The best ad campaign for Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards was Nicki Minaj’s Twitter feed.
In July, when MTV announced the nominees for its flagship awards show, neither Minaj’s video for “Anaconda” nor “Feelin’ Myself” was nominated for the highest honor, Video of the Year. So Minaj, who has a well-documented history of calling out double standards, posted a series of tweets about her exclusion:
If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year 😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊
— NICKI MINAJ (@NICKIMINAJ) July 21, 2015
I'm not always confident. Just tired. Black women influence pop culture so much but are rarely rewarded for it. https://t.co/2xOvJzBXJX
— NICKI MINAJ (@NICKIMINAJ) July 21, 2015
Taylor Swift read the first tweet as a direct attack and tweeted back at Minaj to say, “I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.”
Minaj clarified that the tweet was not aimed at Swift, and Swift apologized on Twitter; as it is written in the sacred book of famous people feuds, the two buried the virtual hatchet when Swift performed alongside Minaj in Sunday night’s opener.
The read on Swift’s reply and the resulting tiff-and-make-up is that Swift took a larger statement about racism and made it all about her. Swift’s video was nominated for Video of the Year — Swift’s video won Video of the Year — and is overstuffed with cameos by thin, white women. But it is also probably important to note that the other nominees for Video of the Year were Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” Beyonce’s “7/11,” and Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.” So, zero other videos starring a phalanx of models. Yes, Minaj was making a statement about MTV and racism within the music industry at large. But also… there is literally no one else Minaj could have been talking about but Swift in this specific circumstance. Swift shouldn’t have taken the subtweet-bait, but, as usual, Swift emerged from this battlefield unscathed. I applaud both women as masters of PR, queens of the raise-and-quell-controversy cycle.
Then there’s Miley Cyrus, the host of this year’s VMAs. In an interview with the New York Times, when asked about Minaj’s “controversy,” Cyrus said:
You know what I always say? Not that this is jealousy, but jealousy does the opposite of what you want it to — that’s a yoga mantra. People forget that the choices that they make and how they treat people in life affect you in a really big way. If you do things with an open heart and you come at things with love, you would be heard and I would respect your statement. But I don’t respect your statement because of the anger that came with it.
Now, did Cyrus use the word “anger” on purpose? Does she know the nerve she is striking, when describing the way a black woman expresses herself, when she categorizes that speak as “angry”? Probably not. Cyrus grabs at signifiers of edginess without seeming to realize most of what she’s reaching for is not, in fact, significant: Drag queens who have already been on TV, revealing outfits that lift their color scheme from the Saved by the Bell credits. When she does stumble into meaningful territory — usually by accident, usually by appropriating some piece of black culture, parading around in it as if it was hers to begin with, then publicly wondering why everyone is making such a big deal out of her shenanigans — she pretends we’re all reading too much into it.
As Minaj accepted her award for Best Hip Hop Video, she closed her speech by saying to Cyrus, “And now, back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me in the press. Miley what’s good?” The tone, still, was playful, but Cyrus was rattled and responded with a cop-out, “We’re all in this industry. We all do interviews. We all know how they manipulate sh*t. Nicki, congratulations.”
Minaj, unamused, mouthed back: “Don’t play with me, bitch.”
Minaj’s words — literally 18 words aloud, five silent — was categorized by Salon as a “savage, expletive-laden rant.” (That tweet was quickly deleted, and replaced with one characterizing Minaj’s speech as a “raw, righteous rebuke.” But screenshots are forever.)
Is Minaj really the person in the wrong here? Or is Cyrus willfully ignoring, or just straight-up not appreciating, that the music industry — even hip-with-the-kids MTV — is not immune to the racism that is endemic to our culture?
When Minaj released the album art for Anaconda, detractors called the artwork — Minaj wearing a thong, looking back at the viewer over her shoulder — hyper-sexualized and unacceptable. Minaj responded by posting images of other, less voluptuous, white women in the same wardrobe and pose on Instagram, captioning the images “ACCEPTABLE.” In semi-related news, most of the wardrobe for Swift’s “Bad Blood” video came from a fetish sex shop in Los Angeles.
Minaj’s points on race, about double-standards for imagery that shaped the reaction to Anaconda from the moment its cover art was released, are totally valid. White women do get celebrated (or, at the very least, forgiven) for things that women of color get punished for. What Minaj knows — what she has been saying, on social media and on stage, for months — is that our culture imposes different standards of dress and behavior on different kinds of bodies. That is the disappointing, screwed-up reality. It would be fair — it would be great, actually — for someone like Cyrus to acknowledge that this is depressing and screwed-up. It is unfair, and just inaccurate, to claim this is not the reality.
Cyrus should know about all of this firsthand, because Cyrus has come under fire in the past for her sloppy appropriations of black culture and her treatment of black female dancers as props. Cyrus tries to maintain plausible deniability by hiding behind a persona of general don’t-give-a-fuckitude but her aesthetics are careless on purpose. Pop is a conscious construction where image is as relevant as sound.
That Cyrus can somehow claim that the teddy bears from her 2013 VMAs performance with Robin Thicke were loaded with symbolism (as she told the Times, “Me coming out of that teddy bear, to me, wasn’t just a teddy bear… When I broke down the bear belly, I was really breaking out”) but the twerking she did on that same stage was not is absurd. And that’s before we even get into her choices last night, which include her wearing waist-length blonde dreadlocks and her invocation of the word “mammy.”
Meanwhile, when Cyrus aimed for transgression, she was anything but transgressive. When you start the show nearly-naked, a brief glimpse of full nudity isn’t going to make anybody pause their DVRs. She is very, very eager for everyone to know she smokes pot. She did recently come out as bisexual, and has made some forward-thinking comments lately about gender and fluid sexuality. But for the most part, for someone who seems hell bent on convincing us all that she is the most subversive girl in the world, Cyrus isn’t doing a whole lot to subvert the most deeply entrenched and toxic paradigms in her industry.
MTV, hungry for the eyeballs of a hyper-engaged generation, shouldn’t have to be a no-politics-allowed zone — Kanye West for President in 2020! — but the show doesn’t seem built to withstand a complicated, politically-charged dialogue. While accepting her “Bad Blood” trophy, Swift signed off with a boilerplate line about how great it is that “boys can play princesses and girls can play soldiers”; this non-statement went over just fine. But Minaj’s real political statements get her labeled as angry, irrational, and, in Cyrus’ words “not very polite.” Because that’s definitely the most important metric when discerning the value in what someone says: Whether or not she meets your personal standards of politeness.
Someone within the show could have called out Cyrus on any of this; someone behind the scenes could have suggested, in the writers’ room, that Cyrus’ line about her brownie-baking grandma being her “mammy” should have been left on the cutting room floor. A show that advertises itself as crazy and outspoken and crank-up-the-volume-worthy could have allowed that conversation to take place. But that wouldn’t have been very polite.