It’s the newest fad.
But where does it come from?
And why should we care?
Cartoon by: Daryl Cagle
Origins of Twerking
Many people don’t realize that twerking has a long history as a part of traditional African dance. The traditional Mapouka dance from the Ivory Coast has been attributed to the origins of twerking. In the 1990s, a newer, raunchier version of the Mapouka became popular in the Ivory Coast prompting the government to ban it. Shortly thereafter, a version of the dance became popularized in New Orleans and became known as Bounce. So, this style of dance has been around for a long time. Even in it’s current reincarnation, it has been in the states for 20 years- it’s a lot older than people realize!
When Miley Cyrus brought twerking onto the scene, however, everything changed. It became a craze, and it shot straight into the mainstream. This has created an interesting cultural space for twerking to live in. Its popular influence moved from traditional African culture, to 90s black subculture, to white mainstream pop culture. Twerking has become hegemonic.
Twerking into Hegemony
Let me explain. Miley Cyrus is a pop star who has influence, and because of her fame, people care what she does. When she twerked in the limelight of the VMAs, twerking made its way into the dominant ideology. Stories of her performance were reported on all over TV, the Internet, and social media. It jettisoned hundreds of self made twerking videos as well as reaction commentary videos. In fact, twerking has gone so far into the norm, that there are now websites cropping up that beg us to pay attention to important news items or cultural icons by putting a twerking Miley on them. It’s an amusing anti-hegemonic tactic to think that maybe people will look at the Mona Lisa if Miley is twerking on her, or people will care about the problems of minimum wage if her butt is front and center across the story.
One of the spinoffs that emerged was a video of a girl, Caitlin, who was making a twerking video for her boyfriend but inadvertently set herself on fire. The video went viral, and within a few months it boasted nine million views. On September 9, 2013, Jimmy Kimmel brought Caitlin on his show and revealed to the world that the video was a hoax.
Jimmy Kimmel’s prank is ingenious in that he simultaneously created a piece that was hegemonic while publicly ridiculing hegemony. Obviously, he was making fun of all the news outlets that picked up the story and reported it as true. He alleged that hundreds of news outlets covered the story, and included coverage clips from Fox, MSNBC, CNN Live, KTLA (a Los Angeles news station), HLN, The Talk, The View, and Inside Edition. However, the video is hegemonic because by withholding valuable information from the video, he is forcing us to think and feel a certain way about the content of the message. Kimmel loves a practical joke, and we were all foolish to believe the ideas that were fed us, yet the media still managed to come out on top economically. What he meant as a slander to twerking ended up making sellable news for a lot of networks. In fact, the phenomenon is perfectly described in an article about Miley Cyrus at the VMAs by the online satire magazine, The Onion. You can read it here.
On the other hand, Kimmel created a spectacular culture jam. He makes it clear that it’s a pretty sad state of affairs when the media’s ideas of what is important includes twerking. The purpose of culture jamming is to attempt to bring the spectacle of our contemporary society into sharp focus, so that we can see it for what it is. The ‘spectacle’ of our society is the show put on by corporations, and by recognizing it, we can break out. Kalle Lasn (2000) draws an interesting verbal comparison when he states that the immediacy of life is gone, and now we have only ‘mediacy,’ a word to describe the mediated life that has been prescribed for us (p.146). Hypercommercialism and extreme commodofication have weaved such a spectacle of life for our society that we live in what Chris Hedges (2010) calls “a country entranced by illusions.” This is illustrated in the clip when, after airing the news coverage, Kimmel can be heard saying, “Good thing nothing is happening in Syria right now.” Hedges more aptly states Kimmel’s sentiments when he writes, “[our country] spends its emotional and intellectual energy on the trivial and the absurd…. Day after day, one lurid saga after another, whether it is Michael Jackson, Britney Spears [or Miley Cyrus], enthralls the country … despite bank collapses, wars, mounting poverty or the criminality of its financial class.” (Read the whole article here). In this light, Kimmel’s prank as a culture jam did all the things that it was supposed to. He starkly revealed how we live in a society where a war gets less coverage than an awards performance gone bad. It jarred people out of their spectacle long enough to have a genuine laugh, and it left the news industry red-faced in embarrassment for not doing their jobs.
Hedges, C. (2010, June 17). American psychosis: What happens to a society that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion?. Adbusters, Retrieved from https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/90/hedges-american-psychosis.html
Lasn, K. (2000). Culture jamming. In J. Schor & D. Holt (Eds.), The Consumer Society ReaderNY: The New Press.