Sinead told Miley to cop on, and all of a sudden, everyone’s talking.
You can’t blame a young pop star for referencing Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ video. It’s iconic, it’s beautiful, it’s emotional, it’s bold. So if you want to bypass the difficult steps of actually coming up with new a way to articulate those things yourself, then it’s an easy touchstone for Miley Cyrus and the Terry Richardson-directed ‘Wrecking Ball’. And in turn if you decide your video should then descend into a bizarre display of what happens when someone doesn’t shout ‘stop’, including naked wrecking ball swinging and simulating fellatio on a sledgehammer, then you’re going to have to put up with Sinead O’Connor getting a bit queasy about both your motivations and actions. Especially when your other most notable recent antics involved an embarrassing and uncomfortable performance at an MTV award ceremony where your choreography consisted of sticking your face in people’s asses, sticking your ass in the audience faces, and bending over in front of a guy – Robin Thicke – whose Marvin Gaye-for-sex-pests tune has dominated the charts all summer.
So when Sinead O’Connor took it upon herself to send a note of wisdom to the young pretender, you couldn’t but help applaud. O’Connor was kind, too, looking at the bigger picture of Cyrus not exactly being at fault, but the industry she exists within doing her wrong and perhaps those she has surrounded herself with. “The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us,” O’Connor wrote, “They will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its what YOU wanted… and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, ‘they’ will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body and you will find yourself very alone.” But Cyrus exists in a very different industry to O’Connor. And the rulebook is now being written and rewritten by artists and fans and tech companies more than just dudes in suits at the label – although they still hold a lot of power.
Cyrus has responded in an idiotic manner, posting screengrabs of old tweets from O’Connor, the subject matter of which referenced O’Connor’s mental health. Cyrus equated her to Amanda Bynes, a young star whose increasingly erratic and sad behaviour was played out mercilessly in the public eye until she was eventually placed in a psychiatric hold and is now in a rehabilitation facility. Cyrus might think it’s a pithy smart arse response, but it’s no cause for a LOL. No one’s mental health should be taunted or used as a punchline, no matter how they vocalise personal issues.
Cyrus is in a tricky position right now. She’s generating plenty of headlines, but not generating good tunes. The transition from a cutesy alter ego to a 2013 pop star can’t be easy. But there’s no point in pushing buttons for the sake of it. The video for ‘We Can’t Stop’ summed up everything that is vacuous about the age of Tumblr, the mindless unsexy sexualisation, the cheesy appropriation of hip hop culture, the weird attachment to the symbols of childhood while simultaneously sexualising them (this seems to have resulted in Cyrus having a strange relationship with teddybears). It was directed by a woman, Diane Martel, who also directed the gross ‘Blurred Lines’ video.
Inevitably, Cyrus’s ‘whatever’ response has instigated a stinging reply from O’Connor who finishes another open letter with the killer line “You could really do with educating yourself, that is if you’re not too busy getting your tits out to read.” If O’Connor is willing to smack down Cyrus like that, then she can probably expect an equally gruff retort.
O’Connor was, and remains controversial, just for that bare fact that she’s not afraid to speak her mind. So perhaps she sees a kindred spirit in Cyrus. But Cyrus’ controversies are juvenile and scrappy. O’Connor, as a younger artist, was political, and ahead of her time. Like Cyrus, O’Connor has appropriated culture too, making reggae records. But the appropriation there was honest and artistic, not just an aesthetic one. It’s worth noting that 10% of the profits from ‘Throw Down Your Arms’, which sold over a quarter of a million copies, went to Rastafari elders in Jamaica. Cyrus’ childishness is part of her youth, saying that she’s too busy to talk to Sinead because she’s hosting SNL, so nah nah nah nah nah. Unfortunately for Cyrus she possesses none of the critical acclaim O’Connor does. She is eons away from writing a ‘Mandinka’ or ‘No Man’s Woman’ or ‘VIP’.
Amanda Palmer has also weighed in with some thoughts of her own regarding body image and personal control and the industry, writing to Sinead O’Connor that it’s the Miley show, not the industry show, “Do I want a whole generation of teenagers looking at Miley Cyrus to determine that the only way to get hits and hawk your music is to rip your clothes off and wiggle around as violently and loudly as possible? (And while we’re at it – while weighing close to nothing and looking perfectly manicured without a single eyelash or molecule of mascara out of place even when a tear rolls down your face?) Fuck no. But I don’t want to tell them it’s wrong, either, because like I said: the field has to encompass EVERYTHING. There’s no way Miley is going to read your letter and turn around saying ‘holy shit, they’ve been taking advantage of me this whole time!’ She’s been taking advantage of herself, of her youth, her fame and her sexuality…and she knows it. We females all do this, to some extent, and we just want to feel like it’s our hand on the joystick. Telling her that her team is to blame is telling her that she’s not steering her own career and decisions, and I think she’ll just feel patronized.” It’s an interesting point of view.
Ultimately, plenty of people would rather if O’Connor didn’t call out these uncomfortable truths. And if she chooses to do so anyway, it would be more palatable to many people for her not to call them out in such a blunt way. But that’s O’Connor’s style. We want to imagine that young women in the music industry are sisters doing it for themselves, empowered, righteous, strong-willed and independent. But even women held up as pop feminist icons – Lady Gaga, Beyonce – still feel the need to strut around in bikinis. Generally, major labels are controlled by men, video directors are mostly male, the heads of booking agencies, entertainment lawyers, producers, the people designing the art work, managers, tour managers, are mostly guys. There are plenty of exceptions of course, but O’Connor is right. The music industry is run by dudes, and the biggest pop artists are women. And even though the biggest audience for those female pop stars is other women, that still doesn’t mean you’re allowed not to act like a stripper taking dollar bills from the boys. Unless you’re Adele.
The music industry has been so successful at entwining sexism and pop music, that it has pulled the greatest trick of all: many female artists are sufficiently brainwashed that they will now objectify themselves without a sit down in a record label boardroom. The dissenting voices are few and far between. When a new pop star emerges, you expect them to embrace this objectification and act in an almost cartoon-like sexualised manner. When they don’t… that’s just weird. And even if they have their own skewed version of that image, like Lana Del Rey, for example, you’re still going to end up butt naked on the cover of a magazine to push your sales and ‘brand’.
At one point in Britney Spears’ new video for the rather fun song, ‘Work Bitch’, the product placement of a branded speaker is gagging a woman’s mouth. It’s the ultimate marriage of consumerism’s collusion in the sexual objectification of women, both silenced and tortured. In Rihanna’s new video for ‘Pour It Up’, she reaches the pinnacle of her half-naked Instagram selfies and give no f***s attitude by transforming herself into a stripper, with a series of shots that are definitely NSFW. We don’t even bat an eyelid at this anymore. One of the most successful artists of her generation is climbing a stripper pole and reducing herself to bouncing buttocks. That’s normal now. That’s what we’ve come to expect from female pop stars. It’s sad.
If Justin Timberlake’s next video involved him writhing around in the surf wearing a barely-there mankini, everyone would be alarmed. If One Direction’s next video was an S&M-themed montage, it would appear frightful. If Eminem had launched his long-awaited comeback by donning gold lamé hotpants, everyone would think he had lost it. If Bruno Mars positioned himself on a stripper pole with a neon string covering his modesty, it would seem absolutely bizarre. Yet female pop stars are expected to reach for whips and chains, twerking and simulating sex, ass-slapping, climb the pole and get their tits out when it comes to projecting an image.
On occasion, women within the industry will speak up in a manner that isn’t a girl-power-ish marketing campaign, but actually a moment of concern. Perhaps within the mainstream none more successfully than Pink, with ‘Stupid Girls’ and in ‘Don’t Let Me Get Me’ where she sings “LA told me, ‘You’ll be a pop star / All you have to change is everything you are.”
So perhaps the most important part of O’Connor’s open letters and Cyrus’ oblivious responses is that it’s started another conversation. The antics of pop stars don’t exist in isolation. The way they dress, the way they dance, and the content of their lyrics are repeated and imitated primarily by young girls. Cyrus wasn’t starting a trend when she was twerking at the VMAs, she was just reflecting how bizarrely sexualised youth culture has become, where hardcore porn is on tap and acting like a stripper is just how it is on nights out.
But hey, at least this new found love of letter writing between female musicians is creating some decent discourse. Maybe all that twerking was worthwhile afterall.