The MTV Video Music Awards has always courted controversy—whether spontaneous or staged. Years ago, the night would be dominated by cheap shocks, like a Madonna-Britney-Christina lip-lock, and an atmosphere of forced “anarchy.” The stakes seem decidedly higher these days. In 2015, it feels like too much is happening in American culture, and art—even art as empty as the VMAs—is reflective of the tenuous times in which we live. So maybe that’s why Nicki Minaj going straight Queens on Miley Cyrus on national television felt like exactly the sort of cool, odd, WTF moment the most vacuous of youth-oriented awards shows needed.
After winning the award for Best Hip-Hop Video and graciously thanking her “beautiful fans” and her pastor, Nicki unloaded. “Back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press—Miley, what’s good?!”
It was awesome.
The stunned look on Miley’s face gave an indication that it wasn’t a scripted moment—though who really knows? I’ve criticized Miley for her statements regarding Nicki and the VMAs. Cyrus was dismissive and condescending regarding Minaj’s earlier tweets about what she perceived to be racial bias in the show’s nominating process, which is an undeniable fact. And it’s obvious now that Nicki wasn’t too appreciative of Cyrus’s commentary, with the spawn of Billy Ray chalking up Nicki’s frustration to “jealousy” and being “not very polite” before lecturing her on race in America during a chat with The New York Times. Nicki’s challenge became the night’s most buzzed-about moment for obvious reasons, but it also makes me wonder if I’m getting a bit “aged” regarding what passes for outrageous. Because the Nicki moment was preceded by an unbelievably unfunny bit with Best Hip-Hop Video presenter Rebel Wilson.
The Australian comedienne spoofed the Black Lives Matter movement with a bit about police strippers. “I know a lot of people have problems with the police, but I really hate police strippers,” she said, before removing her outfit to reveal an outfit that read: “Fuck tha Police Strippers.”
“They come to your house. You think you’re getting arrested, and you just get a lap dance that is usually uninspired,” joked Wilson. “I hired a police stripper for my grandma’s 80th and he wouldn’t even feel her up.”
Wilson’s bit went over awkwardly on the air and was received much worse on social media, with several viewers criticizing the tacky routine. Did MTV, Wilson, and the show’s producers assume that making fun of a political and social movement that’s come to define the past year would go over well with an audience because so much of that audience is tone-deaf to what young, black people face? The Wilson bit was the most offensive moment of the evening in a show that included Cyrus in dreadlocks and a reference to Snoop Dogg as her “real mammy.”
Even Macklemore’s performance with early hip-hoppers Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee, and Melle Mel echoed (in all the wrong ways) the young white rock stars of the ’60s performing with their black blues elders for the rockers’ adoring teenage audiences. Acts like the Stones and Clapton brought these legends onstage as tribute—but also to cement their own authenticity within genres that they’d commandeered in terms of public visibility.
But maybe I’m cynical. Maybe we all should be.
At the center of the night’s ridiculousness (which also included Kanye West announcing a bid for the presidency during his Video Vanguard acceptance speech) was Cyrus, whose turn as host received a tepid response from viewers and critics. She arrived at the show sporting dreadlocks—a clear indicator that she has no intention of heeding anyone’s criticism of racial appropriation. With the Rachel Dolezal controversy and her own situation with Nicki fresh in everyone’s minds, Miley decided to up the ante and double down on her arrogance. Her performance of her new single “Dooo it” was more of the same: Miley bopping and posing like a rapper while parading around The Other, rhyming about smoking weed, and not giving a fuck. A generation of white pop stars has gone from observing black culture to absorbing black culture to feeling entitled to that culture—and who are you to tell them they can’t have this shiny new plaything?
And these artists have fan bases that enable their entitlement. You should be flattered say those who confuse obscuring and exploiting with “celebrating.” This isn’t about any real kinship to the culture; it’s not much more than the pillaging of “cool.” And, as has seemingly been the case with the likes of Miley, Justin Bieber, and Iggy Azalea, their view of black “cool” is decidedly juvenile—pot-smoking, gold teeth, and faux rebellion. But they don’t understand the fuss around Black Lives Matter. And they don’t care that they don’t understand. The insincerity that created “All Lives Matter” pervades the “celebrations” of black culture that these artists engage in; they just want to sag their pants, spit their rhymes, and for you to be quiet about it. But Black Lives Matter and the awareness it champions are too deeply entrenched in current events involving young people to pretend this is harmless. And these artists are not apolitical—Cyrus has declared herself both a feminist and an LGBT advocate. This is behavior that suggests that black audiences and fans don’t matter—not to white pop stars who can sell big records without them.
At the 1998 VMAs, it was the Beastie Boys who were honored with the Video Vanguard Award. During their acceptance speech, the late Adam “MCA” Yauch took the occasion to address Islamophobia in the United States.
“That’s another thing that America really needs to think about is our racism, racism that comes from the United States towards the Muslim people and towards Arabic people and that’s something that has to stop and the United States has to start respecting people from the Middle East in order to find a solution to the problems that have been building up over many years, so I thank everyone for your patience, and letting me speak my mind.”
It’s easy to overpraise Yauch—who is Jewish—for speaking out against bigotry during an awards show acceptance speech and it’s dishonest to pretend that each and every award recipient at the VMAs of yesteryear was concerned with the larger ills of the world, but it’s obvious that right now, there is an entire generation of white pop stars and fans who are unwilling or unable to connect with what’s happening with young black people. They speak the same slang. They know the same songs. But they have disconnected that art from the people who created it and they resent any acknowledgement of their appropriation. You don’t have to obscure another culture or reduce it to an ornament. There is genuine cross-cultural appreciation and participation all over the world. But what’s happening in mainstream pop culture right now is not in any way benevolent, and fans should hold their favorite stars accountable. And artists should start coming up with better answers to the tough questions regarding their behavior.
So, really, Miley, Justin, Katy, Taylor, and Iggy—what’s good?