Earlier this week, my beloved Miley “Molly” Cyrus made yet another foray into the impolitic.
Talking to the website Hunger, the singer argued that those adults who deem her gyrations too sultry and her music too saccharine were simply too ancient—and Jewish—to get it.
“With magazines, with movies, it’s always weird when things are targeted for young people yet they’re driven by people that are like 40 years too old,” Cyrus opined. And one group stands out in Miley’s mind as deserving of most of the blame: “It can’t be like this 70-year-old Jewish man that doesn’t leave his desk all day, telling me what the clubs want to hear.”
How to respond to such dross? One way, of course, is not to: Ever since she decided to shed the mantle of wholesome Disney star, Cyrus’ career has been a succession of depth charges, each designed to trouble the surface of popular culture. At 15, she disrobed for Annie Leibovitz; at 16, she pole-danced at the Teen Choice Awards; at 17, she posed with a bong. Whatever else she is—a reasonably talented singer, a canny careerist, a rowdy performer—Cyrus is also, perhaps primarily, a scandal-driven PR machine. And as history teaches us—look under Sheen, Charlie—the only way to stop those is to simply look away.
But Miley’s comment deserves attention because of its very particular context. As Jody Rosen poignantly noted in New York shortly after her now-notorious twerking turn at MTV’s Video Music Awards, the singer’s current reincarnation is a bit of minstrelsy: She talks about her passion for “hood music,” raps alongside Big Sean and Nelly, and delivers lines—“To my home girls here with the big butt/ Shaking it like we at a strip club”—that strain to sound like bona fide hip-hop. Hosting Saturday Night Live this week, she launched into her monologue by declaring she wasn’t going to twerk; her signature provocative dance, she said, was no longer cool now that white people were doing it.
As Rosen convincingly argues, such masquerading has frequently served as “a shortcut to self-actualization” for white people, from Al Jolson onwards. Entertainers have understood and applied minstrelsy as a performative process by which white—and, in the case of Jolson, Jewish—performers could remake themselves as all-American pop stars. Alongside hip hop’s poses and its patois, then, Cyrus seemed to have also inherited a tad of its inadvertent anti-Semitism, the same awkward but not necessarily pernicious sentiment that the acclaimed rapper Scarface expressed earlier this year when he claimed that Jews were controlling—and destroying—hip hop. When I called Scarface out for his comments, the rapper agreed to an interview, in which he denied feeling any particular animosity toward Jews while also expressing his frustration that record industry executives, many of whom were Jewish, packaged and popularized a diluted version of hip hop to the genre’s detriment.
Even if you choose not to accept Scarface’s logic, the emotional core of his objection is sound: His is the Cri de Coeur of any purist lamenting his art form’s transformation as it climbed up the mainstream charts. It’s a story just as true of hip hop now as it was of rock ’ n’ roll, and race is a big part of it. Coming from a member of the Geto Boys, the story rings true; coming from Hannah Montana, it can’t be read as anything but a farce—the white teen idol donning black face and lamenting that the Jews have drained her authentic hood music of its soul.
Let us not, however, alert the Anti-Defamation League quite yet: Cyrus is nothing but a compulsive tinkerer with her own image, and her hip hop phase, one imagines and hopes, won’t last long. When she emerges from it, in a few years, her mind too mature and her hips too stiff for anything too obviously suggestive, she may come to recognize the beautiful irony in having set out to be authentic like the kids in the clubs but ending up as an aging Jewish record executive herself.
Like so many Jews who have brilliantly crafted American popular music in the last six decades—from Phil Spector to Lyor Cohen—Miley is an instinctual animal, quick to feel the tremors of taste and recreate herself accordingly. It’s not for nothing that she rose to fame starring in a show about a prepubescent pop starlet leading a double life or that so many of her songs explore the tension between her private self and public misperceptions. That was precisely the theme that informed Spector, say, as he shielded his sweet aural fantasies of all-American teen romance from his own awkward and unhappy childhood as a poor Jewish kid by erecting an impenetrable wall of sound. It was also the driving force, perhaps, that led Rick Rubin, son of a middle-class Jewish shoe wholesaler, to reshape the music scene by convincing artists to stray outside the corrals of genre. Only a creative outsider could convince Aerosmith to join up with Run-D.M.C. and Johnny Cash to cover INXS.
And for all of her show-business pedigree, it is not ludicrous to argue that Miley is another in the line of creative outsiders—her career started with a series of auditions and rejections that ended only when she realized the currency exchanging hands wasn’t talent or craft but stamina and savvy. Nor is it too much of a stretch to suggest that she is, first and foremost, a producer: Her vocal range is fine, but her genius is knowing just what she ought to sound like, a rare talent evident in the surprisingly stripped down sadness of “We Can’t Stop.” Once she’s done spitting out second-hand prejudice, greatness may still lie within her reach.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.