A woman ‘earns’ the nickname Screwbo because she’s on a talent contest, is 36 and can sing, and because a 48 year old woman who could also sing ‘earned’ the nickname Subo when she appeared on a talent contest a few years go.
On the same programme a 16 year old girl who turns in a performance that’s a carbon copy of Beyonce is told she should be herself, when, at 16, being herself probably means imagining she’s Beyonce.
Finally, on the latest edition of the same programme, we have a guest appearance from Miley Cyrus, a woman who claims to be channelling the attitude of Sinead O’Connor, because her video has a close up of her face as she sings and cries, only to be told by O’Connor that she is doing no such thing, because she also gets her kit off in the said video.
All of this elevates debate about the artist above debate about the music, with judgements cast not on the basis of their talent, or lack of it, but on the implications that can be drawn from ill-considered sound-bite comparisons.
To begin with Sam Bailey, our X Factor prison worker. What are the real similarities between her and Susan Boyle? She’s 12 years younger than Boyle was when she found fame. She’s married with children, whereas Boyle was a virgin spinster living with her mother. She has a job and, on the face of it, a perfectly normal life. All things that Susan Boyle didn’t have. Okay, in a looks obsessed media, you could probably note that like Subo, she is not what you would call a stunner, but if that’s all you need to draw a physical comparison, then you’re lumping a hell of a lot of people into the same bucket. And you’re probably one of them.
The actual similarities come down to the following; she is on a talent show, can sing, and is over 25. And that becomes enough for the comparison to be made and embedded in the nickname. And what of the nickname? If we’re being honest, we have to admit that there is something about it that is slightly insulting and derisory towards her, as if anyone over the age of 25 who is trying to be a successful singer must have something wrong with them. It can’t just be that they’ve been doing something else with their lives and now want to try and do something they enjoy. There has to be something more than that, because they haven’t realised that the natural state for people like them is to stay quiet and in the background for fear of ridicule and patronising remarks if they dare to break out of the box we put them in. That’s what the name is implying.
And doing it because they want to be famous, as well as wanting to use their talent, well, that’s really no excuse - albeit that we should excuse all the cast of TOWIE, Made in Chelsea, Geordie Shore and every contestant on every series of Big Brother for also thinking they have a right to be famous when they have no talent whatsoever. One rule for you, one rule for me, Screwbo. But she can take comfort from the fact that whether or not she wins X Factor, she will either have a number one single or a number one album, even if people whose intelligence stretches no further than thinking of a wacky patronising nickname try to make her feel like a freak.
Skipping over Tamera Knowles and on to Sinead O’Cyrus as she would like to be known, the implication that she cannot be on the same emotional level as Sinead O’Connor, because she gets her clothes off, doesn’t automatically hold weight, and the assumption that it does condemns a lot of clever people to a place in the dunces class. It’s not to say all page 3 girls are PhD students in disguise, or that you have to get naked to be intellectual or even capable of independent thought, but it’s a sweeping generalisation that allows no room for debate. Dismiss everyone without going beyond a headline.
Madonna in her Erotica/Sex/Body of Evidence phase went a lot further than Cyrus, but no-one would claim that means she’s stupid. We’re told the difference is that Madonna was in the driver’s seat for all of her 90s flesh flashing, whereas Cyrus is being manipulated by her managers, but how closely is anyone looking at this claim? Yes, her managers are probably rubbing their hands, if not other body parts, at the thought of the money it will make for them, but that’s not to say she isn’t a willing participant, and is stupid, or even just naïve, for doing it. But everyone is happy to say that’s what it is, that she is not in control of her image, and that the emotion she felt when making the Wrecking Ball video cannot, as she claims, match O’Connor’s in the video for Nothing Compares to you, because she is happy to then swing around naked on a wrecking ball. But one does not preclude the other.
That’s not to say that Cyrus is operating at the same emotional level, however. For me, the clincher that proves she is trying to manufacture a level of intensity she doesn’t really feel, comes not from her being naked, but from how obvious the attempt at getting that emotion is. It isn’t natural, it is the most forced thing in the video, and the staccato ‘wreck-ek-ek-me’ line confirms this. If you were bringing forth natural emotion and tears, you wouldn’t stretch a line out in such a syllable repeating manner. Also Cyrus’s continued habit of sticking her tongue out every time she sees a camera, suggests that she is going through some sort of postponed adolescent rebellion, rather than being a fully formed mature adult, but this is on a different level from just the clothes off video, a level that the usual summary dismissal of her doesn’t get to.
It also opens up a wider debate about her current behaviour, both in terms of what is behind it, and whether it’s right to condemn her for it. On the first of these, the rebellion is ‘shocking’ because ‘she used to be so sweet’. Unnaturally so. The reality is rebellion is normal. Cyrus’ was postponed in order to fulfill the media desire for her to remain a sweet and innocent virgin, long after an age where she should be, and as a result, it’s intensity is possibly stronger than it would have been.
She’s not the first of course, and her progression to maturity will be portrayed as part of some sort of emotional and physical meltdown, rather than anything caused by management designed arrested development, until it does indeed become just that, in much the same way as it did for Britney Spears, and probably is going to for Justin Beiber.
Which brings us to whether it’s right to condemn her. Beiber will only be ridiculed, he will not be condemned like Britney or Miley. Bad behaviour will not be tolerated, let alone celebrated, when it’s a female. The reason for this is probably because, for the rebellious female, be they Miley, Rhianna or Britney, the rebellion seems to come in the form of sex, as well as drink and drugs, and that makes people uncomfortable.
I could go on, but that would be missing the original point of this, which is that the people I’m talking about are first and foremost singers, and yet I can quite easily fill over a thousand words with almost no reference to their vocal ability or their records. Newspapers, blogs, gossip columns and social media do this every day. It’s like talking about a football match and saying a ball was kicked by Wayne Rooney who once slept with an old prostitute but is now happily married to his childhood sweetheart with whom he has two children and lives somewhere in Cheshire where he has a house and a garden and basically anything other than reporting on the match.
But in music this now seems to be the norm. It’s the life and the problems and the scandal, not the music, that people latch on to, and that dominate column inches whether the person they’re writing about likes it or not. The days have gone when the centre piece of an article about a singer would be a focus on their music and talent, rather than a reporters ill-informed opinion of their life. It fills column inches, but it elevates the background to a higher level than the subject, and starts to reduce things to a lowest common denominator.
Sam Bailey is a talented singer, not a subo replicant. Tamera Foster is a talented singer whether or not she wants to be a Beyone replicant, and is of an age where that’s a perfectly natural thing to be. Miley Cyrus isn’t particularly good, but that’s not because she swings around naked in her videos, it’s because her records aren’t good, because the image creation and promotion has always been put above quality of music in the list of marketing priorities for her. If stars put image before music, it’s always the music that suffers.
So artists, remember what you do and focus on that, and reporters and journalists, remember what the artists do too, and when you’re talking about a pop star, talk about pop music. That way we might get people who make decent music rather than people who make decent gossip column fodder.