As you may have heard Sinéad O’Connor wrote a very critical open letter of concern to Miley Cyrus, upon learning that Cyrus was a fan and some of her recent work was inspired by O’Connor’s. This was followed by tweets from Miley and more letters along the same lines from Sinéad, as well as more open letters from others in response to Sinéad’s as well as countless think pieces and blog posts and because (like much of the internet, apparently) we both had strong feelings about Sinéad’s letter(s) here is one more of the latter.
Robin initially tweeted upon reading:
Nicole agreed with pretty much all of this, and we decided to move the discussion off twitter, resulting in this blog post.
NICOLE: I started reading Sinéad’s letter ready to love it. I’m no fan of Miley’s current incarnation (not that I was a fan of any of her previous incarnations, but this one even less!) and would have loved to have read some righteous guidance from such a fierce woman who has been through the popular music controversy ringer many times over and lived to tell the tale. I also agree that the gist of her point–that a lot of the people around Miley don’t GAF about her art or wellbeing beyond how much money it makes them–is valid.
That said, the letter was really patronizing. I think Miley’s work right now is bad and offensive, but I don’t think she’s the stupid, innocent naif Sinéad portrays her as being, or at least I don’t think I have any reason to assume she is. Sinéad’s insulting portrayal–not of the work itself, but the supposedly clouded reasoning behind it–would be reason enough for her subject to shut down immediately. I probably would. She literally refers to Miley as “young lady”, repeatedly! What effect do you think that’s going to have? It’s not going to open Miley’s mind to a larger, more critical analysis of anything she’s been up to. It’s going to make her think “This scolding old lady doesn’t get me at all, so why should I listen to her?”
None of that remotely excuses Miley’s response, retweeting old tweets of Sinead’s in which she asked for psychiatric help as a way of dismissing the critique. That was obviously off-point, ableist, specifically stigmatizing towards anyone who identifies as having or has been diagnosed with mental illness and generally awful.
ROBIN: I’m also right there with you in that I had high hopes from Sinéad’s letter. She’s been so historically amazing in really strong feminist ways: not just the SNL pope photo ripping, but also in how she became ordained as a priest in a really subversive way. I have hopes, though, that other female musicians who have”been through the wringer,” as you so appropriately put it, will step up and add to the conversation, as it were.
Like you, I disagree with Sinéad’s supposition that Miley is stupid and naive. I mean, sure, maybe she is. I think that’s a huge part of what’s wrong with all of this, how this weird system is set up: I feel like we never have any way of knowing these things, what any female pop star is really all about. I think a lot of the difference between Sinéad and Miley is that Sinéad has always very clearly been interested in being on the outside and has a lot of intention about that, whereas Miley desperately wants to be cool. Miley has never been cool. It seems likely to me that Miley will never be cool. Maybe that’s a high school way of looking at things, but every stunt Miley has pulled has been a desperate attempt to fit in, whereas Sinead was always working so hard not to get sucked into all of that.
NICOLE: I hear you on the popularity front, I think that’s a reasonable way to look at how Miley positions herself versus Sinéad. Danny Brown agrees, and literally said Miley’s “just trying to be cool” in response to her recent Rolling Stone cover story in which she talks about how she grew up so much the summer she spent filming LOL in Detroit and got a tattoo without her parents’ permission on 8 mile. Danny Brown is also much better with metaphors than Sinéad in his critique, describing the cosigns Miley gets from some black men in hip hop as the equivalent of the rich white girl who you let hang around because she can get pills. But I digress.
The letter’s repeated “prostitute”-as-slur also bothered me tremendously, and was disappointing coming from Sinéad who I respect for continually speaking unpopular truths to power. It hurts to read such whorephobic drivel woven throughout her whole argument. It also undermines her argument! If her point is “what Miley is doing is bad because she is acting like a sex worker”, she’s obviously lost me.
ROBIN: Prostitute-as-slur was easily my biggest problem with the letter. I don’t have a problem with her coming down hard on the types of people whom she sees as pimps, but that was gross. See also: how she used “prostitute” as a verb. Gross, gross. gross.
NICOLE: I’m going to keep harping on the constant “pimp/prostitute” language because it’s so bad. I’m fine with her criticism of so-called industry “pimps”, but can’t we talk about these issues without resorting to using tired sex trade metaphors to (not really) explain what’s problematic about the dynamics? Does Sinéad really see sex workers as these ultimately debased victims (who may have victimized themselves) with no moral or bodily integrity? Stop using sex workers as a metaphor for that. There are real world consequences. The ways sex workers generally appear in media are either as offensive, two dimensional caricatures or not even as people at all, but metaphors meant to illustrate how bad some other problem is. Sinéad is contributing to a culture that undermines the humanity of sex workers and increases stigma, encourages criminalization and violence. These aren’t abstract, metaphorical issues to any of us who have done sex work or loved sex workers, and every time I read another contemptuous “prostitute” I felt like I was getting slapped in the face, until I just numbed out.
ROBIN: I also hated how she said that because she’d never relied on selling sex in order to sell records, her career is a-ok. I don’t want to snark on Sinéad’s career, but I’m curious as to how she perceives women like Madonna, Janet Jackson, Beyonce, Tina Turner. They’ve all had a sexy image, and they all have long, fruitful careers.
NICOLE: Yeah, Sinéad seems to view going the overtly, normative sexy route as the path to personal and professional ruin, countless prominent examples to the contrary. Aside from mainstream pop stars, what does she have to say to Betty Davis? A lecture on not pimping herself? If Sinead is so attached to being oppositional to and outside the mainstream, I can respect that, but why is overt sexuality–at least when women do it– bad in and of itself? If that’s not what she meant to say, she worded her letter really badly, because that’s what I got. There was no nuance.
ROBIN: Also, beyond her implication that it’s bad, why/how is overt sexuality automatically mainstream, which seems to be something else that Sinead is saying? What about, say, Riot Grrrls, who took overt sexuality and flipped the table, turning it into conversations about sexual violence and power? And when overt sexuality is mainstream, who’s to say it can’t be subversive, or have the potential to be subversive? What about Lil Kim, Lady Gaga, and especially Madonna?
If Sinéad is legitimately coming from the position that all women who are overtly sexual are sex workers and that all sex workers are “prostituted” against their true will by pimps, then I’m not sure how she’s qualified to think that her opinion on any of this is really relevant, and that’s why this troubles me so much. There are obvious intersectional feminist problems with what Miley is doing these days. The fact that she’s doing all of this in various stages of nudity isn’t really the crux of the problem at large, and it has zero to do with sex work.
NICOLE: Yeah, Miley has nothing to do with sex work, besides occasionally trying to appropriate strip club moves for some extra edge.
Largely driven by a desire for popularity or not, Miley, so far as I can see, is authentically doing exactly what she wants, it’s just that what she wants sucks. Not because it’s overtly sexual, but because it plays into so many tired and damaging tropes. Primarily, her objectification of her black women “friends” and how it seems like she primarily relates to black people and black culture as a bridges to self-growth or means through which to build and manifest her own cool, (or attempt at such). She specifically uses black women as props to legitimize her own new performance of raunchy sexuality. She’s also only the latest in a very long line of white, almost always blond female pop stars to use black culture and bodies in this way; Madonna, for all that I do like about her work, being another example.
One of the distinctive traits of Miley’s racialized sexual-coming-of-age in pop is that it’s not really good on any level. Her videos and the VMA performance looked like the Kreayshawn rejected video concepts archive threw up all over Miley’s sad attempts to twerk, which really should have stayed in front of her bedroom mirror. My issue with Miley isn’t that her art is sexual, it’s that her art sucks. But she’s playing with well worn and successful pop tropes, so no one on her team is gonna tell her “Hey Miley, what you’re doing actually sucks” because it’s making them money. and thus, by definition, is good, whatever ill effects it has on Miley herself or anyone else. I’m a lot less concerned for Miley than Sinéad is, though. Because she’s a pop princess she gets to have her big, shocking (post-) teenage rebellion on television, it seems like she’s having a good time. I don’t think she’s condemned herself to eventually selling her teeth because she licked a sledgehammer or whatever. I assume she’ll ride this for awhile, until she “grows up” again into a more mature, clothed, and less raunchy, older-skewing pop artist, just like Xtina (whose Dirrty phase was way better btw).