Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball video and appearance at the Video Music Awards, created a flurry of opinion.
The Sun told her to “put it away”, the Daily Mail praised her for “showing off her toned stomach” and Sinead O’Connor wrote her an open letter.
She talked about the music industry exploiting women to make money, summing it up with, “I’ve been in the business long enough to know that men are making more money than you are from you getting naked.”
Some commentators have argued that this is just liberation. It is true that it has been a positive step forward for women that we do not need to hide our bodies.
Particularly through the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which took sexual liberation as one of its main aims, many women gained confidence in being able to express their sexuality.
So there is nothing wrong with women like Miley Cyrus expressing themselves in their music videos, and care needs to be taken not to make the debate about criticising or passing judgement on individuals. But an important question is, who is benefitting? Is it really liberation when all women are expected to fit into a very narrow view of sexuality?
Used by the media
The picture here isn’t of women expressing themselves, but women being used by the media and music industries.
Charlotte Church, in her contribution to the Cyrus debate, said: “The culture of demeaning women in pop music is so ingrained as to become routine, from the way we are dealt with by management and labels, to the way we are presented to the public.”
It isn’t just the way women are represented but who is pulling the strings behind the scenes.
The Financial Times found that despite the top 40 best-selling albums last year being roughly equally by male and female acts, that the majority were written and produced by men.
The Performing Rights Society, representing songwriters and composers, has only a 13% female membership.
Spotify, an online music supplier, found that men are less likely than women to listen to artists of the opposite sex.
Research by the British Phonographic Industry found that men make up 65% of the buyers of music and every music genre is listened to by more men than women.
The music industry is controlled by a handful of businesses, who make a fortune through exploiting the talents of women and men and the industry’s workers.
But the rich bosses, mainly men, decide what they think their mainly male audience wants – and women are used as a means to sell a product and make a profit.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t successful female artists who are appreciated for their talent but even then they are often judged on their appearance.
Like in most other parts of our lives under capitalism, the impression is that there is more value in the way women look than in anything we say or do.
The music industry reflects how power, money and control are used throughout society. It also shows how capitalism turns everything into a commodity which can be bought and sold. Artistic talent is often restricted in the interests of profit.
Capitalism is supposed to be a system of choice. Instead, pop stars today are encouraged to look and sound the same.
Most music in the charts is generic, with no real commentary or protest at what’s happening in the world around us and what working class people experience.
Anything different is often considered not to have ‘a market’ and the artists are refused any help from the big record labels.
The effects of all this on the way that women are often represented in the music industry is glaring.
This one-sided view of women sells because it fits in with how the genders are regarded generally within society – that women are submissive to men, that men are the providers while women are there to be looked at.
At the Video Music Awards, Cyrus ‘twerked’ with Robin Thicke while wearing a skin-coloured latex bikini along to his song Blurred Lines.
Thicke says the song is about the “relationship between men and women” but it is widely interpreted to be about the supposed ‘blurred lines’ between consensual sex andrape.
In the video, Thicke and his male co-performers are fully clothed while women dance around in their underwear, including one being led on her knees by a dog lead – Thicke sings: “I hate these blurred lines, I know you want it”.
The director of Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball video is notorious photographer Terry Richardson. He has boasted that his photo shoots have ended with models “performing sex acts” on him and that he is a “powerful guy…dominating all these girls”.
But music is also a method of expression and so can be used for protest and rebellion of women, such as the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s and more recently the protest and subsequent jailing of Russian band Pussy Riot.
The discussion around Miley Cyrus’ behaviour has opened an important debate at a time when more and more women are making their voices heard against sexism.
Women now need to campaign for their rights in the music industry. But particularly important is tackling sexism, objectification and rape culture – through campaigns like Rape is No Joke – wherever they rear their ugly head and fighting for an alternative to the capitalist system that engenders them.