JoJo: The Anti-Miley?

August 27, 2013 6 comments

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Performing last night at Vitamin Water and The FADER’s #uncapped music series, JoJo was exactly the sort of palate cleansing I needed after the abandonment of God and all things good in the world that gave way to whatever the hell Miley Cyrus was doing at the VMAs.

Once the smoke cleared, and with them now both on my mind, the similarities between JoJo and Miley Cyrus seemed obvious: Both were extremely successful at very young ages. Both have a sound inspired by black music (one having been inspired much more recently than the other). Both are embracing their adulthood and sexuality—complete with edgy, short haircuts. And both are in the process of reestablishing themselves as artists. However, as I watched JoJo’s excellent performance of her old hits, tracks from her recent mixtapes and ambitious covers of Sade, Kendrick Lamar and Drake, it hit me that for all their parallels, JoJo is the anti-Miley Cyrus.

Everything that drives me crazy about Miley Cyrus, when manifested in JoJo, I enjoy. Aside from the fact that vocally, Miley isn’t even playing the same sport as JoJo, it’s a clear case of two artists who are obviously establishing themselves within the context of black music and black culture, with one paying homage to the culture and style of music that she loves, while the other is straight-up appropriating and degrading it.

An easy rebuttal to my love of JoJo disdain for Miley is that it comes down to a personal preference: “If you like JoJo’s music, of course you’re going to be OK with what she’s doing. You’re just more critical of Miley Cyrus because you don’t like her.” However, that argument is much too simplistic in a year when the VMAs saw no black winners, instead awarding a slew of artists who, if we’re being kind, were inspired by, and if we’re being real, stole the sound of black artists.

When it comes down to it, I’m not mad that Miley Cyrus is twerking and working with Juicy J—although there are plenty of excellent reasons to be mad about that—I’m annoyed that she’s been doing such a shitty job. She’s not good at twerking and she’s clearly not trying to be. It’s all a big joke to her—an amusing costume that she’ll wear until she’s done playing black. Miley Cyrus knows she can’t twerk for shit and isn’t making hip hop music, but isn’t it cute that the skinny white girl is trying?

This brings me back to JoJo and her cover of Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo” during last night’s performance. Before she started, she admitted that she was nervous to cover a song by one the greatest women in jazz and R&B (let alone all of music). She could have added, “Especially since I’m a white girl,” and I would have thought: “Yeah, you’re right. Now, you better kill it.” (She totally killed it.) I have to wonder how much that small admission endeared me to whatever came next. Just the recognition that the weight of Sade’s legacy was something important that she wanted to honor made me much more willing to accept the outcome. People know when something is being recognized and respected in a real way versus being exploited as a means to an end.

I’m not saying, of course, that all white artists who are inspired by black music should preface their performances with recognition of this fact. But it’s that sincerity that’s key. The problem is: How do you measure sincerity? What’s the bar that a white artist has to clear before we’re OK with them performing at the BET Awards?

Personally, there’s an ease that I see in artists I believe versus those that I don’t. Last night, JoJo looked like she was jamming out in front of her bathroom mirror to all her favorite songs. She looked comfortable. It didn’t seem forced or as if she was trying to sound extra urban just because she was covering a Kendrick Lamar song.

Justin Timberlake, for all his faults, is a great example of this. He gets the pass that he does because in addition to making solid music, he makes everything look so damn easy. The natural deftness of his performances overshadows the fact that he’s basically doing an extended impression of Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye’s lovechild. With Miley Cyrus, you can see her straining to be the white Rihanna—to insert herself into the sphere to twerking and ratchetness if it kills her. Looking desperate doesn’t make me believe anything you’re doing.

On a higher intellectual level, is there more to this argument? Absolutely. But like many institutional inequalities, you know when something is wrong even if you can’t perfectly articulate it. There’s a smell test the JoJos of the world pass that the Mileys do not. When you’re watching an artist perform, it’s not necessarily about every single fact of the matter, but rather, the feeling you get while watching them. JoJo feels right in every way Miley Cyrus feels wrong. It’s an explanation that I’m sure will leave many unsatisfied, but the inability to fully understand that just might be the whole point.