SKY FERREIRA, “I BLAME MYSELF” – GRANT SINGER. Depending on how internet-stunted your attention span is, you may or may not remember the Miley Cyrus/racial appropriation controversy of August 2013. Miley Cyrus – a small, famous, white girl – on several occasions danced with some – not very small, not very famous – black women. Because we live in the time we do, and because critical theory is at the point that it’s at, the reactionary SJ Fascist Hype Machine tore her to shreds. It was an ugly thing to have happened on multiple levels – not only because it made the race of one’s back-up dancers into an unsolvable issue, but also because it shifted focus away from the pretty incredible thing that Miley was doing – that is, transforming herself into an autonomous warrior in the face of publicly sanctioned ruin. Like all former child stars, Miley has been offered up as sacrifice to the entertainment press, groomed by the industry to make mistake after cringe-worthy mistake for the delight of Perez Hilton and Yahoo News. Instead of taking that abuse to the point of public and personal annihilation (see: Lindsey Lohan, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes, and on and on back to Sandra Dee), Miley has transformed public embarrassment into glorious implosion – ruin as celebration, wasted potential as hot dog-riding splendor. This included the public response to her so-called racism: the critical theory outcry was just a part of the experience. Remember only God can judge us; forget the haters, ’cause somebody loves ya.
Part of the reason Miley’s current project is so effective – and why it’s been so disregarded by the social justice crowd – is because Miley herself doesn’t appear to have any control over it. For not entirely unfounded reasons, Miley has been characterized by the public as a Stupid Rich Girl. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She does what People tell her to do – until she messes up too much, of course, in which case the blame falls more or less on her (she’s manipulated by studio heads when she strips for Terry Richardson, but she’s personally guilty when she twerks up Robin Thicke). The Miley Experience is messy and inconsistent, and that makes us uncomfortable. As a result, it’s probably going to be a long time before anyone gets credit for the ride she’s put us through, if only because we don’t know what to credit or who to give that credit to. We don’t know if we should blame her parents, or her label, or society, or her.
Lucky for those who require artistic control in their critical experience, we’ve been blessed by the presence of Miley’s BFF, Sky Ferreira. Ferreira, like Miley, is small, rich(-ish), and white. She’s not quite as famous, but she’s just as much a product of studio manipulation: seven long years, two forgotten EPs, an assembly line of unsuccessful images. “Night Time, My Time,” her 2013 debut album of which “I Blame Myself” is one of many highlights, is her break-out “fuck you” to industry limbo; a hipper, darker, more consistent version of Miley’s 2013 “Bangerz.” “I Blame Myself” is the third video for the album directed by frequent collaborator Grant Singer, and it features what have become the Holy Trinity of “XO Jane”-baiting video tropes: self-objectification, imitation of culturally “other” pop icons, and black back-up dancers.
If Miley is a self-certified hot mess, Sky Ferreira is a room-temperature one. Despite her tendency to ramble in interviews, get arrested on heroin charges, and overuse animal emojis, Sky gives the impression that she has a good amount of control over her public image. She writes her own music, and her music is smart. She dresses well and hangs out with designers. She dates a boy in a Pitchfork-approved Brooklyn band. She was never a Disney star, even if she once tried to be something like one. She is definitely cool. Coolness, in the fucked-up logic of public perception, makes her new video all the more incriminating. Your average asshole can say that at least Miley doesn’t know any better. But Sky is smart; doesn’t she know that it’s offensive to reduce black people to props, and to pretend to be Michael Jackson, and to take off her clothes just to get attention?
There is a very clear moment in “I Blame Myself” when Team Sky chooses to comment on these issues. It comes exactly one second after the song starts, when the camera pans down to the back of her black hoodie-covered head: Sky Ferreira Does Not Give A Fuck. Sky Ferreira is not trying to make a video about race relations, or gender issues, or public perception of Michael Jackson. She is exerting her imperial presence over the world of her video in the exact way that every pop singer who has ever had any amount of star credentials has done, from the early days of Madonna to Rick Ross. Are black drug dealers in South Central Los Angeles conventionally perceived in popular culture as threats? Yes. Are small white girls conventionally perceived as weak? Yes. Is a small white girl leading a gang of black drug dealers in South Central Los Angeles necessarily responding to the ironic inversion of cultural perceptions about dominance and submission? Yes. But that doesn’t matter; ironized social commentary is not The Point. There is no way in which this video can be argued as “acceptable” in the eyes of the impossible rubric of social justice theory, but that’s okay: what matters is the absolute joy I experience every time I watch the fourth-wall breaking jump cut at 1:14 from a sullen drug deal to Sky Ferreira’s mullet screaming “Don’t you know what it feels like?” into my face.
Team Sky knew this video was going to upset some people; if they didn’t then they aren’t as smart as they look. They were fully aware of the controversy that Miley’s significantly less explicit appropriation of black culture garnered, and they knew that this would lead to a backlash that, less than 24 hours in, has already begun (Ferreira herself has already responded on it, quite well; I sort of wish she hadn’t). But they made it anyway. They made it because they didn’t find anything explicitly racist about a dangerous white girl hanging out with dangerous black boys and engaging in dangerous activities like dealing drugs and dancing. They made it because the best way to convey Who Sky Ferreira Is Right Now is to film a gloomy Sky Ferreira drug dealing, followed by a jump shot to an angry Sky Ferreira getting in the camera’s face, followed by a straight-faced Sky Ferreira leading an immaculately synchronized slow lean on the hood of a black Cadillac, followed by a smirking Sky Ferreira performing a vintage, arched-back model strut. This is self-glorification at it’s best – asserting one’s persona over a PR minefield with no concern for public perception. #YOLO, #DGAF. This is why we forgive Madonna for blasphemy; this is why we forgive Snoop Dogg for murder.
That glorification takes one step further as the video gears up for the second chorus and we watch Sky transform herself into a dance-leading Michael Jackson copycat. This would feel incongruous, expect that it doesn’t; given the incongruity of Sky’s presence in this video at all, it seems more or less natural. Michael Jackson, as King of Pop, had the remarkable ability to transform the least dance-y scenarios into beautifully coordinated dance routines. To pretend that you are Michael Jackson – especially when you are a small, white female who isn’t extremely famous or an extremely good dancer – is to make an incredibly bold claim about your awesomeness. To pull it off – to execute the moves, to whip your not dance-y scenario into line, to look cool in a dirty mullet – is to back up that claim. Sky does this, spectacularly. That Michael Jackson is sacred, black, and dead, makes the move all the more spectacular. If Jackon’s death was a pop music apotheosis, Ferreira’s imitation is the theological equivalent to “Like A Prayer” and “Yeezus.”
This would all be fantastic entertainment if “I Blame Myself” didn’t come to it’s conclusion, but all good things come to an end, and Sky’s swagger has no choice but to combust. She lets it happen in the Sky Ferreira-ist way possible: demeaned and harassed in a dimly lit interrogation room, she cracks and, sort of out of nowhere, wraps her legs around her interrogator’s head and strips naked. There’s no joy in the action, no Gaga-esque pride in utilizing sexuality to assert dominance over men. It’s a spiteful and unhappy concession to business of imperialism. “This is what I have to do, huh? Even after all that? Did you see that spin move I made those tough guys do? Fine, whatever. I win. Fuck you.”
The move here is complicated, and once again it seems incongruous with the particular authority that Ferreira has been asserting throughout the video. Her advances are aggressive (she’s undeniably in control), but her reversion to performative sexuality jars with the masculine, hood-rich dominance that makes up the first half of her performance. Regardless, the look of hatred and self-loathing on her face as she rips off her shirt is the emotional keystone of “I Blame Myself.” It’s gross and uncomfortable; it isn’t far from the face she has on the notably icky cover of “Night Time, My Time.” It’s also pretty much identical to the face that she’s wearing for the entirety of the video, suddenly made clear. Pissed off, assertive, wounded, disgusted. It’s the look people get when they know that they’re being judged, not only because they know that other people are judging them, but because they’re judging themselves. It’s the face you get when you’ve been told time and time again that you’re going to do something wrong, and finally you just go ahead and do it.
This gets called “acting out.” This gets called “good girl gone bad.” This gets called “spring break.” Sky Ferreira calls this bullshit. “This is You making Me feel gross and then shaming Me for it. You know what? You’re right. It is gross. But fuck that. You want to make me gross? I make you feel gross too.”
Grossness directs “I Blame Myself.” It’s the experience of watching someone self-destruct with the full knowledge that they’re self-destructing. You’re hanging out in South Central? No! You’re using black back-up dancers? Sky! You’re pretending to be MJ? No no Sky! You’re slamming a police interrogators face into your crotch while you rip off your shirt? No no no no! It’s watching her strut through all of this, with the absolute knowledge of how bad it is, with the absolute knowledge of how bad it will be for her – and watching her DGAF. Think about the “Jezebel” posts, Sky! Think about the freshmen in Sociology 101! Think about – “fuck no; I’ma do me. You did this to me; now watch me do it to you.”
Without the interrogation scene, “I Blame Myself” just would have be one of the most entertaining music videos of 2014. But the nasty sexuality of that moment throws the rest of the clip into uncomfortable perspective. Not just it’s own perspective, but the perspective of everything that’s been happening in popular music PR – specifically, the PR of female pop stars – for the past five years. No matter what Sky does – dance, sing, be smart, chill with Hedi Slimane, intimidate the shit out of drug dealers – she will always be a girl, manipulated by studios, offered up to the public embarrassment holocaust. This is the publicly accepted narrative of pop starlets. For years the only responses were to: a.) accept (Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, etc.), or b.) own it to the point of empowerment (what Hipster Runoff’s Carles labels “slutwave”: Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj, arguably Beyoncé, Katy Perry (sometimes), and, most emblematically, Stefani Germanotta). But Sky Ferreira – and, to a less explicit but equally effective extent, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Lana Del Rey, and up-and-comers like England’s FKA Twigs and Brooklyn’s Tei Shi – has taken a distinctly different approach: expose it. Make it feel gross. Embrace this disgusting feeling of guilt, revel in it, reveal it, force it onto You, Viewer, and make You, Viewer feel dirty too.
The beauty of Ferreira’s project – part of a general movement in pop culture that you could arguable call “post-slutwave” – is the absolute affirmation of this sort of autonomous self-destruction (it’s not just female pop stars – Kanye is vey much in on the game, as are indie stars like FIDLAR and The Weeknd). That affirmation is what can save “I Blame Myself” from the oncoming critical theory firestorm, and what could have saved “We Can’t Stop” nine months before. Sky and Miley grew up at the same time under the same industry pressures and the same disgraceful obligation to publicly ruin themselves. They’ve both refused – not by giving in or by bucking fame, but by embracing that pressure and exposing it for what it is. They’ve made sloppiness into a tool and discomfort into an art. With no choice but to do wrong, they’ve done wrong gloriously. The song is called “I Blame Myself.” The line is “I blame myself/for my reputation.” It isn’t a sad song; it isn’t an angry song. It’s a celebratory one. “I blame myself for ‘using’ black men as ‘props.’ I blame myself for abominating the memory of Michael Jackson. I blame myself for using my body to get what I want. What else could I do? It’s good, it’s bad, it’s what it is. Now deal with it. And fuck off.”