10 thoughts on “Butt Control

  1. I was just saying to Alyssa that the part of this I’m most fascinated about is how Miley keeps framing herself as a hillbilly. I see her calling herself that. I read her referring to herself as such in interviews. And always in a slightly disparaging manner.

    Now, it seems to me that this is very similar to how Elvis made himself cool. He came to the city, looked around at the other kids who’d managed to come from nothing and make themselves into knowing, cool men with awesome dance moves, and emulated them. And then stole from them. And then was Elvis.

    It’s racist as fuck, but it’s a stealing that lets the thief–who is usually young and not historically astute–convince him/herself is flattery.

    And/but, in addition, Elvis actually was a redneck (to use Will Campbell’s word), whereas Miley is not a hillbilly–though she comes from hillbillies. There’s something really interesting about class here, too.

    The complicated thing about Miley’s, Britney’s, Xtina’s, and even Madonna’s positioning themselves–even after the money is rolling in–as working class is that, except for the money, they’re not exactly wrong. In the first three cases, they certainly had limited organized educational opportunities.and I do think feel trapped by stereotypes about them.

    I think the post you linked to at Tumblr did a better job of kind of articulating where I’m going with this line of thought. But it does seem to me like these young white women do, in some way, see themselves as “white trash” (for lack of a better term) and so they–like all of white U.S. history–see black performers as having a kind of freedom and success that they want. So, yes, emulation and then, when they run back to the safety of white hegemony, theft and passing it off as “theirs.”

  2. Elvis & his parents were from East Tupelo. For those of you not in the know, East Tupelo was synonymous for “poor white trash” (& to some people with generations of history as Tupelo residents, it still is). Vernon Presley served time in Parchman for writing bad checks – so not only were they poor, there was a family criminal element. And to this day in small town Mississippi (and I imagine other places), you’re guilty by association – if your Grandaddy was a horse thief, then you’re not far removed from a horse thief. I skated through a lot of stuff in my early life simply because of who my family is.

    And to go along with what Aunt B says about “limited organized educational opportunities” – well, yeah – if the “talent” goes away, what would these people do? They’d slip right back into being “poor white trash” — that’s why there are so many child stars gone wrong; the fame goes away and they’re left with either a minimum wage gig where the shame of falling from the pedestal is reminded to them each day. Who wouldn’t be tempted to do drugs?

    But I guess what I’m getting to is this whole “working class” thing is people think it adds legitimacy to the wealth and fame. That whole “See, I’m just like you.”

  3. Thanks for this link. I’ve had this twerking stuff only off in my peripheral vision and only know about Miley from these interwebs. But I was all confused because I couldn’t see what was new about this so-called new dance. It seemed rather familiar to me, so I figured I was missing something. But nope; I’m not. It’s just gone mainstream, aka white pop culture. And I’m am so not hip but find myself near to hip people now and again. They’ve been dancing like this as long as I’ve been going to clubs and shows. Big Freedia is right that Miley isn’t good at it. What struck me about the performance, when I finally watched in online Tuesday afternoon, was not just the racism but how little talent or creativity it required.

  4. I just showed my co-worker this:

    So that she could see how it had already moved from the club into mainstream pop culture once, but in a way with actual dancing taking place.

    I think that’s part of why I agree with people who say Miley’s act is just a minstrel show–it’s not about actually learning to twerk. It’s about imitating what twerking looks like to her.

  5. B, the way you compare Miley Cyrus and Elvis makes me wonder…. Big Freedia, who I presume was twerking before Ms. Cyrus could walk, says that Cyrus is incompetent. Was Elvis analogous in terms of his competence as a dancer? Was his type of hip shaking a Thing before he did it? (Most people probably think it wasn’t, but some ignorant people also think twerking wasn’t a thing before Cyrus did it.) If so, would the people he got his moves from, Elvis’s Big Freedias, say he was any good at it? I wonder specifically about his dancing because I think as a singer/stylist Elvis was at least as good as any of the artists he stole from (except maybe Wynonie Harris). There was a racist dynamic going on with that element of his performance too, but there wasn’t this issue of competence mixed in with it. Ya know?

  6. Elias, I have no good answer to your question. But I had the most fun this morning realizing that I had no good answer to your question.

    I was thinking along the lines of “Elvis walks into a club in Memphis and he sees a guy singing and dancing… somehow… on stage and he takes that whole stage presentation with him into ‘let’s sell this shit to white girls’ land.” In other words, I was kind of thinking in a simplified “someone had the total package, but couldn’t get a national white audience because he was black and Elvis could” way. Something almost directly analogous to the Big Freedia/Miley Cyrus situation.

    But I’m not finding video of even nationally prominent black performers from the late 40s, early 50s and there’s certainly not YouTube footage of what Elvis was seeing onstage in Memphis.

    So, to come at the question from that direction, at least by me, the question is unanswerable. I can’t see the performers Elvis was seeing in Memphis and how they put together a stage show. In fact, he may have been better than them. Or not. No way of knowing.

    But then I reread your comment and got to thinking about Elvis just as a dancer. And that’s interesting to look at.

    Here’s Elvis in Jailhouse Rock in ’57

    Now, to my eye, it looks like Elvis’s style of dancing, at this early stage, has a few signature elements–yes, the pelvis wiggling (but we all know that)–he leans his upper body way forward, his feet are set far apart, but when he bends his knees, he’s bringing them inward and lifting up his heels, and, most importantly, he’s stopping and pausing his movements, a lot, giving everything a kind of herky-jerky motion.

    Now, watch the guys here:

    All the tall guys (and Elvis was six foot) are leaned way over like that. They guy at the thirty second mark has a similar kind of hiccuppy way of moving his legs. In fact, if Elvis had a partner, who would, presumably, be twirling and kicking her legs out herself while he was doing his thing, it’s hard to see what would be so controversial about his dancing. And this makes me wonder if, in part, Elvis’s cultural “sin” wasn’t shaking his pelvis, but not doing so in a couple, since the jitterbug had been an incredibly popular dance for years and people didn’t get worked up over how men did it.

    Check out this dude from ’46.

    It’s not exactly what Elvis was doing, but you can see the similarities. But he’s got a twirling girl in a skirt that somehow distracts from what he’s up to.

    But then I stumbled across this:

    Just watch Bessie Dudley on the left, especially right at the 20 second mark. There’s the pelvis shake, the knees coming up and in. It’s just what Gillian Welch sings, he shakes it like a chorus girl.

    So, clearly the taboos he’s messing with aren’t just along racial lines, but gender.

    But the jitterbug, by the time Elvis came along, was ubiquitous among all young people in the U.S. I’m not sure dancing your part alone and in slightly different rhythm than you’d dance with a partner counts as some new innovation appropriated from black people. The whole dance and the music you did it to was already appropriated from black people.

    So, it’s easy to say “Look, these folks were singing this way–take Big Boy Crudup especially–and it was going unnoticed by white society for the most part and Elvis heard them and he loved it and he took it to a white audience and got rich and they got jack shit” (and easy to argue that that’s overly simplified).

    But I feel like it’s not as easy to say that black people were doing this kind of dancing, it was going unnoticed by white people for the most part, and Elvis brought it to them. Because white people were doing that kind of dancing. The theft had already happened.

    The question, then, it seems to me is whether they recognized that they were doing that kind of dancing or if seeing Elvis do it bothered them because it brought out into the open something they weren’t acknowledging about what they were doing.

  7. I am delighted and impressed by your response. I never thought about the gender angle before. When Gillian Welch sang “He shook it like a chorus girl,” I went, “Yeah, he kind of did, ha ha,” and thought no more of it.

    The dancers in the jitterbug films were performing for each other. The two lovely women in the Cotton Club film were performing for the audience, as Elvis did. Elvis displayed himself, in all his sexuality, to the audience. That’s something we’re accustomed to women doing, not men. It might be more to the point to say he shook it like a stripper.

    Also, if what he’s doing is essentially jitterbugging, but by himself, well…if couples dancing is symbolic fucking, what is solo dancing? I refer you to the song posted above.

    The race/class thing was nonetheless part of it tho. Elvis was one of “those people.” He wasn’t black but I’m sure that in the eyes some whites he was something not much better (the hillbilly/redneck thing discussed above). White privilege will out of course, and 20 years later he shook the President’s hand. Social mobility isn’t that hard for a white guy once he gets money. If a guy who read more respectable, wearing a dinner jacket perhaps, had shook it like that, Ed Sullivan might not have cut him off at the waist. In fact, I haven’t seen all the tapes–who’s to say someone didn’t?! It was Sullivan, wasn’t it? Of course that show was notoriously censorious, and church groups have objected to practically everything–the Beatles, Tellytubbies, Harry Potter, yoga–so we should remember to take Elvis’s transgressive nature with a grain of salt. His cultural sin was so great the culture punished him by making him the biggest star in the world.

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