I had to look up the word ‘twerking’ to understand the storm over Miley Cyrus’ adventures this week.
Like most neologisms it’s mutated; in the 1930s Walter Edmonds used it to mean ‘an insignifcant male’. It was related, in that sense, to ‘twerp’.
Today’s meaning’s been added to the OED. I’m not sure that’s wise; pop-terms tend to be transient and one of the strengths of the OED has been its refusal to bow to pop culture. Until now. They’ve also added selfie, squee and derp, but those might last longer.
To my mind the better definition of ‘twerk’ is ‘baboon mating ritual’ – it’s a specific match, though that said, the body language is shared by a lot of primates, obviously including humans to judge by the storm that followed Cyrus’ performance. Sigh. Another blow to the idea of human exceptionalism.
Nor is Cyrus the first. Frank Zappa wrote songs lampooning the people who made such moves over forty years ago. That, along with other ‘music industry anthropology’, led to him being banned from the Royal Albert Hall in 1968. Zappa sued; the upshot was a case in which, among other things, he had to explain – in an Old Bailey courtroom – exactly what the phrase ‘provocative squat’ meant. After first explaining to the judge what a ‘phonograph record’ was.
The problem with performances like Cyrus’ – and I include US celebrity ‘clothing malfunctions’ and other adventures, including spouting old Anglo Saxon words, is they’re blatantly unsubtle. Which isn’t smart. Though there is a degree of ‘clever’ in the cynical way these things leverage media prominence from scandal. It worked this time too. Cyrus’ fiancee, reportedly, was ‘mortified’. Her co-singer felt overshadowed. A letter from a mum to her daughter telling her not to follow in Miley’s footsteps went viral. Shock – horror – HEADLINES.
As far as I can tell the technique works better in the US, In Britain or its former Empire it’s still unacceptable but more likely to be met with moronic headlines of ‘fwoaaaar!’ and yobbish media outbursts. Or…nothing. One has merely to check out the way American guests are gobsmacked by content on Graham Norton’s chat show to get a handle on the difference. (‘You can SAY that on TV here?’)
It’s true in New Zealand too. Last week the 20-year old daughter of New Zealand’s Prime Minister published nude selfies as part of her art studies in Paris, tastefully festooned with fast food (OK, that’s an oxymoron in SO many ways). The pictures were splashed across the media and …nobody cared, except Kim Dotcom, who offered to buy prints. Political scandal? No. Media frenzy? No. Shock? No. Kiwis weren’t worried.
My take? If we step back and look at the societies and cultures – at what is going on in the sense of social anthropology – it’s illuminating. And I think we can take lessons from Polynesia. The Cook Islanders have a dance known as ura. It’s tasteful, clever, subtle and skilled. It is about young men and women having a conversation – people in love and romancing each other. It is telling a story about much more than blatant acts of physicality. The dance is sensuous but not overt. What counts is the layered message, subtlety, and abstraction.
That, surely, is a far better demonstration of human intellect, creativity and ability than a crude emulation of baboon mating behaviour…isn’t it?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013