ‘Blurred Lines,’ before ‘Happy,’ people wouldn’t take meetings with me because they said, ‘He hasn’t had a hit in 10 years,’” Cyrus shared.
Miley Cyrus brings easy comparisons to Madonna, who also used calculated cribbing of blackness to shock only to discard and dismiss once she’d decided to move on. Madonna traded on America’s discomfort with interracial sex, fetishized rappers and rocked gold teeth and a pimped-out ride decades before Miley. This isn’t new. Eager to break free of her “Genie In A Bottle” image, early 2000s Christina Aguilera invented “Xtina” and was suddenly wearing braids and hanging with Redman and Lil Kim in an effort to convince the world she was an edgy “serious” artist. Hip-hop is more than gold grills and twerking, but when white pop stars want to push buttons, they are more than happy to latch onto an easy hip-hop caricature to do it.
It’s a type of cultural tourism that often reaps big benefits for a Miley Cyrus, who gets to shed her Disney skin; or a YesJulz, who gets to build a brand from just being a white woman trading on superficial approximation of blackness. But that door only swings one way. Black artists don’t have the cultural leeway to milk and parody white art in a way that distorts, diminishes and obscures. Miley may claim to love hip-hop, but she sure has a funny way of showing it. Hopefully, in revealing her true self, hip-hop will stop showing so much love to “Mileys.”