Many a pop-music controversy has been caused by the question of whether the name on the package is a statement of creative ownership or a convenient fiction of marketing. What input does Beyoncé have into "her" music? For that matter, what input did Led Zeppelin have into "their" music? Are they geniuses shaping their own personal statements? Or are they just brands to put on anonymous product?
These questions form the context for singer Sinead O'Connor's recent open letter to Miley Cyrus.
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 it's the music business or yourself doing the pimping.
O'Connor is warning Cyrus about using her body and sexuality to sell records. But the background assumption is that Cyrus isn't fully in control of her music, or, at the very least, that Miley Cyrus the naked, tongue-wagging meme will erase Miley Cyrus the artist. As singer Amanda Palmer wrote, telling Cyrus "that her team is to blame is telling her that she's not steering her own career and decisions." Palmer points out that Cyrus is likely to feel "patronized"—which, given Cyrus's aggressive response to O'Connor's advice, appears to have been the case.
Pop musicians get patronized this way pretty often; in other realms of entertainment, the corporate and the personal coexist happily enough, and no one seems too disturbed. Why is that? After all, if you're willing to condemn pop music for being generated by roomfuls of anonymous suits, it seems like Hollywood should come in for similar ire. Yet even the slickest producers of corporate product—your Steven Spielbergs and Michael Bays—are treated as auteurs responsible for the films with their names on them, no matter how lousy those movies may be. Similarly, Jeff Koons doesn't actually make the art sold under his name. But at worst he's seen as a canny scam-artist, not a pimped-out product himself.
It's worth thinking a little more about Koons, because his art is not just made by people who are anonymous to the public, but actually is about its own anonymity. In "Hulk (Wheelbarrow)" for example, Koons (or rather, Koons's hired workers) created a bronze statue painted to look exactly like a blow-up inflatable. In other words, a mass-produced statue is virtuosically made to look like a mass-produced piece of plastic crap. Koons is reminding us that someone's genius and heart went into all those supposedly soulless products, yes, even into the twerking Miley and the inflatable Hulk. He's calling attention to the artifice not to malign it but to point out that it, too, is art. For that matter, the Hulk himself seems to be involved in the marketing, pushing his wheel-barrow and bellowing to you all to come get those real, fresh flowers—authentic beauty you can buy.
Pop stars often play with their own artificiality too. In this image for a Pepsi ad, for example, Beyoncé presents herself as multiple Beyoncé's—a reproducible product complete with ostentatiously fake blonde wig and mugging facial expressions. She's miming a commodified femininity, and comes across as if she's imitating a drag-queen imitating Beyoncé.
The sexiness and energy of the advertisement is partly in its refusal to be pinned down in a single identity; the openness with which it presents Beyoncé as a diffuse collective pretending to be Beyoncé. It's not just that she's in control of reinventing herself (who knows who came up with the idea for that photo shoot?). It's that she gets to be not just one, but four; her image is insistently commodified and reproduced as if she's in an Andy Warhol painting. Integrity and genius and authenticity: They're a bore, as O'Connor's earnest, hectoring letter shows all too clearly.
To criticize pop stars for not being in sole charge of their work, then, seems like it elaborately misses the point. The joy of being a pop star is that you don't need to be authentic or individual; you can be everyone and no one.
That's why so many stars turn their names into one-word brands, or why the most iconic pop stars, like David Bowie or Madonna or Michael Jackson, are so often obsessed with personal reinvention and transformation. It's why Miley is such a media firestorm. Anybody could twerk and stick their tongue out. It's going from good girl child star to twerking and sticking her tongue out that made Miley's performance apocalyptically famous—as SNL captured this weekend in a skit involving the-real-Miley-as-new-Miley meeting old Vanessa Bayer-as-old-Miley and both unconvincingly spouting dialogue written by who knows who exactly. Nor is it an accident that Miley has made that transition in part by surrounding herself with African-American dancers—positioning herself in the center of a new team and a new milieu. If artistic identity is crowd-sourced, all you need to do is change your crowd to be a new person.
That's not exactly to say that O'Connor is wrong, though. Losing yourself can be delirious abandon or (as with Koons) goofy silliness, but it can also lead less pleasant places. As O'Connor's letter points out, making yourself into a commodity can give other folks the opportunity to sell you out, especially in a society where women's bodies tend to be automatically viewed as commodities.
In addition, as a number of commenters have said, Cyrus's twerking and her use of African-American dancers tends to present "blackness" as something she can consume in order to make herself sexier, cooler, and more free. You could argue that Led Zeppelin, while not exactly pop in this sense, was doing something similar when they took a bunch of songs by black (and white) performers, put them on their albums, and took credit for writing them. When an artform constantly challenges the idea of there even being “real” selves, it seems, it becomes difficult to treat other people with respect.
Pop doesn't have to be exploitive, though. Someone could have put a bit more thought into Miley's transition and come up with something that didn't involve treating black women as sexualized props. It's in the nature of pop, though, that who that "someone" would have been is unclear. The fun of ever-swapping identities is achieved, in part, by the uncertainty about who is producer and who is product. In warning Cyrus not to lose herself O'Connor overlooks the fact that Cyrus is devoting all her energy and effort to doing just that.