Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” have been two of the most controversial songs/videos in the last few years, so it’s not surprising that they performed together at this weekend’s 2013 VMAs. Thicke’s work has been widely criticized for its sexism, and Cyrus’s for its racism (Unsurprisingly, not nearly as much has been said in the white mainstream music/feminist media about Thicke’s cultural appropriation on BL…which is also going on, and also needs to be addressed.)
Is sexism-bating and racism-bating the new way for white artists to prove their edginess? In our supposedly post-feminist, post-racist society, is overt misogyny and racist cultural appropriation the new way to accomplish the sort of shocking “avant-garde” effect that used to be accomplished by more subtle means? Instead of “love and theft,” well, for lack of a better word, trolling? Instead of positively identifying with femininity and/or blackness (the “love” part of the equation), there’s just a pragmatic instrumentalization of them (no love, just the hustle)?
Back in the day (i.e., the last three decades of the 20th century) David Bowie’s performances of femininity and androgyny helped cement his status in the canon of rock geniuses. Similarly, white musicians have long identified with and appropriated black musical practices and aesthetics; this identification with blackness helped them dis-identify with mainstream bourgeois whiteness, and thus cement their status as avant-garde/progressive/revolutionary whites. The way to dis-identify with an overtly sexist, racist society was to identify with and appropriate the object of their -isms: femininity and blackness.
But today, in what we tell ourselves is a post-feminist, post-racist society, perhaps the way to dis-identify with the neoliberal mainstream is to identify with the objects of its disdain: sexism and racism. As before, the dis-identification with the mainstream is an attempt to prove one’s elite status above that mainstream. This eliteness isn’t conceived or expressed as vanguardism (being ahead of the pack), but as human capital, often quantifiable in/on social media. It’s not who’s most shocking, but who’s trending most on twitter the day after the VMAs, for example. Just think about the way Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” performances constantly throws #THICKE up on some screen.
Love-and-theft appropriation was deeply tied to an aesthetics of authenticity. I talk about this here. The tl;dr of that article is: Whiteness requires alienation from bodily capacity/skill, affectivity/receptivity, and aesthetic/perceptual sensitivity. So, whiteness feels like an impediment to bodily immediacy and to authentic selfhood. In an attempt to remedy that alienation, whites have historically appropriated stereotypical blackness. Anti-black stereotypes have long reduced blacks to pure bodily immediacy, so what better cure for white alienation than that?
But, as Rob Horning argues, authenticity is basically irrelevant to contemporary concepts of selfhood and subjectivity, which are, as he argues, “post-authentic.”
Authenticity is no longer given and proved by unique consumption but established by the volume of one’s productive behavior in social media…The true self, from this point of view, doesn’t precede the process of being encoded in social media; instead the real self — real in the sense of being influential — emerges through information processing (sharing, being shared, being on a social graph, having recommendations automated, being processed by algorithms, and so on). As information is processed and assimilated to the archive of self, it begins feeding into the algorithmic systems that report back to us the true nature of who we are. [emphasis mine]
The post-authentic quantified self appropriates femininity and blackness through trolling. Femininity and blackness are still instrumentalized, but in a different way. They don’t replace the immediacy lost in the process of becoming an appropriately white, masculine citizen, suturing the self to its most authentic inner truth; instead, they are the irritant–that is, the troll–that prompts the system to generate feedback that will then tell us “the true nature of who we are.” Trolling generates the buzz required to be an “influencer” or a “trending topic.” Miley Cyrus, racist/not racist? Robin Thicke, misogynist/genius? Only Twitter and Tumblr can tell us.
The point of trolling is not to express an idea, but to inflame the audience so they will respond with more “food” (hence the adage DNFTT). So, trolling is the technique by which the post-authentic performance generates its aesthetic substance (it is also the technique by which the post-authentic performer cultivates hir brand). I think we can extend Horning’s claim about the post-authentic self to post-authentic art: just as “what is real about ourselves depends not some internal ability to think or feel something but the ability to externalize it as processable data,” what is aesthetically most significant about an artwork is not its ability to make us think or feel something, its ability to convey affective immediacy, but its prompting us to externalize our reactions.
Love and theft appropriation re-asserts the white male body’s ownership of the affective, aesthetic, and bodily work (i.e., the work of being authentic) previously outsourced to women and non-white men. It’s white dudes taking authenticity back for themselves. Trolling isn’t about ownership, but success. In late capitalism, privilege manifests in terms of success or, as I discuss here, “winning.” So, trolling helps both artists and audiences demonstrate their privilege because it makes them more successful in post-authentic, quantifiable-self terms. For example, Miley’s and Thicke’s controversial performances are occasions for us to optimize our social (media) capital; weighing in on the controversies surrounding these works with uniquely pithy opinions or appropriately expressed outrage, the works are instruments for building our Klout scores and follower counts.
These videos, and their gender/racial politics are complicated, and I don’t think they can be reduced solely to this trolling strategy I’m proposing here. But, I do think this is one aspect of the complex–which means, it affects the other aspects.
One strength of this interpretation is that it offers us a cogent way to explain what I think is the most interesting thing about the Cyrus/Thicke show at the VMAs: the ease of Miley’s transition from performing the role of objectifier/appropriator to the role of objectified/appropriated. In the first half of her show, when she’s singing her own song, she’s the white woman appropriating black masculinity and instrumentalizing black femininity. But then when Thicke struts out on stage, she takes off her leotard to reveal a skin-colored bikini, which visually places her in the role of the slightly-more-naked white women in the “Blurred Lines” video. Here, she’s the medium for Thicke’s misogyny-troll. However, as she struts around in her new costume, she’s ALSO singing Pharrell’s part in the song’s first verse. In the VMA performance of “Blurred Lines,” the role of the women in the video and Pharrell’s role in the song collapse into one another. As in the immediately preceding performance of “We Can’t Stop,” Miley’s role in this version of “Blurred Lines” requires her to embody, as a white woman, the affective trappings of black masculinity. In both songs, there’s a tension between her visual appearance (sexualized white femininity)–and her choreography/affective demeanor (stereotypically misogynist black masculinity).* This collapse of visual white femininity with black masculine affect is the same territory trod by the female performers in Spring Breakers. Could this condensation of white femininity and black masculinity shows us something about neoliberal white supremacist patriarchy? In both the film and the VMA performance, black men are eliminated by young white women. Black women are present, their black femininity an occasion for the white women to perform the unruliness formerly attributed to black men–the racist misogyny against black women, the excessive sexuality, etc. This is a complex situation in which white women are simultaneously instrumentalized by patriarchy as white women, and agents of white supremacist oppression. When bikini-clad white cis women’s sexuality is filtered through twerky minstrelsy, what would conventionally be read as objectification comes off as Ke$ha-style excess (“woke up in the bed feeling like P.Diddy,” indeed). Cyrus’s appropriation of back femme ratchet and stereotypically black masculine misogyny (slapping the dancer’s rear, singing Pharrell’s rape-culture-y lines) fends off the male gaze and allows her to appear as an appropriately post-feminist white woman, a woman who’s not objectified by men, but using her sexuality to troll us all.
What are we supposed to find likeable in all this? If the aim of the performance is trolling, then we’re not supposed to find it likeable, but irritating and infuriating. I wonder if, in a particularly insidious way, we white people/white feminists are supposed to like what we think is our righteous outrage at the performance? It’s insidious because what is felt (and often intended, at least superficially) as a performance of anti-racist outrage actually further cements our privilege vis-a-vis white supremacist patriarchy? Sharing the pics and gifs of black artists’ reaction shots (the Smith family, Rihanna, Drake), and all the positive feedback we get from this, tells us that we’re “good” white feminists? And this knowledge of our goodness is what we’re liking and aesthetically enjoying? (I’m phrasing these points as questions because they’re genuinely hypotheses–they seem right, but maybe I’m overlooking something?)
At this point the music scholar in me has to ask: what about the fracking songs? I wonder if the songs are irrelevant to the aesthetics of trolling. For example, Sharknado the film seemed to play only a minor role in the social-media event that was #sharknado. People weren’t enjoying the aesthetic qualities of the film–they were using its poor aesthetic quality as an occasion to perform for the algorithms. (People who didn’t even watch the film still participated in the chatter about it.) Similarly, it seems like the music to “Blurred Lines” and “We Can’t Stop” is at best a secondary aesthetic consideration. Perhaps the music is a secondary aesthetic consideration because it’s also a secondary economic consideration? Record charts now include YouTube plays, so one way to market a record is to make a potentially viral video–Psy and Baauer know this quite well. Trolling is one approach to virality–it incites people to respond, to link to your video in their response, to hate-watch, and so on. Is it easier to troll with lyrical and visual content, and harder to troll with offensive/excessive music? I can’t even think of an example of a musical or sonic troll (but if you can, please please let me know!).
In a way, this theory of trolling that I’ve developed here is my attempt to figure out why these songs are so culturally significant when much better songs languish on the music charts and fail to permeate the broader pop cultural milieu. It explains how these songs work, and what they accomplish by this work. But it’s still just a hypothesis, so if you have some non-trolly responses or counter-arguments, I’d love to hear them.
*In Miley’s VMA show, black women are used to amplify Miley’s performance of black masculinity–not only does Miley herself embody the stereotypically misogynist black male rapper (e.g., she slaps one dancer’s rear, alluding perhaps to Nelly’s infamous “Tip Drill” video and its ilk), but the performance as a whole similarly reduces black women to their black feminine bodies–their asses and their dancing.
Robin’s post-authentic twitter incarnation is @doctaj.