When will the public finally take Miley Cyrus seriously? And no, I am not asking that facetiously. I will admit that she certainly doesn’t make it easy, especially considering her slew of press-baiting stunts over the last few months that sent every media outlet into a seemingly permanent salivary frenzy. Still, whether or not she is in control of her public image – the ultimate point of contention anchoring a furious celebrity blog-off several months ago – her (or her management’s) decision to bring Sky Ferreira and Icona Pop on her upcoming Bangerz tour is a totally brilliant move: one that crystallizes and enlarges the cultural impact of what each artist has, up until this point, been doing separately in order to make pop music a safer place for women to rightfully do whatever the hell they want.
The album cover for Ferreira’s new record Night Time, My Time features the melancholy singer staring somewhat crazily and vulnerably out at the audience, nude and framed by dripping shower tiles in Van-Gogh green. It’s more disturbing than it is sexy. But of course, that hasn’t stopped scores of critics from accusing her of employing nudity simply to boost album sales. The story, as she’s told it, is that Capitol, her record label, didn’t want her to be nude in the first place, and even suggested using other photos from past years for the album cover. But Ferreira was adamant. “It’s hard enough to be a woman making music at all,” she told Pitchfork. “But I’m not going to start covering myself up just to seem more credible—I’m going to embrace my sexuality because I have every right to.”
If there’s any statement that makes Cyrus’ recent salacious stunts more understandable in the light of the challenges that female artists face in the pop game, it’s this. While the double standard of female sexuality is (hopefully) not news to anybody, it’s even more pronounced in pop music, where any display of female sexuality is commonly demonized as a PR stunt or a money grab: essentially anything that constitutes the opposite of “authentic” music, which is supposedly focused on pure form and creation. This is, of course, total bullshit. To solely attribute financial motives to a female artist’s decision to pose nude is to subscribe to the same type of thinking that circumscribes female nudity to the porn set or the bedroom. It is to place rules around where and when it is correct for women in pop to make certain choices about their bodies, and strips them (pun intended) of the ability to even have that choice in the first place.
Ferreira is well-versed in the type of double standard that marginalizes female pop stars and their artistic opinions. “If a girl has a breakdown or if the black guy has a blog post, it’s a rant,” she said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Someone like Billy Corgan can write a whole entire thing and people are like ‘Oh it’s just a blog post’ and Kanye does it and it’s a rant.” And judging by her album cover and her response to the media’s firestorm surrounding it, Ferreira should be taken seriously, because whether she understands it as such or not, she is trying to transform the female body into a site of self-expression as opposed to an object of capitalistic or sexual voyeurism. As if this weren’t hard enough within a generally patriarchal, money-obsessed culture, Ferreira is attempting to do so where all of those factors are amplified: in mainstream pop music.
But, luckily, she isn’t doing it alone. Icona Pop are just as determined to give women an opportunity to behave “badly” without fear of denunciation, to engage in all of the irresponsible things that they have internalized they must not do. See here: Lena Dunham dancing in ecstatic, coked-out joy to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” during the second season of HBO’s GIRLS last January. It’s not just the pulsing EDM synth bass that makes that cinematic moment feel so true to the song – it’s Dunham’s sensation of freedom from socially acceptable standards, and the veritable laundry list of supposedly forbidden feminine actions that the lyrics of “I Love It” detail:
“I got this feeling on the summer day when you were gone / I crashed my car into the bridge. I watched, I let it burn / I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs / I crashed my car into the bridge / I don’t care”
Realizing a sense of joy without a partner, destroying stuff for no reason, asserting ownership over your personal space, and generally not giving a shit. In a society that tells women, “Don’t be a victim,” instead of telling men not to victimize, it’s rare to hear these things promoted as feminine virtues, which makes it that much more imperative that Icona Pop do so, especially within the format of a mainstream pop song that is catchy as hell and could provoke a shout-along from even the most ardent anti-feminist. Which is why Cyrus might have made the best decision of her career so far to bring Sky Ferreira and Icona Pop on the road with her in 2014. There could be no better rebuttal of the flak that she’s received in recent months regarding her newly overt sexuality than to take the stage with fellow female performers who similarly reject the social tendency to restrict women’s desires, bodies, and emotions to a convenient space and time. I know it might not seem like Cyrus is twerking her way to a feminist revolution just yet. But she is definitely assembling the troops.