Why should Bruce Springsteen and Sinéad O’Connor bother to write a letter to one of the best selling artists originated from the Walt Disney Company, Miley Cyrus (1992). Is it simply a generation gap, or is there more to it? Cyrus, daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, started her showbiz career in her early childhood. The TV-series Hannah Montana, in which she portrayed the starring character Miley Stewart, became her big breakthrough. Since then her music scores highly in the charts. After her Hannah Montana period Cyrus decides to tear the good-girl-image off. A little bit like Brittney Spears, Lady Gaga, or even Madonna, provocative and sexy. The video clip Wrecking Ball made Bruce Springsteen and Sinéad O’Connor want to give her some lessons in morals. In this article you will find both letters ánd the response of Amanda Palmer to Sinéad O’Connor’s letter.
by Charlie Crooijmans, updated 6 October
It is a topic Sinéad O’Connor likes to talk about these days: the exploitation of women in the music industry. The reason why she reacted on Miley Cyrus is that Cyrus told in an interview that she got inspired by her person and her video Nothing compares to you. This song, originally written and composed by Prince, became a huge hit in 1990s.
I wasn’t going to write this letter, but today i’ve been dodging phone calls from various newspapers who wished me to remark upon your having said in Rolling Stone your Wrecking Ball video was designed to be similar to the one for Nothing Compares… So this is what I need to say… And it is said in the spirit of motherliness and with love.
I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe, or encouraged you in your own belief, that it is in any way ‘cool’ to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos. It is in fact the case that you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether its the music business or yourself doing the pimping.
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.
I am happy to hear I am somewhat of a role model for you and I hope that because of that you will pay close attention to what I am telling you.
The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its what YOU wanted.. and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, ‘they’ will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body and you will find yourself very alone.
None of the men oggling you give a shit about you either, do not be fooled. Many’s the woman mistook lust for love. If they want you sexually that doesn’t mean they give a fuck about you. All the more true when you unwittingly give the impression you don’t give much of a fuck about yourself. And when you employ people who give the impression they don’t give much of a fuck about you either. No one who cares about you could support your being pimped.. and that includes you yourself.
Yes, I’m suggesting you don’t care for yourself. That has to change. You ought be protected as a precious young lady by anyone in your employ and anyone around you, including you. This is a dangerous world. We don’t encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals, a distressing majority of whom work in the music industry and it’s associated media.
You are worth more than your body or your sexual appeal. The world of showbiz doesn’t see things that way, they like things to be seen the other way, whether they are magazines who want you on their cover, or whatever.. Don’t be under any illusions.. ALL of them want you because they’re making money off your youth and your beauty.. which they could not do except for the fact your youth makes you blind to the evils of show business. If you have an innocent heart you can’t recognise those who do not.
I repeat, you have enough talent that you don’t need to let the music business make a prostitute of you. You shouldn’t let them make a fool of you either. Don’t think for a moment that any of them give a flying fuck about you. They’re there for the money.. we’re there for the music. It has always been that way and it will always be that way. The sooner a young lady gets to know that, the sooner she can be REALLY in control.
You also said in Rolling Stone that your look is based on mine. The look I chose, I chose on purpose at a time when my record company were encouraging me to do what you have done. I felt I would rather be judged on my talent and not my looks. I am happy that I made that choice, not least because I do not find myself on the proverbial rag heap now that I am almost 47 yrs of age.. which unfortunately many female artists who have based their image around their sexuality, end up on when they reach middle age.
Real empowerment of yourself as a woman would be to in future refuse to exploit your body or your sexuality in order for men to make money from you. I needn’t even ask the question.. I’ve been in the business long enough to know that men are making more money than you are from you getting naked. Its really not at all cool. And its sending dangerous signals to other young women. Please in future say no when you are asked to prostitute yourself. Your body is for you and your boyfriend. It isn’t for every spunk-spewing dirtbag on the net, or every greedy record company executive to buy his mistresses diamonds with.
As for the shedding of the Hannah Montana image.. whoever is telling you getting naked is the way to do that does absolutely NOT respect your talent, or you as a young lady. Your records are good enough for you not to need any shedding of Hannah Montana. She’s waaaaaaay gone by now.. Not because you got naked but because you make great records.
Whether we like it or not, us females in the industry are role models and as such we have to be extremely careful what messages we send to other women. The message you keep sending is that its somehow cool to be prostituted.. its so not cool Miley.. its dangerous. Women are to be valued for so much more than their sexuality. we aren’t merely objects of desire. I would be encouraging you to send healthier messages to your peers.. that they and you are worth more than what is currently going on in your career. Kindly fire any motherfucker who hasn’t expressed alarm, because they don’t care about you. (Sinead O’Connor)
Bruce Springsteen wasn’t that pleased either. His open letter was published on a blog of a fan, so fat chance that this is an ordinary spoof. Nevertheless interesting to read.
How ya doin’? I just wanted to drop you a note to say hi, ’cause we got a lot in common — for instance, did you know I put out a song called “Wrecking Ball” just like you? Yeah, it came out last year. I didn’t put out a video where I swing stark naked from an actual wrecking ball like you did, but other than that, yeah, it’s real close. Maybe next time!
Anyway, I been around a while, and I thought maybe you’d appreciate some, you know, career advice, since I know it’s tough bein’ in the spotlight and all that. I realize I was in the spotlight for being dubbed “rock ‘n’ roll’s future” and you’re there because you shook your bottom against Alan Thicke’s kid on national television, but it’s the same premise, ya know?
I’m thinking if maybe if someone had told you not to do that butt shaking, or not to keep sticking your tongue out like you were at the otolaryngologist’s office, or, you know, that whole naked wrecking ball thing, you might be in a better position now, career-wise. I realize that horse is out of the barn, but you get my drift. (And I know a thing or two about barns — I have a big one out here in Jersey, although Billy Joel is living in it right now. Long story.)
So I’ve had a pretty good career and everything, but there are some things I wish somebody had advised me against along the way. For instance, that video where I danced with Courtney Cox and kept swinging my arms up and down like a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot. Stevie still gives me a hard time about that — sometimes I come out of my dressing room and the whole band is there doing it. Hey guys, give it up, it’s been like 30 years already!
Anyway, what you may not know is that I actually shot a video where I dance like that, but by myself, and wearing suspenders! So my manager Jon Landau told me we better not put that out, and I’m glad he did, because maybe “Born in the U.S.A.” wouldn’t have gone on to sell 13 million copies or whatever it was, and I wouldn’t have been able to buy my daughter a million-dollar horse.
And speaking of my daughter, she’s about your age, and if she ever did any of the things you do in that “Wrecking Ball” video I think my head would explode like the meth lab at the end of “Sinaloa Cowboys.” That’s a song off my “Ghost of Tom Joad” album — you should listen to it sometime. It’s real depressing and kinda slow, but it has some good life lessons on it, like don’t rob a bank to impress some random lady who comes into your shoe store.
So like I was sayin’, I have this expression I like to use, “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.” And when I saw you stickin’ your tongue out on the VMAs and licking that sledgehammer in your video, I thought, these are definitely “nobody wins” moments we’re talking about here. Not you, not me, not your dad Billy Ray, whose head is probably gonna explode any minute now. Besides, licking a sledgehammer — do you have any idea where that thing’s been? There’s probably like pieces of drywall on it and stuff.
Anyway, I remember this one time when I was about your age when I got my draft notice. I came home after I’d been gone for three days and walked in the kitchen, and my mother and father were sitting there, and my dad said: “Where you been?” and I said, “I went to take my physical.” He said, “What happened?” I said, “Well, I didn’t hang naked from a wrecking ball.” And he said: “That’s good.” That’s not exactly how it happened, but I’m trying to make a point here.
So I’ve already gone on for too long, but just to recap: Tongue hanging out, bad; naked on wrecking ball, bad; dancing like a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot, bad; being the future of rock ‘n’ roll, good. So if you take that to heart maybe you can wind up more like that nice Taylor Swift kid, who loves me, and is never naked in public. Also, Landau tells me our lawyers will be contacting you about the whole “Wrecking Ball” name thing.
Bruce (Blogness on the edge of town)
And Miley Cyrus? She said that she is too busy to give a reply to Sinéad O’Connor (The Sydney Morning Herald).
Update October 6.
Lots of people might think this is a non-issue, but at least the discussion about the exploitation of women in showbiz has opened up. Another person who reacted on the letter of Sinéad O’Connor is Amanda Palmer, an American singer-songwriter, also known as Amanda Fucking Palmer.
She admits that, ‘being a female musician/rockstar/whatever is a pretty fucking impossible and mind-bendingly frustrating job.’ But it is not only because of the men in the industry, ‘weirdly, it’s generally women scolding other women.’ It is hard to speak for somebody who has been in showbiz almost her entire life. That’s why Palmer doesn’t agree with Sinéad O’Connor’s letter to Cyrus.
I love you. I grew up worshiping your music and your bold attitude and, especially, your refusal to sign up to the bullshit beauty standard. You were one of the few women rockstars that was clearly doing things her own way, and you inspired me to no end. I want to thank you for doing that. I listened to your stunning voice and your true, deep lyrics endlessly on my walkman, flipping the tape again, and again, then again, then again…and I know those ingredients still live and breathe inside me every time I write a song of my own. You shaped me.
I read your letter to Miley Cyrus this morning and I wanted to write back to you. I’m writing this on my cell phone in a plane on the way to Dallas, TX to play a benefit tonight for a group called Girls Rock Dallas…a local group that empowers young girls to become brave musicians. The timing is pretty wonderful and I want to talk to them all tonight about Miley and your letter.
As a musician and a songwriter, I grew up alone, writing in solitude. I don’t know how old you were when you signed your major recording contract, but both of us know that we didn’t go through what Miss Miley here went through – growing up in public and never having the golden opportunity to incubate in her own private world of making-art unseen, thoughts and words with no audience, no big public mirror. You and I had this, more or less, or we at least had it more than Miley. For an artist, that time to incubate is a special kind of gift. We should be really grateful for it. I know I am.
I think you’re right on about so many things, and I also applaud you for posting to your own site with a open letter instead of speaking via rolling stone or any of the other journalists who were calling you to comment. For the most part, they really don’t seem to care very much about the real issues at hand and we’re all just click-bait. What are the real issues…? You and I know it – being a female musician/rockstar/whatever is a pretty fucking impossible and mind-bendingly frustrating job. Our male counterparts are given a way wider playing field than we are. It’s a Chinese finger trap that reflects the basic problems of our women-times: we’re either scolded for looking sexy or we’re scolded for not playing the game. Those who manage to find a perfect balance are rare, and the culture at large seems hellbent on undermining our ability to create that balance peacefully within ourselves. And weirdly, it’s generally women scolding other women…we’re our own worst enemies. Which is not to say there aren’t some mean motherfucking men out there. I faced my fair share of that sort when I was at a major label and told that I was too fat to wear a bra on stage for my Leeds United music video. I stood my ground and got my way, but that was the beginning of the end of my relationship with those dudes. (Funny, the irony here: *I* had to FIGHT my label to be half-naked in a video…)
Here’s where I think you’re off target. Miley is, from what I can gather, in charge of her own show. She’s writing the plot and signing the checks, and although I think it’s tempting to imagine her in the board room of label assholes and management, I don’t think any of them masterminded her current plan to be a raging, naked, twerking sexpot. I think that’s All Miley All The Way. Now, would these men ARGUE with her when she comes into the room and throws down her treatment to hop up naked on the proverbial (and literal) wrecking ball? Of course not. Sex sells. We all know it. Miley knows it better than anyone: swinging naked on a big metal ball simply gets you more hits than swinging on a big metal ball wearing clothes. We’re mammals. LOOK BOOBS! And even more tantalizing: LOOK HANNAH MONTANA BOOBS! But none of this means that Miley is following anyone else’s script. In fact, what I see is Miley desperately trying to write her own script; truly trying to be taken seriously (even if its in a nakedly playful way) by the standards of her own peers.
You and I are no strangers to controversy and we both know how it feels to be screamed at by the public, by the music press, to be misunderstood, reviled, ignored, and used as a punching bag for a larger cultural conversation. It is always my fantasy that we can take these painful experiences and feed them back to the upcoming generation of women rockers in a way that creates a larger playing field instead of a smaller one. I want female musicians to feel like they can do MORE with their mad artistic energy, not LESS. I want women to feel less trapped inside their bodies, less afraid to express themselves, less afraid to be nailed to the cross of the cultural beauty standard. But that necessarily means there needs to be room on the vast playing field for Adele to wear a conservative suit, room for Lady Gaga to do naked performance art in the woods, room for PJ Harvey to wear high-collared 18th century jackets on stage, room for Natasha Kahn to pose boldly naked on the cover of her last record, and room for Miley to rip a page out of stripper culture and run around like a maniac for however long she wants to.
Do I want a whole generation of teenagers looking at Miley Cyrus to determine that the only way to get hits and hawk your music is to rip your clothes off and wiggle around as violently and loudly as possible? (And while we’re at it – while weighing close to nothing and looking perfectly manicured without a single eyelash or molecule of mascara out of place even when a tear rolls down your face?)
Fuck no. But I don’t want to tell them it’s wrong, either, because like I said: the field has to encompass EVERYTHING. There’s no way Miley is going to read your letter and turn around saying “holy shit, they’ve been taking advantage of me this whole time!” She’s been taking advantage of herself, of her youth, her fame and her sexuality…and she knows it. We females all do this, to some extent, and we just want to feel like it’s our hand on the joystick. Telling her that her team is to blame is telling her that she’s not steering her own career and decisions, and I think she’ll just feel patronized.
When I was about 15 (not inconsequentially, right around the time I was listening to your albums non-stop on my long walks to high school every morning), I started having fights with my mother every time I left for school. I’d decided to dress like an oversexed punk and my attire often consisted of sheer lingerie worn over ripped tights and Doc Martens. You remember. This was 1991. My mother would say: “Amanda Palmer, get back in the house and put some real clothes on. You look like a prostitute. I won’t have my daughter walking around town like a harlot.” (I swear to god, my mother actually used the word harlot. Bless.)
I would say: “It’s my life fuck you I didn’t ask to be born etc etc”, grumble back into the house, and throw a flannel dress over my entire ensemble…which I would, of course, remove and stuff back into my bag the minute I got to school.
I know my mother was trying to protect me. She loved me. She didn’t want me to fall into dangerous situations, she didn’t want me to be ridiculed, she didn’t want people to think badly of me. And often they did – the jocks all called me Freak and Lesbo in the halls. But I took it as almost a marker of success – I didn’t want to belong to their club. I took the rolling eyeballs and raised eyebrows of my peers, teachers and parents as a sign that I was on the right track. It was my artist’s uniform, and I was learning how to wear it with pride; I was figuring myself out.
I’m 37 and I’m still trying, and I change my uniform sometimes. Sometimes I play with nudity because it makes people pay attention, sometimes I play with nudity because it makes me loudly vulnerable to those in the room and it turns their brains inside-out as I challenge them to see me for what I am…without clothes.
As much as we may not want to see it this way – because, from a far distant she looks like just another airbrushed hottie from a lite beer commercial – we gotta give Miley (and every female) space to try on her artist’s uniform. It’s like a game of cosmic dress-up, but the stakes are high. If we’re allowed to play it, we’re empowered. If we’re not, we’re still in a cage.
While it may be true that the live-fast-die-young sex-pot female pop stars are washed up and thrown on the “rag heap”, like you say, wouldn’t it be better if we changed the entire plot instead of dealing with it as it’s been handed to us? Keith Richards and Jagger go out there night after night and shake their asses and everyone oohs and aahs that they’ve managed to age and maintain their spot at the sexy table.
Why shouldn’t this be true for women? Who says Miley can’t flip the script anytime she wants?
I want to live in a world where Miley (or any female musician) can twerk wildly at 20, wear a full-cover floral hippie mumu at 37, show up at 47 in see-through latex, and pose semi-naked, like Keith & co, on the cover of rolling stone at 57 and be APPLAUDED for being so comfortable with her body. This is not to say that women have to play the desperate I’M-STILL-SEXY game as they age. Watching Madonna’s plastic surgeries and apparent stubbornness around aging just makes my inner teenager want to scream (YOU’RE MADONNA! YOU COULD HAVE MADE AGING SEXY GODAMMIT AND YOU DIDN’T!!), but the grown-up in me just pauses for a breath and remembers that Madonna is just carving out her section of the playing field. How she chooses to sculpt her face and body is just…her choice. I gotta let her make it and applaud her for being her, even if I’d never make the same choices.
This is a push for more freedom, and in order to make it there, we have to jump massive hurdles and set assumptions. I’ve been following you and the very candid writings on your site about sex and your own sexuality….and I can’t imagine you disagree with me on this point: women need more freedom to say what they want (double entendre there), express what they want (same) and be respected for their bravery, not reprimanded for endangering themselves.
I want to live in a world where the internal dialogue of a woman’s brain has evolved to the point where a female performer can wear a sex-pot outfit and, instead of the all-too-common head-chatter chorus of “UNFAIR! MANIPULATED! WEAK! MANIPULATIVE! EVIL!”, she dons her sexy costume and hears internal voices screaming “FAIR! POWERFUL! PLAYFUL! BRAVE! SEXY!” You know…you go girl. But not “you go girl and be manipulated by the man, or manipulate the men in your wake”. just…”you go girl and wear whatever the fuck you want. And play smart.”
I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze and the starry-eyed hard-ons that can make men so easy to manipulate. But seriously, let’s all play the game together, with a wink and a nudge…so we don’t hurt each other. If men and women don’t have a constantly open dialogue about how we do and don’t (or should and shouldn’t) manipulate and play with each other, we all lose. We are all fragile humans with little time on this beautiful, sexually-charged, ecstatic planet. Let’s share it to the fullest extent that we can and make the playing field for all of us the size of the whole earth.
In other words, let’s give our young women the right weapons to fight with as they charge naked into battle, instead of ordering them to get back in the house and put some goddamn clothes on.
With immense respect,
Amanda Palmer (Amanda Palmer)