Miley Cyrus responded to Sinnead O’Connor’s open letter by taking a good bit of time to make fun of her and compare her to Amanda Bynes and cyberbully them both, and then announce she “didn’t have time” to write an open letter back because she was preparing to perform on Saturday Night Live.
Immature, tasteless, petty – trashy. Considering that Cyrus wasn’t shy about portraying black women as something like a carnival attraction in a recent performance, as a culture in which she went slumming as she made her descent into sluttiness (and don’t take offense at my use of “descent into sluttiness” – she plays into the “good girl gone bad, needs spanking” trope, as opposed to merely expressing sexuality), there’s just nothing classy about her post-Hannah Montana “rebranding”.
I maintain that O’Connor was not slut-shaming Cyrus in the letter. She was talking about letting sexiness distract people from your music, at the behest of music executives who will make more money than you and then toss you aside like rubbish when they’ve got another little puppet whose strings they can pull. She did suggest that all this together sends a bad message to girls, and that’s true too. It suggests that women can’t become musicians unless they sell sexiness and exhibit nudity – which is broadly true, and deeply unfortunate.
At this point, Cyrus is making herself out to be extremely un-classy. It’s as if she’s on a mission to prove the stereotype that white Southerners are just trailer trash racists who think women are only good for putting out. If she’d done all this with her clothes on and no sex simulation, I’d still find it appalling.
Speaking of sex simulation – Madonna. All this has got me thinking of her, and her longevity as an artist, and how she managed to sell sexiness without just getting “pimped” by music executives until they’d had enough of her?
The answer is straightforward, if vague: somehow, Madonna stayed in control of her career at every step, including her PR (and despite what you’re led to believe about PR, it is more successfully controlled by the managers of artists than you can imagine unless you’ve worked around that field). As far as we know, Madonna has never been to jail or rehab. She’s never run over pedestrians while drinking. She’s never been arrested for shoplifting. She’s never come off as an out-of-control and confused person, or a victim, or a puppet getting exploited by powerful men.
When Madonna sold sexiness and raunch, she sold a very aggressive brand of the stuff – not the safe, masturbation-inspiring “cute and corruptible” sexiness of Britney Spears in her early work. Madonna knew she’d found a special man if he could make her feel “like a virgin”, suggesting she was out of the league of teenage boys. Later, during the Blonde Ambition/Erotica years, she came across more like a dominatrix than someone who could be convinced that licking a hammer was somehow going to look sexy after the video was edited.
And yet it was also during that time when Madonna slagged off on O’Connor for ripping up a photo of the Pope in protest of sexual abuse of children within the Catholic church on Saturday Night Live. This was 1992, before we had a clue to the extent the church was protecting this criminality. The press called it “professional jealousy” – Madonna had been working hard to promote Erotica and O’Connor had stolen all the spotlight in one brief moment. Suddenly, in hilarious irony, the woman who’d writhed around disrespectfully in a wedding dress while wearing crucifixes was offended on behalf of the Pope.
Why did Madonna, a woman who’d so carefully controlled her image, lose her cool like that and look like a fool? Probably because even when you sell sexiness in a way where you stay in control, it has a limited shelf life. Eventually, we’ve seen your body, we’re yawning at the thought of seeing your body some more, and the lady with the shaved head accusing the Catholic church of protecting child molesters is just way more intriguing. One has to wonder if Madonna had ever felt more threatened in her career than at this moment: aging, and trying to reinvent herself as the prostitute who became the madam, she got upstaged by a woman with a cause.
Sure, Madonna’s the bigger star, but O’Connor’s done just fine. If you’re thinking, “Wasn’t she just a one-hit wonder?” it’s time to expand your awareness beyond the United States, where she’s had a long term lucrative career based on her amazing singing voice. While Madonna’s desperately trying to rediscover her youth through cosmetic surgery, O’Connor has just been singing.
Perhaps the most important thing Cyrus doesn’t have in common with O’Connor is talent. O’Connor was overly generous to suggest she has any; Cyrus is an adequate singer at best. Madonna is also said to be self-conscious about her unspectacular voice. Maybe sexual pandering is just the last refuge of the untalented.