I was on your side until now. It’s not that I didn’t cringe watching the VMAs or “Wrecking Ball,” but I gave you the benefit of the doubt. The media has a history of being hypocritical about female sexuality, both afraid and mesmerized by it.
When you explained that your VMA performance wasn’t about being sexy, I had even more respect for you. Once you stated this wasn’t your aim, the blame fell on us as spectators: Why were we expecting it in the first place? Why did we assume that your goal was seduction?
Why, if we broaden the question, do we feel like we’re entitled to it? When you look at the actresses who are most in demand (Scarlet Johansson, Olivia Wilde, etc.) and the roles they’re offered, it’s not hard to see that the media prescribes women a certain function: as sirens and objects of desire, and if they fail in this function, if they fail to seduce us– in the eyes of a society that judges them for exclusively this– they have nothing else of value to their name.
I am just hypothesizing. Miley, don’t take offense, but I don’t imagine any such deeper agenda inspired your VMA performance. You were just being you, following your prerogative, as my beloved Britney Spears once sang.
The rebellious young woman coming into her own will fascinate the critics in perpetuity and lead others to bemoan the state of youth culture, wondering about the sexuality of female pop stars and whether it expresses empowerment or further forces women to perform to their function as sexualized objects.
Regardless, Miley, I lost all respect for you when you tweeted a screenshot of Sinead O’Connor’s tweets from two years ago. You invoked her struggle with mental illness as a means to delegitimize her opinion, which she had wielded not to hurt you but to warn you.
She was critical of your actions but not critical of you. They were harsh but not ill-intentioned words, but in your binary view (Miley vs. the world), you misconstrued them as an attack and responded with one of your own that, unlike her letter, was deeply hurtful and insensitive in its intent.
In the process, you brought in Amanda Bynes, who has already played punching bag to the media a hundred times over. This insult is, in a way, even crueler; Sinead may be of a different generation, but Amanda is one of your own. Before you were the star of a hit TV show, Amanda commandeered one of the greatest one-woman shows ever at the age of 13.
Before a generation of tween girls looking up to you, there was my generation looking up to Amanda as the cool older sister or the best friend we wished we had. I’m grateful to her that I learned that a girl’s worth could be comedic timing and talent and charisma, and nothing to do with looks or sensuality, which has been impressed upon girls a thousand times over otherwise.
Instead of lambasting Amanda Bynes and Britney Spears for their most humiliating lows, we owe it to them to treat them like we would any friend we cared about, with kindness and empathy. If we are capable of loving and idolizing them when they’re in their element, we should feed the love right back into them with they’re caught in a low, re-inspire them to take the stage and mesmerize us again and again for as long as they have the passion for it.
As O’Connor writes, though it’s hardly news, showbiz is impersonal. Most executives behind it have less regard for the soul-saving powers of music than the profits. As O’Connor pointed out, the decade-long trend of singing shows has turned singing, just like everything else in America, into a competition where the only thing that matters is who is “best.”
I have no problem with you doing your thing, Miley– to each their own, and if swinging naked on a wrecking ball is your thing, I don’t care enough to persuade you to think otherwise. But if your goal really is to show up the critics and rebel against people’s expectations of you, have conviction beneath it; stand for something, for someone– not just for you, not just for the sake of rebelling.
Sinead is a model for doing your own thing, and she’s radical as it gets, but no one can say she isn’t fearless. When you took a dig at her mental illness, you were acting out of fear. If all of your latest work was your soul playing out its prerogative, you shouldn’t care what people think.
But the more defensive you get about it, the more I think that your desire to prove everyone wrong is trumping your desire to create art. If you believe in the art, then you have my respect, and if you can stand up for it, then you have it doubly. But when you treat someone with such insensitivity, it doesn’t matter. You’ve lost me.
Because art is about everything that your gesture was not. Art is about love, and the university of struggle. When Anthony Kiedis sings about drawing blood in “Under the Bridge,” Billie Holliday mourns racism in “Strange Fruit” and a musician sings about heartbreak, we match our heartache to theirs and feel our hearts heal through the opening of theirs.
We look to artists to interpret pain and give it a name and a semblance of beauty, to convey to us hope when we have none. Your response to Sinead wasn’t just an insult to those with diagnosed mental health issues. It was an insult to the power and purpose of music.
I can’t deny how catchy “We Can’t Stop Is,” but I can’t respect you as an artist in the way I respect those who do it from a place of tenderness. Music is not the business of the cruel; it is the business of the wronged.
It belongs to the bird with broken wings willing to sing, to the poet who has touched rock bottom and lived to tell the tale. The musician is the ally of the suffering soul. When you paraded Sinead’s struggle out into the world to make a mockery of it, the person you did the greatest injury to wasn’t Sinead, but to the millionth lonely soul turning to music when nothing else remains.
Contact Alex Bayer at firstname.lastname@example.org