Let’s talk about Miley Cyrus.
But first, let’s talk about MTV.
MTV has indicated an interest in social justice with the introduction of its Look Different campaign, its initiative to educate people about bias based on race, gender and sexuality, and eradicate it. However, its annual prestige production, the Video Music Awards, seemingly operates independent of the ideals of Look Different. That makes Look Different no different from just about any other widely publicized corporate responsibility effort. In fact, it makes it little more than a vanity project. How much, if at all, does that matter?
Sunday night during the Video Music Awards, Cyrus, 22, tumbled from one weirdly and unnecessarily racialized gambit to the next (like referring to Snoop Dogg as her “mammy”) before Nicki Minaj unexpectedly confronted her about her own recent display of white obliviousness in a New York Times interview.
There’s no doubt that the VMAs were constructed to be a giant tweet-a-thon. Was this simply clumsy racial humor? Or was it controlled chaos and deliberate trolling aimed at riling up Black Twitter in the pursuit of more mentions, more site traffic and more chatter? After all, chatter is what makes MTV relevant, right? And what does any of that have to do with Look Different?
MTV recently commissioned and aired a documentary called “White People” and dispatched journalist Jose Antonio Vargas to get white people to talk about race and confront white privilege. The network wanted to be taken seriously; it touted Vargas’s renown as a Pulitzer-winning journalist. It dedicated a not-insignificant amount of resources to producing and publicizing “White People,” to the point that it collected its own poll data about the racial attitudes of millennials. It created spots like “White Squad” which executed something that isn’t necessarily easy to do: Use humor to highlight white privilege in a way that feels smart, sharp, and perhaps most importantly, not like the intellectual equivalent of a heaping pile of over-boiled Brussels sprouts.
MTV went to great lengths to establish that Look Different is not the work of a bunch of dilettantes, but then reified the very things Look Different aims to deconstruct with its treatment of race in the VMAs.
Cyrus taped an interstitial sketch with Snoop Dogg in which she got high on weed brownies and imagined that the rapper turned into a pig. In the sketch, Snoop tells Cyrus that her “mammy” made the brownies, and we see a clip of an elderly white lady (Cyrus’s real-life grandmother) whipping up a batch of the good stuff with Snoop.
When Cyrus re-entered the stage, she introduced Snoop as “my real mammy.” It appeared that the word was introduced to not make any sort of point, or even a particularly cogent joke. It seemed to be used simply to stir up controversy, only to be innocently explained away because Cyrus calls her grandmother “mammy,” the same word used to refer to a caricature of large-framed, desexualized, usually enslaved black woman whose sole purpose in life is caring for white children.
Chance the Rapper was not having any of it.
And actor Jackée Harry captured the general confusion.
The various skits — another entailed Tyga and producer Mike Will Made It — handily played into the larger theme of Cyrus using people as props to communicate what she sees as her own subversiveness. She’s gleefully using black men, and rappers in particular, as shorthand for everything that terrifies white conservative America.
And she’s aware of her message — that’s what made her woman-on-the-street segment for Jimmy Kimmel so effective; Cyrus wants to be seen as dangerous, edgy and everything average white American parents dread their children turning into.
The easiest way to do that is to light up a joint with a bunch of black rappers, even going so far as to stage a sleepover with them, playing directly into historic fears of black men as pillagers of white women’s virtue. That’s something that’s been used to justify everything from the murder of Emmett Till to the segregation of public pools. This sort of flip treatment isn’t just trolling; it’s actual race-baiting and it was planned. These segments, unlike the actual live show itself (which has a script of its own), were pre-taped. And MTV approved it.
“Pitch Perfect” star Rebel Wilson presented the Moon Man for best hip-hop video, which went to Nicki Minaj for “Anaconda.” But before announcing the win, Wilson came out and did a comedy bit where she stripped off a police costume to reveal a T-shirt that read “F— Tha Stripper Police,” a reference of course, to N.W.A’s “F— Tha Police.” Both Ice Cube and his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who played him in “Straight Outta Compton,” were on hand to present an award later in the evening.
“I know a lot of people have problems with the police, but I really hate police strippers,” Wilson said.
For all the many criticisms of “Straight Outta Compton,” one of the things director F. Gary Gray did extraordinarily well was establish a through-line from the police violence of the 1980s and ’90s to the police violence of 2014 and 2015, consequently sending the message that perhaps “F— Tha Police” is just as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1988. On some level, its equivalent for this generation is “Alright,” the Kendrick Lamar song that has become a protest anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. “Alright” was one of the songs nominated in the Best Hip-Hop video category.
Consequently, Wilson’s awkward “F— Tha Stripper Police” bit ended up coming off as pat and ill-advised given the fact that unarmed black people are still dying at the hands of officers.
“.@RebelWilson/@MTV, police violence isn’t a joke, as the deaths of #TamirRice, #RekiaBoyd, #FreddieGray, #MikeBrown, & #MyaHall remind us,” We The Protesters co-founder DeRay McKesson tweeted. “When’s the last time you heard a Holocaust, Sandy Hook, or Columbine joke at an awards show? Exactly.”
Downplay police brutality tonight. Apologize for the bit tomorrow. Like clockwork, right MTV? #VMAs
— zellie (@zellieimani) August 31, 2015
Was MTV hoping Wilson would get a pass because she’s Australian? What about the show’s American producers and writers? Did MTV just figure they’d deal with the fallout later? Or that any publicity is good publicity? What was the thinking behind trivializing police violence?
The biggest rupture of the evening occurred when Minaj, having just won the best hip-hop video Moon Man, confronted Cyrus for comments she made in an interview with the New York Times in which she hectored Minaj for not discussing awards show racism in a manner she deemed appropriate. Here’s what Cyrus said. (The bold denotes writer Joe Coscarelli’s interruptions.)
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 b—-, but that’s like, “Eh, I didn’t get my V.M.A.”
But she was ——
If you want to make it about race, there’s a way you could do that. 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.”
I think she did say that ——
What I read sounded very Nicki Minaj, which, if you know Nicki Minaj is not too kind. It’s not very polite. 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.”
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.
Cyrus admitted earlier that she had not followed the specifics of the story, but heard about it secondhand.
Minaj responded on stage by throwing to Cyrus after her acceptance speech. “And now back to this b— that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press,” Minaj said. “Miley, what’s good?”
The whole situation prompted Morgan Jerkins to write a piece for the Daily Dot headlined: “Why Miley Cyrus shouldn’t tell Nicki Minaj how to talk about race.”
MTV was all too happy to exploit a perceived rift between Swift and Minaj by pairing them together for a quick performance medley earlier in the evening which ended with a hug, making it difficult to determine whether this was a genuine moment or not. How often does anything real happen at these things? (If you ask Kanye West, almost never.)
A Vine of Miley’s reaction suggests that the ordeal may not have been planned, but you also have to remember that Cyrus isn’t just a singer; she’s an actress.
Either way, the larger point remains that MTV ended up as the beneficiary of a conflict, that, at its heart, was rooted in the double standards that black female artists face in the music industry, particularly when it comes to professional recognition. If MTV wants so badly for the world to Look Different, shouldn’t it start with its own show?