Miley Cyrus sheds light on a New Orleans phenom — for better or worse
By MARK GUARINO Music Writer October 6, 2013 5:58PM
Miley Cyrus performs at IHeartRadio Music Village, Saturday, September, 21, 2013 in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Al Powers/Powers Imagery/Invision /AP) ORG XMIT: NYENT401
When Miley Cyrus flicked her tongue out her mouth and backed into Robin Thicke’s pelvis on live television last month, she got what she was looking for: international attention deserving of a global pop star.
Wait a minute. Much of the reason Cyrus was both satirized and scolded for her VMA appearance was not for what she delivered onstage, but because that performance — raunchy, ridiculous, and not so sexy — had nothing to do with Hannah Montana, the plucky alter ego that made her an actual star for many years on the Disney Channel.
Cyrus now needs to own up to the hype. “Bangerz” (RCA), released Tuesday, will not stand on her Disney fame alone, but on the attention she went begging for wearing those beige hot pants and bikini top. That cultural moment is not likely to go away, but will forever be linked to a corresponding cultural moment also happening this year but deeper under the radar: the mainstreaming of New Orleans bounce.
The link is inseparable. Interspersed over fast, hard, club beats, bounce music originated in the housing projects and working-class neighborhoods of New Orleans in the early 1990s and is proudly regional: It’s not unusual to hear references to specific street corners, wards or clubs. The call-and-response exchange between rappers mimics Mardi Gras Indian chants, and is often fused with the brass bands synonymous with the city’s musical traditions.
Bounce also has a playful sexual element: Openly gay rappers who performed in drag became early stars, and the accompanying dance — rapid-fire hip-jerking later tagged “twerking” — became the unifying dance, just like its close cousins in Caribbean dancehall and African dance.
Cyrus spent time in New Orleans two years ago filming a movie, and reportedly was spotted at regular bounce parties around town. The influence translated in her VMA appearance — which introduced twerking to mainstream media — and “Bangerz” has many songs that incorporate a taunting swagger that sounds curious coming out of the mouth of the privileged daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.
On “Do My Thang,” produced by Wil.i.am., Cyrus raps: “Dang b----/you think I’m a strange b----/it’s bananas like a (expletive) orangutan, b----.” Earlier, on the metallic electro of “SMS (Bangerz),” Cyrus flings taunts like, “I be struttin’ my stuff.”
No surprise that Cyrus has been attacked, not necessarily for appropriating cultural language and norms, but using them as a vehicle for feminist empowerment. “Cyrus treats black culture as if it is a stylish jacket that can be worn when it’s trendy and taken off as soon as it becomes burdensome. Culture shouldn’t be treated as a trend — much less when Cyrus has never had to deal with the societal burden of being a woman of color in America,” columnist Kaidia Pickels wrote last month in nyunews.com.
First-generation bounce star Mia Young, known as Mia X, says she wasn’t offended by the Cyrus performance, but warned that usurping threatens the music’s integrity.
“I just think it puts stigma on it and makes certain people turn their nose up at bounce music and turn their nose up at twerking,” she says. “The music is not totally infused by sex, it just looks that way, the way the dances are. It actually is very tribal. It keeps even the biggest women in shape.”
The themes and choreography connected to bounce culture have “deep roots” in shocking outsiders, says Matt Miller, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and author of “Bounce: Rap Music and Local Identity in New Orleans” (University of Massachusetts Press).
“It’s the kind of thing that has been scandalizing white people about black culture for centuries now and the kind of thing that there’s been a lot of misunderstanding in that it may look like sex to me while black people are saying, ‘hey it’s just dancing, this is what we do and we’re not going to whitewash it for reasons of propriety’,” he says.
Beside symposiums, books, and even cameos on the HBO series “Treme,” bounce music is also getting its due this month with the launch of “Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce,” a reality show on Fuse featuring the cross-dressing New Orleans rapper. Earlier this year, she opened a reunion tour by indie pop band the Postal Service. Last month, she told Out magazine that the Cyrus performance was “very offensive” but, for exposure, also “helps the game out.”
Young agrees, saying that, ultimately, Cyrus is making bounce transparent.
“I’m happy to see everybody embrace bounce and not sneak and steal elements of it anymore,” she says. “For the last 22 years, it’s been stolen — chants, beats, the whole vibe — and reinvented. We in New Orleans always knew where they got it from.”