Miley Cyrus is topless on her first-ever cover of Rolling Stone, and inside, she admits that she's bothered by her MTV performance being labeled racist — and she has some words for people who believe her "ratchet" ways are nothing more than cultural appropriation.
Writer Josh Eells spent a few days with Miley — he went with her as she got the words "ROLLING $TONE" tattoed on her feet; they ate sushi together; they went skydiving — and over the course of the interview, he touched on the brouhaha Miley stirred up by surrounding herself with twerking black women:
If there's one thing that bothered her about the fallout, it was the idea that her performance was racist, or a "minstrel show," because, critics argued, she appropriated a dance style common in black culture and used black backup dancers like props. "I don't keep my producers or dancers around 'cause it makes me look cool," she says. "Those aren't my 'accessories.' They're my homies." Meanwhile, she argues, the idea that she's somehow playing black is absurd. "I'm from one of the wealthiest counties in America," she says. "I know what I am. But I also know what I like to listen to. Look at any 20-year-old white girl right now – that's what they're listening to at the club. It's 2013. The gays are getting married, we're all collaborating. I would never think about the color of my dancers, like, 'Ooh, that might be controversial.' What do you mean?" she says with a laugh. "Times are changing. I think there's a generation or two left, and then it's gonna be a whole new world."
A couple of things: 1. At least she admits that despite embracing grills and other trappings of a culture plagued by struggle, she's actually quite rich. 2. "Everybody's doing it" is the weakest defense in the world. 3. Most critics are not accusing her of trying to be black; they're pointing out that she is using black people as accessories to look cool and hip — like donning a leather jacket or a pair of sunglasses. Except humans are not fashion accessories. Critics were also offended by the jokey commodification of black women's bodies; one feels she is in desperate need of an African-American studies class. The folks she's working with may be her friends, but her image is a product, and she's using black people to sell that product. (And are these people her friends because they have a genuine affinity for each other? Or is it because she thinks it's cool to hang out with black people?)
It should be noted that Miley's image is pretty well-calculated. The Cut interviewed Miley's stylist, Lisa Katnic, who says: “Every single [music] video that I've done this year, one of the key words has been ratchet.” For Katnic:
"ratchet" is “just a trendy word right now” […] a look that anyone is free to own. Or disown when it goes out of style.
Again, Katnic insists that Miley is not just accessorizing with black women:
“Somebody said that it was racist for a white girl to have three black girls as props onstage to benefit herself,” Katnic tells me, speaking from “We Can’t Stop” director Diane Martel’s apartment in Brooklyn, where she crashed during Fashion Week. “It's misinformed because [those dancers, the] L.A. Bakers are in the [“We Can’t Stop”] video. At this point, Miley and the L.A. Bakers are friends, and Amazon Ashley? They're friends in real life. They go out to lunch.”
“That's so demeaning to [the dancers] for somebody to say that,” she adds. “Here they are doing something that's awesome and fun, and [people] shit on it.”
It doesn't matter much, though, because Katnic is over ratchet, anyway: "I think 'stoner' is going to be the new look," she says.
Meanwhile, throughout the Rolling Stone piece, Miley is constantly receiving affirmations from famous black people. First there's Pharrell Williams, who produced four songs on her new album.
On the way back to L.A., Miley's phone buzzes. "This is why I love Pharrell so much," she says, then reads a text that he sent her out loud. It's at least 1,000 characters long; she scrolls forever. "The VMAs was nothing more than God or the Universe showing you how powerful anything you do is," he says at one point. "It's like uranium – it has the power to take over lives or power entire countries. Now that you've seen your power, master it."
"You're not a train wreck," he says later. "You're the train pulling everyone else along."
Then there's Kanye West, who saw her rehearsal at the MTV awards and came into her dressing room before she went on live.
"He came in and goes, 'There are not a lot of artists I believe in more than you right now,'" [Miley] recalls. "The whole room went quiet. I was like, 'Yo – can you say that again?!'" She laughs. "I just kept repeating that over and over in my mind, and it made me not nervous."
After the show, Miley and Kanye met up at a Manhattan recording studio to work on a remix for his song "Black Skinhead." The next day he sent a text: "He said, 'I still can't quit thinking about your performance,'" Miley says. She also happened to mention that a pair of fur Céline slippers she'd bought were falling apart, and Kanye bought her five more pairs. "Kanye is the shit," she says. "I kind of have a good relationship with him now. It's good to have someone you can call and be like, 'Yo, do you think I should wear this?' 'Do you think I should go in the studio with this guy?' 'Do you think this is cool?' That's what homies are supposed to do."
Next, iconic rapper Lil' Kim:
In the kitchen, Cheyne makes her a drink – Gatorade and Malibu – and Miley gets her bearings. She checks her phone and reads a text from Lil' Kim out loud: "My little pumpkin, I just had to tell you you're so fucking smart. I love you and all the press you are getting. Sad I didn't run into you at the VMAs. Keep killing it, boo." Miley laughs. "My little pumpkin!"
And let's not forget that Miley told Timothy and Theron Thomas — the brothers who wrote "We Can't Stop" — that she wanted something "that just feels black." (Plus, there's a rumor that Miley is dating Mike Will Made It, who produced eight tracks on the album, including "we Can't Stop.")
With all of these words of support from black people, it's no wonder that Miley Cyrus is confused (and confusing others) about where the lines are drawn when it comes to adoration, influence, copycatting, mockery, poseur-ing and appropriation. And while being "homies" with black people might lend some credibility, it seems fairly obvious that Miley's black obsession (blackcession?) is a phase, and like Madonna (with Latin/Asian/Indian/gay cultures), Gwen Stefani (with Harajuku Girls) or Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg before her, she'll soon move on to something else. ("Stoner," perhaps?) One thing's for sure: Miley's already over rump shaking…
"Now people expect me to come out and twerk with my tongue out all the time. I'll probably never do that shit again."
BUT WAIT. Here she is "rapping" and sticking her tongue out in a new track about wearing sneakers in the club. Just one of the guys, with the black women in the background. Again.