Singer Sinead O’Connor has written an open letter to fellow singer Miley Cyrus warning her not to be exploited by the music business. The letter was prompted by Miley Cyrus’ most recent music video which, apart from overt sexual references and nudity, visually also references O’Connor’s minimalistic look in the classic video for ‘Nothing Compares 2U’ (1990). The letter, written in the ‘spirit of motherliness and with love’, warns Cyrus about becoming a prostitute to the music industry. This unexpected intervention from an unseemly source comes after Cyrus’ amazing and much-publicized transformation from the wholesome Disney character Hannah Montana to her current image of a hyper-sexual young woman twerking with Robin Thicke at the VMA Video Music Awards. O’Connor essentially warns that Cyrus’ talent should not be overshadowed or indeed superseded by her aggressively sexualized image.
Many elements in this letter are worth addressing in more depth: the music industry’s stake in the commodification of the female body, the sexualization of young adults or the explicit warning about Cyrus’ mental health (an issue O’Connor herself continues to battle with). In addition to this, Cyrus’ age (20) and her position as role model to other girls and young women also provokes an ethical consideration. Yet O’Connor’s letter equally articulates a development that can be witnessed amongst the music industry as a whole: the pornofication of its female stars.
Many will argue that the music industry has always profited from the allure of sexual availability expressed through lyrics, voice, tone and so forth. The music video opened up the possibility of this allure being explored more explicitly via images such as in Madonna’s ‘Erotica’ (1992). Yet with the emergence of social and also instant media, the sexual image of female performers has gained an entirely new dimension. Rather than being limited to the strict 3 to 5 minute music video format, stars can tweet or instagram photos of themselves in the beloved format of the selfie. In the context of Rihanna, Lady Gaga et al consistently posting pictures of themselves – many of which in a state of half or full nudity – a ‘photo scandal’ in 2011 which depicted an 18 year old Cyrus in her underwear unassumingly pouting into the camera now appears more like a cunning publicity stunt by her management. Was this a private photograph which inexplicably became public, or was it already writing on the wall for Cyrus’ transformation into a quasi-nymphomaniac?
Much of the sexual allure promoted by the music industry and seemingly endorsed and performed by its female stars relies on the dissolution between the public and the private. Madonna’s (bi)sexuality was aggressively explored in many music videos and stage performances, yet her privacy was always fiercely protected. Social media used by a new generation of female stars on the other hand actively questions any strict boundaries between the public and private as stars are ‘caught’ in intimate moments. These are not performances but they are moments that the star generously shares with her grateful ‘followers’. This is of course a pure game which shall ultimately result in an increase in record sales: the more sexual or controversial the image, the more free publicity for the star, the more followers on social media, the more advertising opportunities for the upcoming album and so forth.
Another major element in the sexualization of the music industry’s female stars appears to be a visual aesthetic which, in fact, has been borrowed from the strip club. For instance Rihanna’s recent music video ‘Pour it up’ is visually riddled with references to stripping, pole dancing and the female body as a commodity. So when Sinead O’Connor warns Miley Cyrus about prostitution she does so from two type of angles: alluding to the act of prostituting her body for the gratification of a male audience, but perhaps more significantly, her talent as a singer prostituted solely through the objectifying lens of sexual allure. This is a letter not only written to Cyrus, but it is written to all main-stream female pop stars active in the industry today.
The global race to obscure the boundaries between art, obscenity and pornography provokes an intriguing question: when, how and by whom will this race be won? In this context, it is quite possible that artists are also racing each other directly. At the VMAs for instance, while Cyrus grabbed the headlines for reenacting a sexual position with Robin Thicke, Lady Gaga performed her new single in nothing less than a g-string thong. Lady Gaga’s long awaited new album also resulted in a transformation of her body: more trim, more toned and more on display. Does the success of a female artist relate to the extent of which she is willing to undress on stage, in videos or photographs?
In a world in which the image of the female star eventually exceeds the actual music, the value of photography is crucial. Wanting to be seen in a certain light, stars flock to those photographers who are already considered controversial or provocative. Lady Gaga did an unusual photo session with the Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, while, more recently, Cyrus was photographed by Terry Richardson. The former is best known for his depictions of Japanese bondage fetish, while the latter appears to be the go-to-photographer for young women who want to shed a good girl image (as explored in a previous post). The popularity of photography amongst female pop stars is by no means an embrace of the avantgarde, but rather, it is the embrace of an economic formula which equates the stars’ image with sexuality and increased record sales. Sinead O’Conner is right to question who will profit from, and also who will be empowered by, this formula.
Article by @MarcoBohr