When Jay Z’s “Somewhere In America” came out in July, it was hard to tell exactly where he was coming from when, at the end of the track, he urged Miley Cyrus to keep twerking with a hearty laugh and an audible smirk. Was he scolding the young pop star, who has been called out many times over this year for appropriating black culture? Or was this his way of lightly endorsing her obvious enthusiasm for hip-hop? Naturally, he was asked about this several times over while promoting Magna Carta…Holy Grail. His most interesting explanation was in a Q&A with fans on Twitter, where he described Cyrus as “an old world’s worst nightmare,” i.e., “black neighbor, and the daughter not seeing color.”
This didn’t clarify whether or not Jay likes Miley, but it does show that he understands something that a lot of her critics do not. Cyrus’ appropriation of hip-hop — specifically, trap music and “ratchet” style — is notable because she doesn’t seem to notice that it’s sort of weird for a Disney channel actress/tween pop idol/daughter of a country star to be twerking at the MTV Awards and rapping over Mike Will Made It beats. To her, and to many of her fans, this is a totally natural progression because hip-hop has become a default setting of pop culture.
What is it about Miley Cyrus that aggravates so many people, but also makes her the biggest pop star in America right now? The biggest reason is probably that she makes a lot of people feel very old.
Cyrus, who is about to turn 21 in November, is young enough that her frame of reference for pop music has always been dominated by hip-hop. She’s also from a generational cohort that has grown up on social media and is conditioned to share culture in a performative way. Think of it like Tumblr’s reblog function — where what you share with others represents how you want people to think of you, even if what you’re sharing isn’t necessarily who you are. This mentality disrupts a lot of the self-consciousness earlier generations have had about cultural borders. Miley — and many, many, many other artists and music fans around her age — aren’t “not seeing color” as Jay Z says, but they’re not seeing race as a boundary they can’t cross, or something they can’t freely integrate into their own identity. Miley isn’t actively trying to be a cultural imperialist, and she has no statement to make other than “I really like this!”
This approach to art and culture isn’t without its problems. Her enthusiastic appropriation of trap and ratchet isn’t automatically racist, but it does come from a position of privilege, and it’s not difficult to see it as exploitative or condescending. But you could say that about a wide range of white artists who have been influenced by black music over the past several decades. Miley’s hip-hop makeover gets under people’s skin mainly because she doesn’t seem to have the slightest bit of interest in what makes it potentially insensitive or opportunistic on her part, though she seems very aware of the transgressive quality Jay Z touched on. She knows that it will freak out a lot of people — older people — if the precious little white girl goes black. It’s good old-fashioned rebellion, and something many of her fans can relate to, or enjoy vicariously.
Miley also makes people feel old simply by being a pop star who up until very recently was just not on their radar, though she’s been a major star among teens for years. Her notorious performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in August was shocking for a lot of reasons that have been discussed at length — Miley using black women as props, her grinding on Robin Thicke’s crotch — but in a less obvious way, it was jarring because from the perspective of pretty much anyone over 25, she wasn’t supposed to be the biggest star of the show. Miley stole the spotlight away from Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Kanye West, and made them all seem bland and overly self-referential. It was a sudden, unexpected changing of the guard: Now, whether you like it or not, Miley is the most provocative star in pop, and all the people you expected to be pushing the envelope seem old and boring. And even still, in the aftermath of the VMAs and the massive success of “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball,” there’s still a lot of denial of Miley being as popular as she is. It won’t last much longer.
Bangerz is a fantastic pop album. It’s not perfect — Miley turns out to be surprisingly great at ballads, but too many of her rappy-dancey songs feel like a lesser version of Ke$ha. But even the weakest tracks are catchy and interesting. The record, mainly produced by Mike Will Made It, synthesizes a lot of familiar trap music sounds with straight-ahead pop hooks, and for the most part, it’s the best of both worlds. The most evocative cuts combine elements of pop and trap in ways that seem like they shouldn’t work: “Do My Thang” comes off like someone trying to do an Adele ballad and a French Montana club banger at the same time. “My Darlin’,” her ballad with Future, has an asymmetrical arrangement and odd dynamic shifts that make the song more emotionally affecting than it would if it had been played straight. It’s a bold, adventurous, fashion-forward pop record, and it’s especially refreshing in a cultural moment when most of Miley’s older, more established contemporaries are hedging their bets on fairly conservative comeback singles.
The most confusing song on Bangerz is called “Love Money Party,” and it features Big Sean. It’s a track about wanting all three, but treasuring love above all, and dismissing the other two as being no good in excess. Which, you know, fair enough! Most people will agree with this sentiment. The song is uncomfortable, though, in that it sort of accidentally highlights another thing that gets under people’s skin about Miley: She’s insanely rich, and has been for the entire duration of her young life. And it’s not just that she’s rich, but that she’s from a background that reads as “white trash,” and her new music is deliberately intended to be low class. Which is fine, but there is a widely shared allergy within American culture when it comes to the collision of white-trash taste and immense wealth. Americans are trained to think of money as something that can improve their status, but cultural figures like Miley — and Britney Spears before her — disrupt that fantasy, or at least replace it with the idea of being exactly who you are, but without the constraints of being broke.
The funny thing is, “Somewhere in America” is the polar opposite of this. That song, like most of the cuts on Jay Z’s last two albums, is basically about him resenting the fact that despite his immense fortune he can’t fully assimilate into the rarified culture of the moneyed elite. His perspective is the opposite of Miley’s — he’s been working his entire life to get himself out of the lower-middle-class status he was born into, while you could uncharitably classify Miley’s whole deal now as “slumming.” This is why “Love Money Party” is slightly icky while, say, Biggie Smalls’ “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” is sympathetic: It’s easy for her to say “Money ain’t nothing but money when you get to the money it ain’t nothing but money” when having money has always been a foregone conclusion in her life. But this does explain a bit of why, out of all the songs where Jay Z could’ve mentioned Miley, it was “Somewhere in America.” When he’s laughing at her twerking, it’s not really about her. He’s just laughing bitterly at the greater irony of it all.