Why Sinead O’Connor is giving Miley Cyrus rubbish career advice

I’m going to hazard a guess that a considerable number of the people who read this blog will not be particularly big Miley Cyrus fans. So it might take me a while to explain why I feel the need to join in on this particularly bizarre online slanging match.

Miley Cyrus is a female pop star who up until a couple of months ago was famous for two things. (1) she used to be in a reasonably funny kids TV show called Hannah Montana (2) she is the daughter of nineties country singer Billy Ray Cyrus who had an improbable international hit with line dancing classic Achy breaky heart (I never thought that I’d include a link to that in my blog!) . However a couple of months ago Miley hit the headlines for performing a raunchy routine with a foam finger at a music awards show. She also released a couple of sexy pop videos.

I’ve watched the foam finger incident and at least one of the videos (for research purposes of course) and have concluded that Miley is basically doing the same kind of generic bump n’ grind that every other female pop star offers up to sell some records. However, I’m obviously missing something because this has launched a manufactured moral panic from various newspapers and their columnists (who are paid to panic about our morals). Miley has become a hate figure for various people (both supposed Conservatives and feminists) and is being accused of all sorts of weird crimes. It seems that dancing with a foam finger has a lot more power than I ever suspected. I might just buy one the next time I go and see the Leicester Riders.

Anyway, into the fray stalks nineties one hit wonder Sinead O’Connor. Sinead penned a Open Letter to Miley Cyrus in which she proceeds to offer a whole load of advice to Miley about her image and how to conduct her career. It includes stuff like the following…

So this is what I need to say … And it is said in the spirit of motherliness and with love.

I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe, or encouraged you in your own belief, that it is in any way “cool” to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos. It is in fact the case that you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether it’s the music business or yourself doing the pimping.

You get the idea. (Note: the objection to licking sledgehammers is ideological rather than on the more sensible health and safety grounds). There is a whole lot more of this, including various bits of advice about how if you keep your clothes on you will get to be treated as a serious artist and so on.

All in all it amounts to a pretty dreadful piece of careers advice and I thought that I’d try and use this post to explain why.

Firstly O’Connor’s argument is essentially that it isn’t legitimate to use erotic capital in your career building. It is good to become a pop star because of your song writing or your skills as a performer, but not because you are attractive and know how to captivate or intrigue an audience with your beauty or sexuality. This seems awfully unfair, not least because O’Connor wasn’t afraid to utilise her own erotic capital in her heyday. More seriously, the idea that performers (or indeed anyone) should not use their attractiveness in building their careers seems both naive and really bad advice. Catherine Hakim argues in Honey Money that the attempt to convince people that beauty is illegitimate as a personal and career asset while brains, money, accident of birth and education are entirely legitimate is an attempt by patriarchy to remove a particular advantage that women have over men (she argues that women are routinely judged as having higher erotic capital than men).

Secondly O’Connor’s argument is bad advice because it attempts to impose her career values and aspirations onto Cyrus. Just because O’Connor wants to be treated as a serious artist, it doesn’t mean that everyone does. Personally I’d give everything that I’ve got to perform at the MTV Music Awards and I certainly wouldn’t be crying because no one gave me a Guardian album of the week write up. Advice fails when it lacks empathy and O’Connors mix of ranting and patronising condescension lacks any empathy at all.

Finally, (and strongly connected to the lack of empathy) there is a lack of humility in O’Connor’s letter. Given that this is a woman who spent the early part of her career as an apologist for a terrorist organisation and then came out and apologised for that years later, it is amazing that she feels that it is a good idea to publically attack a young woman for a far lesser crime (if indeed that is what it is). O’Connor was famous for saying deliberately provocative (and often ill-thought through) things to get publicity for her records. Miley danced with a foam finger and then licked a sledgehammer and for this she is being made a scapegoat for the gendered and sexualised imagery that is in evidence across contemporary pop music. Sinead should really know better, and she should certainly recognise that we have the capacity to change and develop as we get older. As far as I know licking a sledgehammer doesn’t even prevent you becoming President let alone winning a Grammy or two for your mid-career comeback album (see Dolly Parton for someone who has done a pretty good job of using her sexuality and maintaining credibility).

I can’t help but think that the advice that is being offered is doing a lot more for Sinead’s career than it is for Miley’s. Given that I haven’t thought of Sinead 0’Connor for years and have now just spent the last hour writing about her, it seems to be working.

Even so I’m still more likely to put on Party in the USA than I am Nothing Compares 2 U, but Jolene is going to win out every time (incidentally there is a decent version of Miley performing Jolene before she’d ever encountered a foam finger).



  1. I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with the underlying sexual politics here. Miley Cyrus simulating felatio with a sledge hammer, swinging naked on a wrecking ball or masturbating with a foam finger to the strains “I know you want it”, a song banned in many clubs and student unions as suggesting that no probably does mean yes because ” I think you really want it” really is distinctly different in its nature and tone to other woman in music. This isn’t utilising “erotic capital”‘ a phrase many women find a questionable construct; it’s a young woman showing how easily she can be manipulated into setting her talent to one side in favour of a popularist view not that shocking is good (and yes, see Sinead O’Connor, Pink or Lady Gaga) but that overtly sexual behaviour, not ability or simply good looks, sells. I’m with Sinead on this one and I’m troubled that a picture of Sinead showing some cleavage is presented as negating her perspective.

  2. I think that we can argue about the lyrical content of some of this stuff – although I think that you are actually talking about the Robin Thicke song from the MTV awards here rather than Miley’s output.

    I’m less comfortable with concluding that Cyrus is “being manipulated”. All we know is that she is doing some of this stuff and that she is making a shed load of money out of it. Manipulation maybe, but she might argue that she is manipulating others. I don’t like attributing oppression to people when they themselves can’t see that they are being oppressed.

    My point about Sinead, is not that she is negated by the fact that when she was a top of the pops pop star she used her looks to help her get by. But I think that if you look at Sinead O’Connor’s marketing it clearly did play on her attractiveness. We might say, well OK, but Miley is doing something very different in terms of degree, but essentially it seems to be using the same technique to me. Sex sells pop music. It was ever so.

  3. What I was referring to was Miley Cyrus twerking into Thicke’s groin at the MTV awards whilst waving a foam finger suggestively, so very much her “output”. The argument that ’twas ever thus is inadequate. Sinead O’Connor was an attractive woman, granted, but her actions lacked the demeaning impact of Miley Cyrus’s. And given that this should be a post about careers advice, it seems to me that listening to the informed first hand experience of another in challenging stereotypes and raising aspiration is legitimate. In fact, any high profile debate which helps young women (and men) understand that selling their body is more likely to be exploitative than a celebration of their art, no matter how much money it garners, has to be positive. Sinead O’Connor is giving great careers advice.

  4. I have to agree with Karen. I think any kind of making appearance and looks sounds like something that will help further your career is likely to really put some people down, and more to the point, surely it should be doing a good job at the role and trying to develop professionally which is what inspires people to move up in their careers. Whilst Miley is obviously going to do what she wants, I don’t see anything wrong with Sinead offering up advice even if she herself carried out similar actions in the past, surely it’s showing she has learned from it and is trying to help someone else?

  5. Very funny post Tris, but I think you are on seriously dodgy ground when you quote Hakim. I’m not sure that people who object to the utilisation of beauty to pursue success in the work place would say that utilising ‘ the benefits of birth’ is O.K. Of course it happens, people get jobs because they are attractive,even thought it has no relation to their ability to do the job in question, but people also get jobs because they are able bodied rather than disabled. Is that O.K too? What about people that have a disfigurement, is it O.K not to hire them? Your erotic capital stuff is really supporting and enhancing the whole issue of gendered workplaces, which adds to an environment where women earn less than men. Hakim is much more the problem than Cyrus.

  6. I responded to an ad that said “discover your erotic capitol” – they took me on a mystery bus trip to Bishops Itchington, and left me to think what mitre been… just cant get the staff I suppose, mind you it pallium into insignificance compared to the time when I ran 1760 yards in an eastern mediterranean fun run. Doing the Miley Cyprus, well nothing compares….

  7. Whether we like it or not appearance and attractiveness do further your career. This might be unfair, but it is the case. It is also the case that knowing how to dress well furthers your career, and that having a degree furthers your career. Which of these is it morally OK to utilise to your best advantage? What about being clever? That is just an accident of birth as well. And who is to judge what makes you good at your job out of all of this. Particularly for a pop star, they are selling image just as much (or even more) than they are selling music.

  8. The reason for Sinead O’Connor’s advice was that Miley said her video and look for Wrecking Ball was inspired by the video Nothing Compares to you. This gives her the right to reply, the argument that Sinead may have done is the same when she was young is not a good argument, she is bringing her experience and knowledge to advise a young person with talent does not need to sell herself short. Where the focus is on the sledge hammer and not her talent as a singer. Parents and people who have been there….are often the best people to provide advice and concern. I am concerned that you make judgements on Sinead for her past some of which made her ill and she regrets whilst encourage Miley to go ahead and make the same mistakes. We should be showing young people their true potential not getting them to sell themselves for popular culture.

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