This is my letter back to Sinéad.
I love you. I grew up worshipping 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,
P.S. I love you and your music so much, Sinéad, and a bunch of people on my Twitter feed send their love as well. Thank you for writing this letter and giving me the the chance to crank my brain open, and I hope I get to meet you in person someday so I can weep and thank you for everything you’ve done for me and for so many others.
P.P.S. For any of y’all curious to check out those wonderful Sinéad albums that provided my teenage soundtrack, the two big ones were “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” and ”The Lion and the Cobra”. I’ll leave it up to Sinéad to let you know whether to buy them on iTunes or just go torrent them. I don’t know how her relationship with Ensign/Chrysalis is…chances are those labels don’t even exist anymore.