“You are worth more than your body or your sexual appeal.”
Contemporary media should impress this critical message upon all girls and women relentlessly to interrupt the hundreds of contrary messages they receive every day. But for now, it’s a wise sentiment 46-year-old Irish singer Sinead O’Connor shared with 20-year-old pop singer Miley Cyrus.
In a recent Rolling Stone article, Cyrus credited O’Connor with inspiring her ‘Wrecking Ball’ video, in which Cyrus rides the wrecking ball naked and licks sledgehammers suggestively. O’Connor responded by offering career advice via an “open letter.”
O’Connor cautioned Cyrus against her pornographic approach to career-building, having experienced her own period of pop dominance decades ago: “Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”
But this isn’t a Cyrus problem, it’s an industry problem. In other words, Cyrus is the rule, not the exception. Her current sex-first positioning is essentially required of female pop stars as they reach the age of consent. It just looks different depending on the artist and the year.
In my book I chronicle three decades’ worth of pop star careers built mainly on provocation, sex appeal, and profit. This post-MTV approach to artist management necessarily constrains career trajectories, meaning contemporary pop star careers last about as long as their perfect bodies.
“The music business doesn’t give a sh– about you, or any of us,” O’Connor urged. “They will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think it’s what YOU wanted… “
Many hands guide the positioning of female pop stars. Cyrus grew up in a society that celebrates female attractiveness and sexuality over talent and accomplishment, works in an industry that raises this disgusting norm to the hundredth power, and competes with stars who profit tremendously from this model. (Cyrus shares a manager with Britney Spears). We can blame her all we want, but considering her influences, isn’t she playing it safe?
If pop stars must inhabit highly sexualized roles to succeed, it hardly matters whether it’s Cyrus or a misguided manager calling the shots. And yes, there’s Adele, but history shows the industry can only handle one talent-first superstar at a time. (Think Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones in previous years).
Unsurprisingly, Cyrus spun O’Connor’s advice into a Twitter feud, so I’ll respond by offering my own open letter:
Miley, you work in a terrible industry with deeply misogynistic values, and you’re navigating it brilliantly. What you’re doing is not creative, interesting, or artistic, but it is catapulting you to the top of the charts, onto the cover of Rolling Stone, and into countless conversations about the state of contemporary popular culture.
By encoding the rules of the industry, and applying them perfectly to the current cultural landscape, you’re succeeding, but in a heartbreaking way, and for reasons other than your genuine talent. But the window on your licking, twerking, happy-tongue period will slam shut soon, so now that you’re ubiquitous, I hope your handlers will have the guts to market you for the genuine talent you possess in the wake of the backlash that will inevitably follow your overexposure.
Respond by demanding equal attention and support for your talent, and show that the music industry preaches rebellion while practicing old-school exploitation.
Dr Kristin Lieb is the author of Gender, Branding, and The Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of Female Popular Music Stars, published by Routledge