Miley Cyrus and the Mainstreaming of Hipster Appropriation

These days, it’s hard to find any pop culture artifact that isn’t almost entirely made up of allusions or references to other cultural artifacts. Originally labeled “hipster”, this postmodern pastiche of appropriated style signifiers has moved more and more into the mainstream. Just a few years ago, this smashing together of ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s culture (in fashion and musical aesthetics) was relegated to the indie world, but, as tends to happen with subcultures, it has been co-opted by the mainstream.

Increasingly, this indie subculture has also been appropriating signifiers from other subcultures, namely urban, predominately black, hip-hop, and “ratchet” culture. This has been noted as “hipster racism” and can be seen in fashion, heard in music (the rising popularity and watering down of trap music), and seen acted out in music videos. (A less problematic relationship between indie and hip-hop can be seen in big name music festivals like Jay-Z’s Made in America, Bonnaroo, and Pitchfork Festival.)

As the privileged, predominately white, indie culture incorporates more ironic twerking and wearing of grills into itself, the even-more-privileged mainstream has been more effectively appropriating from both subcultures, which brings us to Miley Cyrus.

Miley Cyrus released the music video to her new single, “We Can’t Stop”, on June 19th, and broke the record for most views in the first 24 hours (10.7 million, beating Justin Bieber’s 10.6 million). But along with the excitement also came a lot of backlash. Many writers noted the video’s appropriation of hip-hop culture and its use of black people as “accessories”. These complaints were reinforced by the producer of the track stating that Miley wanted to do a song that “feels black”. But my first reaction upon viewing this music video was that it was the full realization of the mainstream’s taking over of these two smashed together subcultures.

The video features Miley and her friends partying around in her house Her outfit is decidedly “ghetto-fabulous”, calling upon fashion typically found in hip-hop music videos. This is accentuated by her putting on a grill at the start of the video. Further allusions to hip-hop or “ratchet” culture appear in the twerking (as well as a spoonful of alphabet soup that spells out “TWERK”) and her use of the phrase “turnt up” in the song. The shots where Miley is surrounded be three black women all twerking has been criticized for treating these women as props, and that her use of these cultural signifiers (twerking, grills, gold jewelry) is no more than an attempt to “look cool”, though I would also argue that her use of traditionally white signifiers (the fashion and antics of “hipster” culture) are employed in the same way.

Despite Cyrus’ “ghetto” wardrobe, most other people in the video dress in a more “hipster” fashion. The denim vests, high-top sneakers, and bright colors exemplify the pastiche of fashion pulled from other decades. Their activites, too, resemble the interests of ‘hipster’ culture more than anything else. They roast marshmallows over a candelabra of Bic lighters, play with taxidermied woodland creatures, and at one point, someone cuts off fake fingers, spewing pink goo. There is also recurring footage of an early-Internet animated face, a pull from the mostly “hipster” sea punk movement. The video also mocks high culture, showing Miley sardonically posing in lavish furs, and her group of friends playing with a Damien Hirst-style skull made of French fries.

This pastiche of cultural signifiers has been suggested to be a bit of self-parody, reflecting the confusing nature of growing up, but the video’s director, Diane Martel, notes the sincerity of many of the choices. “I have a background in performance art, so a lot of the stuff came from the corners of my mind… I grew up on Devo and John Waters, so that might inform some of this stuff.”

This video builds upon the trend of these sub-cultures moving towards the mainstream. Ke$ha’s more decidedly “ratchet” video for “Crazy Kids”, Rihanna’s music video for “We Found Love”, and Harmony Korine’s DayGlo, trap-music-filled, Spring Breakers. But “We Can’t Stop” feels like the ultimate realization of this. For good or bad, this video marks the final move for the hipster sub-culture (with its appropriated hip-hop imagery) into the mainstream.