Memo to Miley: twerking is not a feminist statement

Freedom of choice for women is central to the idea of gender equality, but that doesn’t make every choice a woman makes inherently feminist.

There comes a time in any young woman’s life when the paper thin membrane standing between what constitutes dancing and what it commonly known as ‘dry humping’ is transgressed. In Miley Cyrus’ case, it happened last weekend at the VMAs, with her performance (during which she bent over and rubbed her arse against Robin Thicke’s crotchal area in a move commonly referred to as ‘twerking’) being dubbed ‘shocking’ by people on the internet you don’t care about. A tedious slut-shaming narrative emerged, with certain tweeters falling hook line and sinker for Cyrus’ publicist-mandated ‘transformation’ from Disney virgin to whore, and others demanding why the 36-year-old married man allowing a young woman barely of age to grind up against his stripy Beetlejuice suit-trousers should be off the hook. Especially when he’s responsible for what is officially termed ‘the rapiest song of the summer’ (although, in fairness, it was nice to see a woman singing half the ‘I know you want it’ part for once).

But we’re not here to point out what a drag the sexual double standard can be (duh), or even to talk about how watching the whole teddy bear routine that preceded her duet with Thicke makes you feel like you should be on some kind of register. We’re not even really here to to respond to the charges that Miley has faced of cultural appropriation (read this instead). Yes, twerking is a move taken from hip-hop, via the strip joints of Houston and Atlanta, and yes, some of Miley’s aping of that culture has been problematic in the past. Aspects of her performance that night were also problematic (using black people as props, even smacking a dancer's ass.) But, despite the sad fact that not a single black artist won an award this year, hip-hop and R&B are generally massively dominant within the music industry, so it's no surprise that certain dance moves are being copied (hell, everything is being copied), and, while Miley contributing to the commodification of black women's sexuality is not ok, does this mean the simple act of rubbing one’s tushie against a man’s groin while shaking it like a Polaroid picture as off limits for white women?

We learnt from the Harlem Shake that the ability of white people to take any dance trend, commodify it, and render it bullshit knows absolutely no bounds. Bullshit Miley’s kind of dancing may be, but does it follow that a kind of dancing so popular among the general population should remain the preserve of any one group of people? (However, arguing that the concept of Thicke’s "Blurred Lines" should remain the preserve of the late Marvin Gaye might prove much more fruitful. Ask Thicke about cultural appropriation, too.) Just go to any nightclub frequented by people in their teens and twenties, especially those ones that are commonly referred to with a definite article (as in ‘The Club’), and you’ll see exactly how ubiquitous what R Kelly was singing about all those years ago has become.

Yes, people. We’re here to talk about grinding.

From the looks of some of the responses to the skank-shaming of Miley, you’d think that grinding a guy in public was some kind of feminist statement. ‘She’s just expressing her sexuality in a healthy way’; say those who have absolutely no concept either of the impact of market forces in popular music or of how Miley has been cultivating this raunchy change of branding for some time now. Rest assured, sex positive feminists, we’re sure Miley has been in the fame game long enough that any genuine expression of her sexuality is unlikely to take place anywhere near the world’s media, though I’m sure there are some fat cat music execs rubbing their hands together at the thought of you buying into the myth (oh yeah, and ALSO, not strictly HER sexuality). Sadly, the kind of manufactured ‘sexual expression’ that popular culture currently prizes usually involves a camera and a dubious male to female clothing ratio (namely, he’s wearing trousers and she’s probably not), and, as every feminist ever keeps reiterating: if you guys aren’t doing it, it’s probably sexist.

The same is true of pretty much any grinding, anywhere. Take a look around next time you’re drunk enough to find yourself in one of these establishments, and note how many guys are on their knees in front of their dance partners, rubbing their arses slowly up the ladies’ legs like a cat using a scratch pole to caress its fluff-ridden anus. How many of them are ostentatiously panting as they do it, perhaps grazing their lips with their fingers and running their fingers through their luscious locks? Not very many, we’d wager. Indeed, if you want a prime example of how female sexuality is packaged as performance, just head down to Tiger Tiger tonight.

Of course, many of us have fallen victim to the urge to grind every now and again, especially with someone we’re keen to sleep with. Indeed, grinding is frequently interpreted as ‘dancing with someone in a way that indicates you are interested in fucking them’, though whether or not you actually are is another matter entirely. Male friends have told us that the whole thing can be a bit of an embarrassment, and may have had to shuffle away following the emergence of an erection that neither the bloke nor his partner were bargaining for. Indeed, the seeming popularity of grinding in nightclubs has led some men to come to the illogical conclusion that women love nothing more than having an unsolicited stiffy shoved against our cracks, hence the reason so many of us have a circle of protective girlfriends around us at all times on a night out. If that’s what gets some gals off, fair enough, but from the looks of any given music video you’d think a woman’s g-spot was in her arse cheeks.

So by all means grind away, if that’s what gets you going (we’re not the sodding dance police), but don’t pretend that gyrating against a decidedly stationary man is anything but the product of a culture where male sexuality dominates. Freedom of choice for women is central to the idea of gender equality, but that doesn’t make every choice a woman makes inherently feminist. Whether or not you want to butt rub a guy’s erection to a soundtrack of Usher is your decision, but powerful feminist statement it is not (and guess what, folks, not everything has to be). Indeed, Rhiannon’s mum once remarked that one of the things she liked about the younger generation was that the men danced, because when she was a girl all the men just stood and watched while the lasses danced around their handbags. Unfortunately, not as much has changed as would initially appear. Instead, we seem to have merely substituted ‘handbags’ for ‘strangers’ cocks’, and if that’s progress then cloak our fannies in sequins and sign us up to Strictly (please don’t). That’s not to say that there aren’t guys out there with incredible moves, just that, as things are, they’re expected to stand there with a semi while a woman tosses her hair. We may thank God for Madonna’s backing dancers, but until we see Thicke or Kanye or any other proudly heterosexual man bumping and grinding at the VMAs, we have yet to achieve dance equality.

Miley Cyrus grinds on a teddy bear. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser