All Twerked Up

Miley Cyrus’ twerking episode during the VMA Awards set off a tsunami of negative commentary — 306,000 tweets per minute! — and garnered the 20-year-old starlet wave upon wave of press coverage  — coverage that was ultimately valued at over $79 million.

Let’s do the math: considering that the whole hullabaloo erupted over approximately one minute of performance, that means Miley’s twerking earned her about $1.3 million per second.

Pundits simply cannot stop rehashing the now-infamous forward bend, embellished by rapid-fire pelvic gyration and a few flicks of an oversized foam finger. The rest, as they say, is….exactly what?  A young feminist’s outburst…, or an anti-feminist rant?

In terms of cultural impact, maybe Miley’s twerking was merely the latest seedling to emerge from the same vibrant African taproot that has already contributed jazz, blues, tap dancing and hiphop to broader cultures across the globe.  A generation ago, many of Michael Jackson’s dance moves were considered risque; now they are regularly taught within the curricula of international “urban dance” schools. Don’t be surprised if twerking follows suit.

As a former dancer, I’m fascinated by the way in which societies assign meaning to human gesture.  “Thumbs up” means one thing. A raised middle finger connotes something entirely different. Why should this be the case?

Better yet, who should decide whether Miley’s twerking constituted a truly vulgar gesture or simply an edgy dance move? Parents? Politicians? Dance critics?

Perhaps we should point our collective foam finger at Miley’s co-star, Robin Thicke. Would our reaction to her performance have been different if she was twerking alone, rather than in tandem…with a much older, married guy?

Did her costume – or lack thereof – contribute to our umbrage? Maybe we wouldn’t have minded so much if Miley had been twerking in a snowsuit.

Civilized societies depend upon every art form to raise difficult questions, to challenge the status quo, to protest against injustice, and indeed, to remind us all of what it means to be human.

So when does art have shock value, and when does it merely shock?

In a video interview the morning after her Twerkathon at the VMA awards, Miley stated that “Me and Robin the whole time said, ‘You know we’re about to make history.’” Such modesty.

Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps made history.

Picasso’s Guernica made history.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess made history.

Ms. Cyrus, your twerking did not make history. At least not yet.