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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

The Vicissitudes of Genius: Miley and her Critics

Miley Cyrus just announced that she will soon release new music, something her many millions of fans have been itching to have for several years. In my judgment, she is the most gifted young pop-rock artist of the modern era, and I have already said why I believe this is the case at some length, here.   Now, there is no universal, objective standard of reference for judging music. It is necessarily subjective, and at best it is measurable only within a particular musical-inertial frame of reference, primarily a cultural one, often writ large. With that said, Miley is my personal favorite among the current pop-rock artists for the reasons I have adduced elsewhere (Some purist wags have said, "oh, she's not really rock." Nonsense, they haven't listened to all she's done if they say that ... and I've seen nearly every great rock band since the Beatles.).

I should like to address and focus on the recent contretemps regarding her interview with Billboard, here, wherein she distanced herself from elements of hip-hop, specifically, the more misogynistic and sexually gratuitous parts. This created a minor firestorm in cyberspace and twitterdom. It was obviously not possible for her to deliver a complete disquisition in a brief interview for a magazine, and it is impossible to capture the entire context of what was being asked and said, and to capture the complete intention behind what is said in such a piece. Miley is an artist, anyway, and not auditioning for the State Department. Not long ago, when she incorporated elements of hip-hop (and electronica and much else, I’d add) in her Bangerz album, she was unfairly criticized by some for trying to be black and for exploiting black culture in order to shed her Disneyfied image. All manner of outrage was evinced by moral scolds who clung to her erstwhile Disney image, and then there were the other moral scolds who saw her as a poseur qua inauthentic interloper in black culture. And it usually involved a great deal of slut and woman shaming by both sides (oh yes, some of her hip-hop critics were saying some pretty nasty things about her twerking abilities not being up to par, and even worse).  Plus she was said to be using African Americans as mere props in her staging, as though they were there unwillingly and without pay, in effect shaming them as mere tools as opposed to knowing artists in their own right. And now, she is being criticized for abandoning hip-hop and blackness, only when it is convenient, and only now that Disney is well behind her. This is all nonsense. And to no small degree, there is a subtle racism and sexism implicit in much of the criticism that is thrown her way.

First, let’s get one thing straight. No one person or culture “owns” music.  And there is no form of popular music, including its various iterations, marching band, ragtime, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, pop, rockabilly, rock, folk, soul, funk, hip-hop, country, bluegrass, electronica, variations thereof, etc. … or classical music, for that matter, which does not borrow from other forms as it moves through time. None of it can be said to be pure, standing alone in a bubble, as though it sprung fully-formed from the head of Zeus like his daughter Aphrodite. It is preposterous to suggest that music has been invented by any culture extant or in thousands of generations out of whole cloth. Many cultures, sub-cultures, and ethnic groups from diverse parts of the world have participated in the formation of major musical movements. It would be absurd to suggest that Mahalia Jackson’s magnificent rendition of “Amazing Grace,” written by an English clergyman (and penitent former slave trader) in the 18th century, was co-opting Anglo-Saxon culture, or to suggest that late in life when she sang some pop and rock tunes it amounted to a betrayal of the African American gospel tradition. The former added luster to the latter, in fact. Similarly, the brilliant Wynton Marsalis did not betray black culture by playing Bach … or forsake Bach by playing Duke Ellington. He does both, and very well.  But when Miley sheds her fifteen-year old self (and a very talented one, at that), adopts some modern popular forms (first pop-rock, then incorporating hip-hop and electronica), and then moves again into some older territory (psychedelic) in a new way, then yet again into some new form (she’s telegraphing that it is, at least) that we are told subtly evokes her roots, she is criticized by multiple audiences (a minority in numbers, grant you, but a disproportionately vocal one) for not sticking to what they like … this, when some of the very same people criticized her for entering into those musical arenas in the first place. Speaking of hypocrisy. I'm sorry, but culture and attendant musical forms are not sacrosanct possessions of a chosen few, and they do not themselves stand alone without other influences.

Second, yes, I know, there have been and there will be more cries of her not understanding hip-hop culture. As though all successful hip-hop artists grew up in the hood in places like Compton. I’ve read many tweets suggesting “she never really was hip-hop, we told you so,” etc., or that she was merely using it as a crass utilitarian, and then all along planning to abandon it when convenient. Well, none other than Drake, a friend and fan of hers, supported Miley in her efforts to incorporate aspects of hip-hop in her music and stage act. It is simply not true that she is abandoning hip-hop in the sense that its influence on her has been lost or unappreciated. Moreover, it is rank hypocrisy to suggest as some have that she "exploited" black culture for her own gain. Precisely what are other commercial hip hop artists doing, including black ones? And when they pick up a trumpet or use sampling of a white boy band, are they exploiting white culture? It is all ridiculous. Art is to be shown, displayed, imitated, adapted, improved upon. And cultures move along similar paths.  And I seriously doubt Miley at 20 had a master plan in mind on the trajectory of her musical style for the purpose of commerce. This is the woman who gave her last album away for free, after all. What is more, she did not suggest she was forsaking hip-hop, and she amplified her position further, here, in her rejoinder to some of the outcry. That will not satisfy the sanctimonious, of course; but thoughtful people can see she is attempting to do some good.  Fact is, she has done a lot of good, and not simply in music. Would that her critics give as much in time and money to those suffering privation as Miley has done. The evidence is abundantly clear that she is hardly single-minded and driven by commercial success.

I don’t think a musical artist “owes” to any particular musical form hidebound allegiance, any more than a painter ought never adopt new ways of expression.  It is unlikely that any change completely walls off prior artistic influences.The early Rolling Stones started out as a blues band, primarily; and the blues remains evident in much of their later rock repertoire. Should we criticize the Stones for exploiting blues only to turn to Rock? (Sidenote: some of the blues greats, such as Johnny Lee Hooker, were grateful to the Stones, among others, for bringing more widespread awareness to the blues musical form via rock. Art takes from other art naturally, and it continues to morph into something new.) Picasso experienced many such criticisms in his lifetime whenever he changed his style, for he changed it substantially at least nine times in his lifetime.

Third, Miley is being accused of hypocrisy because she used overt sexuality in some of her music and in her stagecraft, and is now distancing herself from it. Some critics are unable to forgive her for no longer being virginal, perpetually pubescent Hannah Montana, while others are saying that she basically shouldn’t change from the aforesaid period of hyper-sexuality, for to do so is to abandon hip-hop or black culture and thereby to make a mockery of it. There is an apparent lack of self-awareness on the part of these critics, for that defines hip-hop and black culture very narrowly and, I should add, in a manner that is very much a mockery and inaccurate. Look, a whole lot of music is about sex, whether done so subtly or more blatantly and in one’s face. Miley was 20-22 years old in this period, for Heaven’s sake! Do you remember being 20-22 years old? What is more, hip-hop is not all about misogyny, and she never averred that it was. She did not forsake hip-hop. That is an utter misrepresentation. She said she was going to do some new things and distance herself from an aspect of hip-hop that she came to believe was inappropriate. But hip-hop's admirers (and I am one) must own the simple unadulterated fact that parts of hip-hop/rap are indeed quite misogynistic. The same also could be said of many songs of the sixties through the eighties by white-boy guitar bands, where women were very much objectified. It’s hardly a black or white thing, and it is not confined to hip-hop. The point is, it does not define hip-hop, and Miley did not suggest that it did.

Notwithstanding all of this, Miley is maturing, evolving, and understanding the things that she does artistically--because of her large international fan base and her influence over young people--can have untoward or positive and salubrious effects on others. She is choosing to do the latter. She wants to distance herself from those things that might have negative repercussions, particularly, at least as I understand her, those things that might feed into making girls into sex objects, which is to say, objects of pleasure wholly divorced of their personhood (nothing wrong with sex, to be sure … but not when it becomes the defining characteristic of another person's purpose), whether in the minds of young men or young women. She is not denying or abdicating responsibility for her own peripheral participation (though I think to the extent it is negative and present in her work, its impact is nominal and exaggerated by her critics); she is saying she is going to do something different in the future. That strikes me as a responsible, adult attitude, one that is to be lauded, not condemned. Yes, Miley has changed. Who among us can say they haven't? She’s 24!  One would hope so, much as one might hope that we all do, and for the better---and one also would hope her brilliant artistry will continue to evolve, notwithstanding the critiques of haters, the misinformed, the envious, and the assorted mediocrities that are always nipping at the heels of artistic genius.  They will be forgotten. One can be very certain that Miley Cyrus will not.

MB 5-6-17