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).