Miley Cyrus vs Sinead O'Connor: Who's Right?

A fascinating social media feud wages between Sinead O'Connor and Miley Cyrus. It began with an open letter that Sinead wrote to Miley, the gist of which was that Sinead was warning Miley not to sexualize herself as she has been doing lately (just two examples being her MTV VMA performance and her topless magazine spread). It further assumed that Miley was doing this at the behest of the white men who control the record industry and are merely doing so to boost their own profits, not because they care about Miley's long-term career or her as a person.

This in turn provoked a response from Miley in which she mocked Sinead's admitted history of mental illness, among other insults. Which in turn deeply upset and offended Sinead, who has now (as of this post) written three additional open letters to Miley. 

Sinead of course has a well-known history of expressing controversial opinions and behaviors, the reasons for which are not always clear. Believe it or not, there are actually some interesting psychological and spiritual issues lurking beneath the surface of this seemingly ridiculous war between pop musicians. To put it succinctly: does Sinead have a strong point or is this just one more desperate plea for relevancy on behalf of a pop star who is no longer popular? Or perhaps we might be looking at two pop stars at different life stages, both expressing various forms of insecurity and mental illness?

Let me begin by stating what's probably obvious: I do not, nor have I ever listened to the music of either. Nor have a seen an episode of Hannah Montana, nor even listened to the music of Miley's famous country-music dad. In short, I have no emotional or artistic dog in this fight.

Some of what Sinead writes is obviously correct. While I have no idea the exact ratio of white males in control of record companies these days, the broader observation that the executives in charge of the music labels (be they male, female, transgender, white, Asian, African-American, Latino, or Martian) almost certainly don't care much about Miley in any personal sense. This has nothing to do with race or gender so much as economic class and position. Music industry executives are no different than the executives in many industries; they care mostly about their own careers and the profits they can generate for their shareholders. This hardly qualifies as breaking news. Frankly i'd be surprised if Miley wasn't already well-aware of this. After all, her dad has been in the industry for decades. She grew up in Beverly Hills. She is hardly a wide-eyed innocent recently off the bus from Kansas. In fact, I suspect that Miley probably knows more about how the industry works than Sinead, who has always been somewhat of an outsider.

Yes, it's true that Miley has gone a bit of a naked streak. Which raises the very real issue of why women so often feel pressured to sexualize themselves in order to advance in their field, whatever that may be. It's a sad state of things that's hardly confined to the music biz. This is something to be genuinely watchful and concerned about across all facets of society. However, in this particular case, I think Sinead might be misreading Miley's motivation. I suspect this isn't so much about a young woman feeling guided or pressured into sexually exploiting herself in order to advance her short-term career. Then what is it about?

To answer, it's essential to understand Miley's age and background. She's 20 years old. Which is to say: college aged. What did you do during your college years? If you're anything like me or most of the people I knew, this is the age that young adults make a conscious break from their teen selves. These are years of exploration, of learning about oneself, of breaking away from our families, from the person we were during our teen years, and to experiment with new versions of ourselves in the healthy attempt to figure out who we are, what we want to do, what's important to us. This may be doubly the case when one has spent their tween and teen years literally growing up on television and playing a TV character whose personality was morphed into our own. This is why Miley recently declared that "Hannah Montana was murdered." 

Miley is in the process of finding her authentic self. Is the current emphasis she's placing on her body and sexuality her final self? Probably not. (Hopefully not.) But it is an obvious starting place, especially for a young woman who's rise to fame was based on playing a carefully non-sexualized star operating within the Disney kid-oriented, wholesome family entertainment marketing juggernaut. There's hardly anything unique happening here--and it has nothing to do with fame or pop culture. Many (most?) of the college-aged kids I knew thought about and explored their sexuality, at least to some degree. 

We have to see people within the context of their directional unfoldment as human beings. We're all on a journey to find our true selves. The Miley we see now is surely not the Miley of 30 or 40 or 60 years old. What's really happening here is that Miley has unofficially begun her conscious march towards understanding herself, her place in the world, the nature of happiness, the purpose of her life, and even how she fits into the very fabric of the Universe itself. This is the universal quest that we all embark upon, though not always consciously.

The one area in which Miley should be taken to task: dismissing Sinead by mocking her history of mental illness. She could've simply not responded at all; goodness knows, many of her fans and the media would've done it for her. Or she could've released a brief, respectful, and utterly plain reply, the sort that politicians and athletes resort to on a regular basis. However she proceeded, a more thoughtful and kind response would have been preferable. Which is another lesson for us all: people will criticize you -- often unfairly. The challenge is not to stoop to their level in response but rise above it. Miley's failure here is a bigger issue than her sexual exploits. Yet even here, lenience is required. She's quite young, after all. I can remember doing and saying hundreds of stupid things at that age, thank goodness for me they weren't all publicly broadcasted across the world. The things I said at that age make Miley look like an enlightened saint in comparison.

The mistake that Sinead made first then Miley in response-- and more to the point, that we all tend to make -- is to make assumptions and judge others at a distance. We look at their words, actions, and sometimes entire being through the lens of ourselves; where we are at in our lives, our priorities, our level of understanding, our values and not through theirs. While there is most certainly genuine right and wrong, good and evil, in this world, much too often we mistake what merely would have been our particular choices, germane to only ourselves, for universal truths that must be rigorously applied to others, even when we don't truly know them in the slightest. 

The trick is to replace judgment with compassion, mean-spiritedness with kindness, and the specific with the universal. When we can do this, not only do we avoid needless confrontation, but we ourselves gain a measure of inner peace, happiness, and even wisdom. 

Who would've thunk so much could be learned from Miley Cyrus?