Not all twerks are equal: Teaching my kids how to appreciate pop culture

My daughters love Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj, but how much should I educate them about the politics of pop?

Topics: Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Anaconda, Shake It Off, iggy azalea, Editor's Picks, Music, cultural appropriation,

Not all twerks are equal: Teaching my kids how to appreciate pop culture Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift

“If I like a song, I don’t care who sings it,” my teenage daughter says. And it’s true, she doesn’t seem to care – she and her 10-year-old sister have broad musical palates. They love hip-hop and show tunes, Tupac and Disney. They unapologetically enjoy Selena Gomez and share their mother’s abiding affection for Nirvana. But lately I’ve been wondering how to talk to my kids about music, and how much who sings it does matter. Specifically: what they need to understand about Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj and the politics of the female posterior.

When Swift released her new single and video for “Shake It Off” last week, critics were quick to debate whether the image of a twerking Taylor, resplendent in gold chains and surrounded by dark-skinned dancers, was cultural appropriation or self-mockery. Similar conversations have spun around Iggy Azalea, about the patois she affects when she performs and her reported casual description of B.o.B., Drake and T.I. as “ma n*ggas.” They’ve ignited likewise over Katy Perry — who recently lamented, “Can’t you appreciate a culture?” — and  Sky Ferreira and Miley Cyrus.

Like plenty of kids, my children enjoy many artists with equal ferocity. When a counselor at their summer camp dared last week to criticize Swift’s new single, “Shake It Off,” my younger daughter was eager to retort, “Don’t you disrespect my girl T.” But when she saw the video, the idea that there might be a question of racial sensitivity didn’t even occur to her. Her older sister observed, “It’s about Taylor showing she knows she can’t dance.” And my younger one said, ”She’s just wearing a whole bunch of different costumes,” though she did add, during the twerking, “That’s a lot of booty.”

And booty has meaning. My daughter is equally loyal to Nicki Minaj — with whom she shares an obsession with wigs — as she is to Taylor Swift. But when she hears the wildly explicit, genuinely catchy “Anaconda,” which is already quickly becoming unavoidable, I know she doesn’t quite get that it’s a riff on the Sir Mix-a-Lot song I happily grooved to a generation earlier, an enthusiastic tribute to the “thick soul sisters” — complete with a clear message to females of my body type that “You ain’t it, Miss Thing.” My children are only now starting to grasp that that message is a big part of what all this rump shaking is about, and figuring out for themselves that “appreciating a culture,” as Katy Perry would say, means understanding context. That means that when Minaj is singing about her “big fat ass bitches,” a) I’d prefer my kids not sing along but also b) that they understand she is celebrating the kind of women you don’t see in Victoria’s Secret ads. That she is commenting on race and culture and narrow standards of beauty and a lot of that has to do with butt. I want them to not be like the clueless white kids I saw earlier this summer at Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” taking goofy selfies gawking at the sphinx’s breasts and buttocks. I want them, when they watch Miley or Iggy and the dancers they put behind them, to consider the implications of, as  puts it, “black female bodies as a white amusement park.” I want them to know that music belongs to everybody but that Swift’s story in “Shake It Off” is not Jay’s in “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” — and to respect that. I want them to question it when white guys who write for the New York Times insinuate that twerking equals “trashy.”

You Might Also Like

I still remember back in 1989 — the year of Taylor Swift’s birth, the year she has chosen as the name of her new album – listening to a college girl as white as I am give a discourse at a party on how Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” really spoke to her, and wondering whether that was a powerful and beautiful thing or completely ridiculous. Twenty-five years later, I still don’t know. I do know that when my older daughter and I were part of the massive throng at Jay Z and Beyoncé’s show last month, I watched the whole racially mixed crowd – us included – go nuts when Jay did “99 Problems,” well aware the problems he describes in no way apply to the likes of us.

My girls are Taylors; they are not Nickis and they never will be. When I ask my kids about their music, my elder daughter tells me, “I don’t need to be all, ‘Yes, every song is about me.’” That’s what I hope she continues to explore and understand about her music — that it opens you up to another person’s vision of the world, but that it doesn’t mean you are that other person. And it definitely doesn’t mean you’re it, Miss Thing.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...