Miley Cyrus released on Friday her latest single off of her new album, Younger Now, which will come out in September. The eponymous track is a pop music song—that’s as close as this article will get to reviewing the actual music.
The video and single art are problematic and tone-deaf in timing. A week after the world watched white supremacists march through the streets of an American town, Miley calls back to a dream-like vision of fifties Americana to invoke a sense of innocence, renewal, and joy—sentiments far divorced from the reality of Jim Crow-era America in the 1950s. Of all the weeks to pine nostalgic for the fifties (there aren’t any good weeks for this), this might be the worst week possible to wax nostalgic about lunch counters and poodle skirts.
On the album cover, Cyrus wears a rhinestone rocker suit with a spit curl. In the video, she mugs around with a group of backup dancers dressed as rockers, then performs a dance routine in a poodle skirt on a set vaguely reminiscent of a soda shop or lunch counter. She even references a beauty queen float, in case you weren’t clear that there’s something distinctly southern about this vision.
In the scenes that feel less problematic, she’s throwing it back to the 1960s with references to classic country performers and looks. Dolly Parton, arguably the queen of classic country by sheer force of persistence, is Miley’s godmother. It’s a reference that works: the Nudie suit, the brown western shirt with piping and broad tie, and the ruffled hot pink dress are all right at home on the Porter Wagoner Show or Hee Haw or the Johnny Cash Show.
But she still confounds this view of the 1960s (itself a recollection of a whitewashed era in televised musical acts) with references from the decade before it. It’s the ultimate expression of privilege to be able to think of the fifties—sock hops, sweater sets, sleek jukeboxes, bobby socks and saddle shoes—and immediately associate it with innocence.
Of course Miley doesn’t remember Jim Crow. She wasn’t there. And she didn’t come up with this visual dictionary on her own or in a vacuum. This visual shorthand is a potent and reverential touchstone for many white people (the president himself thinks the fifties were the ideal decade), but really has very little to do with the actual experience people of color in that era. Even artists who know better fall into this trap: John Waters put the black characters in Cry-Baby in the jail scene.
This isn’t Miley’s first brush with a malignant approach to race. She’s outright co-opted black culture and fashion before—famously in her post-Disney thrash phase—and used black performers as props. Remember when she had cornrows? What about the dreadlocks?
“Change is a thing you can count on,” Miley sings from a pastel-blue parade float in her latest video. She probably didn’t intend this line to be about white privilege and its transmutative effect on memory or history, but leave it to Miley to not fully grasp what she’s saying before it comes out of her mouth.