Twerking, Appropriation, and Mastodon’s Utopian Vision

First, just watch it:

 

 

What are we to make of this? Is it cheap exploitation? Shock tactics? A desperate stab at relevance by an aging metal band on the precipice of becoming dad-rock?

Mastodon’s video is another entry in the cultural discourse on twerking, albeit from an unlikely source, since the hard rock/heavy metal subculture is notorious for it’s hostility to anything considered popular or “mainstream”. Where does this video fit into the conversation? Is it just a continuation of the sordid tradition of white appropriation of black tropes, or is it contributing something new? or at the very least, something a tinge less problematic?

Here it is necessary to consider a couple of other touchstones in our ongoing fascination with twerking, starting in the negative: Miley Cyrus.

 

The “We Can’t Stop” video marked the arrival of the “new” Miley, a complete shedding of the Hannah Montana personality, and her attempt at edginess or relevance or whatever. To accomplish this, she used black bodies as set dressing to giver her video a little edge and bolster her newfound “adult” sexuality. While Miley has vehemently denied her use of black bodies as damaging, invoking the timeless “I have black friends/I don’t see race” defense, sociologist Tressie McMilllan Cottom explains in heartbreaking detail how Cyrus’ appropriation does nothing to question or curb the deep-seated, racist belief that black bodies are always available to be used however white people see fit.

Miley Cyrus has faced no small amount of criticism for this “aesthetic” choice, and for a time had seemed to back off on it. Then #assgate.

 

Now the positive:

 

 

Rihanna’s video is overtly sexual. Rihanna is overtly sexual. The “Pour it Up” video feels exploitative at first glance, but under careful scrutiny, it can read as empowering rather than objectifying. In an illuminating discussion, Susan Shepard, Ayesha Siddiqi and Sarah Prickett highlight how the video showcases twerking on its own merits, and from a position of female power. On an aesthetic level, the cinematography implies no male gaze; these are female bodies moving for themselves, for other women. The lyrics speak of woman getting her money in spite of male pleasure rather than because of it.

 

In what category does Mastodon fall?

The “Motherload” video itself has a healthy sense of humor. It begins with the staid metal tropes of pseudo-occultic imagery, but turns into a hip-hop video almost without warning, completely disposing of/declaring meaningless those first images. From there, Mastodon’s showcasing of twerking itself is pretty interesting. While there is a slight implication of male gaze/pleasure, the video’s second half is more akin to “Pour it Up” than “We Can’t Stop”. The women are showcased for their own physical feats. There are no reaction shots; Mastodon merely provides the soundtrack to the proceedings. And though the video hints at a competition, it doesn’t end with a winner, but a celebration of all. The women enjoy each other’s performances, and Mastodon continues to rock out for them. Everybody has a place in Mastodon’s little world; space to enjoy, to act, to celebrate.

Certainly, Mastodon have not sewn up the issue, and four old white guys certainly shouldn’t have the last word, but their video is an intriguing, positive and almost life-affirming entry into the discussion.

 

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