Last night at the Billboard Music Awards, Miley Cyrus performed her new single “Malibu” live for the first time. The country-infused pop ballad is a huge departure from the Cyrus we knew in 2015. It appears that the 24-year-old star is giving her public image a full makeover.
Since reconciling with fiancé Liam Hemsworth, the singer has gone public about giving up alcohol and marijuana. She insists that she won’t be making anymore hip-hop music, which likely means that her days of twerking are over, too. For her Billboard performance of “Malibu”, Cyrus wore a toned-down, all-white ensemble that looked like a millennial take on the all-American girl. Twitter certainly noticed the difference in this new Miley, and offered an unflinching take on what was happening: Miley was “white again.”
If you are of the opinion that a slow ballad and denim cutoff shorts aren’t criteria by which to judge someone’s place in a racial category, you are absolutely right. In the same way that two gold necklaces and a few tattoos don’t make you Black (or 2Chainz), country-pop and a Coachella look don’t make you white. Ironically, Miley Cyrus is a shining example of the way cultural adornments can be separated from the cultures they define, or that define them. It’s Miley’s history of cultural appropriation that made her so susceptible to this claim.
When Cyrus was twerking and wearing “J’s on [her] feet,” she did not suddenly become Black. However, she was using elements of Black entertainment culture to align herself with a certain segment of pop culture that is profitable, catchy, and considered risqué to Cyrus' young, mostly white fan base. Revealing herself to the world as a weed-loving girl who twerks and hangs with rappers separated Cyrus from her teenybopper image. Now, her way of revealing herself as a more responsible, mellow, and mature artist is by separating herself from Black culture.
These declarations that Miley is white again feel less like an attempt to define her culture allegiances and more like a bunch of “told you so's.” Some people are able to get away with cultural appropriation because they are committed. The Kardashians may be using Blackness to bolster their brand, but at least they’re consistent. With very few exceptions, the men whom Kim, Khloé, Kylie, and Kendall date stay Black. The ladies' butts stay big. The references to Black culture they make and the trends they lay claim to are always relevant. Sure, we can still call them out on it and identify it as appropriating, but by now we know it’s their “thing.” This may sound twisted, but at least the Kardashians' appropriate culture with passion. With this new turn in her evolution, Cyrus has made it glaringly clear that her days of "busting it open" were all a gimmick.
Miley isn’t white again, because she was never not white — both in the the literal sense as it pertains to her race, and as a person who embodies the sort of cultural dominance that allows you wear someone else’s culture as a performance costume and then take it off when it no longer serves you.