Miley Cyrus in a thong. Ke$ha in a thong. Rihanna in a thong. Lady Gaga in a thong. Miley Cyrus in pasties. Nicki Minaj in pasties. Miley barebreasted, Rihanna topless. The young women on today's pop charts are stripping down, right before our eyes. And you know what? It's not very interesting.
As Maureen O'Connor points out in a post on The Cut, the new pop star uniform is simply a thong. Exhibits one, two, and three, below from left to right: Miley, Rihanna, Ke$ha.
While I have criticized Miley Cyrus over and over again, it's not for being scantily clad. If she wants to show off her body, she has the right to. It's something the dudes have done for a long time — there's even a Tumblr, Classic Shirtless Rock Stars, featuring guys like Robert Plant, Alice Cooper, Roger Daltrey, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and so on. Obviously we live in a culture where a shirtless man is not as risqué as a shirtless woman; female nudity is more provocative, and the female form as sexual object is an omnipresent reality in the Western World.
But while women in music have been baring more and more — remember when Cher's sheer bodysuit was a big deal? Remember when Madonna's nudity became standard operating procedure? Remember "Dirrrty" Xtina and "Toxic" "Slave" Britney? — we're at the point now where it feels very been-there-done-that. Ok, you're confident and proud of your body. What else ya got? Those Terry Richardson photos of Miley — in which she shows off her buttocks and hairless mons pubis — are not truly shocking. (As one of my coworkers pointed out, it would be shocking if Miley was rocking a giant bush with that front-thong.) Because at this point Miley would have to release close-ups of her clitoris or give us a laparoscopic tour of the inside of her vaginal canal for us to see something we haven't seen before.
Call it Naked Hot Body Fatigue. We're surrounded by images of the flawless female form: Porn, Terry Richardson-shot gym ad campaigns, Victoria's Secret, Carl's Jr. commercials, fashion week shows, men's magazines, women's magazines. What Miley, Ke$ha and Rihanna are showing off — young, thin, sculpted, low-body fat physiques — are everywhere. The internet is made of them. YOU SEE IT ALL THE TIME. There's no longer anything remotely "new" about a 20-year-old ass in a thong, about an under-educated twenty-something showing us she has slender inner thighs and no pubic hair. SEEN IT. What's worse: That's all there is. Just anatomy. There's no artistic intent or message. Madonna's nudity came with commentary about sex and power; Joséphine Baker parlayed a topless banana dance into liberation from Nazis and the civil rights movement. Miley's just… being Miley? Rebelling against being rich all her life? Is there any substance behind it?
The Empress no clothes.
In a Ben Ratliff-hostel podcast published on The New York Times today, pop critic Jon Pareles says of Miley Cyrus:
She doesn't feel like a producer's instrument, the way Britney Spears always did. She feels like she's in the wheelhouse — she or someone very close to her is being smart about their choices. But here's the thing: Now that you've got our attention, couldn't you say something more interesting?
Ratliff agrees: "Now that she is 20, now that she is free to say what she wants to say — you would kind of hope that something would spring out of her, her aesthetic destiny. Like, inside her, basically, at root, she is someone who loves (X). But we don't get that."
Even Madonna, who was attention-getter supreme, for decades, always tried to put a little something more than just "Look at me" in her songs. I mean, that's what Miley Cyrus, that's what all of these young pop stars aspire to, is Madonna, is that impact. And if Miley Cyrus's only impact is 'wasn't that weird what she was doing with that foam finger,' this to me is not the kind of thing Madonna brought out with questions about religion and sexuality and power. Madonna's provocations led somewhere besides attention and the next batch of merch being sold.
So, getting naked. Does it work? Yeah. I guess. Miley's become the subject of the national conversation. Although: New Zealand pop singer Lorde is on top of the Billboard charts right now, and she fails to get naked or wear a thong in any of her videos. Then again, she's 16. Who knows what will happen when she's 20.
But I recently got into a singer named Yuna. She has a beautiful voice, and sings sweet, very poppy songs about the usual stuff — meeting a cute guy, falling in love. As I watched the video for "I Wanna Go," a minute or so passed before I realized what was different about Yuna: She's completely covered up. Head covered. Body covered from neck to ankle. She's a Malaysian Muslim law school graduate. Now that's interesting. Don't get me wrong: I don't believe that women should be covered up. It's just that in today's pop music landscape, seeing this woman sing without showing cleavage or midriff or butt cheeks feels fresh and new. There's also Ariana Grande who, like Miley, is 20. Grande is being positioned as the new Mariah but styled and dressed like either a 14-year-old in 1996 or a 1950s debutante. In a way, her demure, modest clothes feel more shocking than Miley in a thong.
And let's be honest: This is all for shock value. There are no statements being made about female sexual power, it's not a commentary on culture or art, it doesn't raise questions about How We Live Now. Attention for the sake of attention is pointless. When you're in command and have millions listening, you ought to have something to say. Neither Miley, Rihanna, Ke$ha nor Gaga are using their chart-topping positions and rabid fan bases to draw attention to issues that plague today's woman — the wage gap, having it all, FOMO, yogurt mania. The problem with all these half-naked pop stars is that they fail, even as they succeed, because they are "artists" turning themselves into objects. Objects have no agency. Objects are disposable. Objects have no feelings. And although there is value in shock value — power in startling, provoking — the truth is, while the nightly news anchors may feign mild consternation, though talking heads may raise their brows, no one, no one is really surprised.
What would be shocking: If Miley (or Rihanna! or Ke$ha!) enrolled in a university and learned how to make a point using the Socratic method. Jaws would drop.