There is a lot to be said regarding racism in popular music. The appropriation of black aesthetics by white popular culture, the relegating of black artists to “urban” spheres, the disparity in “crossover” commercial success—it all represents facets of a decades-old issue that many artists would just as soon ignore. But weeks ago, superstars Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift were at the center of a disagreement regarding the MTV Video Music Awards and the show’s treatment of black female nominees.
And now, Miley Cyrus has added her two cents to the conversation.
This controversy began when Nicki Minaj made it clear that she was unhappy with the 2015 MTV Video Music Award nominations. Last month, after this year’s nominees were announced, Minaj alluded to black female artists being overlooked by pop culture after her hit “Anaconda” wasn’t nominated for Video of the Year.
“If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year,” Minaj tweeted at the time. “When the ‘other’ girls drop a video that breaks records and impacts culture they get that nomination. If I was a different ‘kind’ of artist, Anaconda would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year as well.”
Many interpreted the “women with very slim bodies” to be a reference to Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” and Swift took exception to Minaj’s tweets.
“@NICKIMINAJ I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot..” she responded. “@NICKIMINAJ If I win, please come up with me!! You’re invited to any stage I’m ever on.”
In an interview with The New York Times, Cyrus talked about her VMA-hosting gig this week and shared her thoughts on the back-and-forth between Nicki and Taylor.
“I didn’t follow it. You know what I always say? Not that this is jealousy, but jealousy does the opposite of what you want it to—that’s a yoga mantra. People forget that the choices that they make and how they treat people in life affect you in a really big way. If you do things with an open heart and you come at things with love, you would be heard and I would respect your statement. But I don’t respect your statement because of the anger that came with it. And it’s not anger like, ‘Guys, I’m frustrated about some things that are a bigger issue.’ You made it about you. Not to sound like a bitch, but that’s like, ‘Eh, I didn’t get my V.M.A.’”
You can denounce racism, black people—but do it nicely.
Cyrus then went on to take an even more personal direct jab at Minaj.
“What I read sounded very Nicki Minaj, which, if you know Nicki Minaj is not too kind. It’s not very polite,” Cyrus said. “I think there’s a way you speak to people with openness and love. You don’t have to start this pop star against pop star war. It became Nicki Minaj and Taylor in a fight, so now the story isn’t even on what you wanted it to be about. Now you’ve just given E! News ‘Catfight! Taylor and Nicki Go at It.’”
Despite the way that Miley is choosing to frame the fracas, it was Swift who initially reacted in a way that deflected the larger issue and made the situation about she and Minaj—she acknowledged as much when she apologized to Nicki. “I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke. I’m sorry, Nicki,” Swift tweeted a few days after her initial outburst. Nicki’s response? “That means so much Taylor, thank you.”
Daayum! Nicki Minaj is obviously a monster.
What exactly wasn’t “polite” about Nicki’s initial tweets? She voiced her criticism of biases that she sees. If she’d tweeted about a double standard involving male and female artists, would Cyrus have felt the need to demand she be kinder in her disapproval? Would Miley herself worry about being sweet while drawing attention to anything she cares about?
Nicki Minaj didn’t pick a fight with Taylor Swift; Miley Cyrus, however, has definitely picked one with Minaj.
The question is why?
Cyrus is definitely an example of a white pop star who has benefited greatly from adopting black aesthetics. Like Swift, Cyrus successfully moved out of her teen-friendly early career into more “adult” territory largely by gravitating to hip-hop clichés. She wasn’t immersing herself in an art form as much as she was trying on a “type” for the sake of shocking her more middle-of-the-road base into accepting her new image as an “edgy” artist, “twerking” at awards shows and getting chummy with 2 Chainz, Juicy J, and other strip club rap superstars—including Minaj’s predecessor and nemesis, Lil Kim. She acknowledges the backlash in the New York Times interview while simultaneously sounding as though she remains willfully ignorant to the validity of the criticism: “I became that girl—I was the face of twerking.” Her take on Taylor vs. Nicki reeks of entitlement, as she attempts to offer advice on the best way to get people to listen to a conversation about racism. “If you want to make it about race, there’s a way you could do that,” Cyrus condescendingly ruminates. “But don’t make it just about yourself. Say: ‘This is the reason why I think it’s important to be nominated. There’s girls everywhere with this body type.’”
And in attempting to prove she’s aware, Miley proves she’s completely lacking in self-awareness.
“I know you can make it seem like, Oh I just don’t understand because I’m a white pop star. I know the statistics. I know what’s going on in the world. But to be honest, I don’t think MTV did that on purpose.”
Whatever “statistics” Miley may know, she’s ignoring the fact that racism isn’t always a conscious act of malice; it is just as often a conditioned social bias. MTV snubbing Minaj may not have been “on purpose,” but it could still represent a very real issue—particularly after years of watching white artists like Sam Smith, Macklemore, Iggy Azalea, and Cyrus herself become the most visible faces in what was previously considered “urban” music. White audiences gravitate to white artists and white platforms celebrate those artists oftentimes at the expense of their black counterparts. That doesn’t mean no black people become superstars; but it does mean that black artists have to remain vigilant against marginalization. It’s common for black singers and rappers to be relegated to “urban” categories at mainstream awards shows—no matter how much pop culture sway they hold. Some of the biggest black pop stars in the world are still viewed as “R&B” simply because the general public doesn’t typically view black folks as pop stars. Nicki Minaj is as much a pop star as a rapper—but would she be celebrated alongside the Swifts, Cyruses, and Perrys of the world as a peer? There are very few black women who are recognized as innovators in the worlds of rock and pop, specifically.
This weekend, Grace Jones rocked Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn. Even in her 60s the disco/new wave diva was as dynamic as ever, and her fans celebrated every moment of her electrifying set. Jones is one of the most innovative artists of her generation and one of music’s boldest visionaries, and her influence can be seen in everyone from Annie Lennox to Lady Gaga. But mainstream America barely remembers Grace Jones and almost never celebrates her legacy. This past spring, Miley inducted the legendary rocker Joan Jett into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was a long time coming for Jett, but ’70s glam rock acts like Labelle and Betty Davis haven’t even been given serious consideration for induction. Why does Janet Jackson always seem to be regarded slightly behind Madonna in the pop culture hierarchy of the last 30 years? Why does pop music pretend that Britney Spears was more than a fleeting musical fad while ignoring how groundbreaking Kelis’s early 2000s music was? Why did a generation of under-25 pop fans have to ask “Who is she?” when Missy Elliott took the stage with Katy Perry at this year’s Super Bowl?
Maybe Nicki Minaj had a point, Miley. Maybe if you were honest about your own appropriation and privilege, as opposed to denouncing her “tone,” you would’ve caught it. Cyrus’s thought process is indicative of the left-leaning millennial racism; the “I get it, but…” racism. A white pop star who accessorizes blackness shouldn’t be so quick to tell a black artist how they should talk about racism. Maybe Miley Cyrus has heard the criticism, but she definitely hasn’t listened to it. Maybe she should. And both she and Swift have exhibited behavior that indicates that they are typical of many white feminists who refuse to face the way they’ve used feminism to mute the specific grievances of black women. Cyrus seems to be evolving out of her trash-rap fetish into more pseudo-punk rock chic. It’s hard to imagine her asking Patti Smith or Debbie Harry to be “polite” as they fought their way through rock’s boys’ club. From Amy Schumer to Hillary Clinton, white women who speak their minds are seen as heroes, while black women are stereotyped as angry just because they don’t accept silencing as “solidarity.” Black women shouldn’t have to be “nice” to be heard.
Well-behaved women seldom make history, the adage goes. And clueless pop stars should probably check their privilege.