These days, it’s hard to take anything in pop culture at face value, and it’s even more challenging when Miley Cyrus is thrown into the mix. Consider the starlet’s twerking fiasco at MTV’s Video Music Awards presentation last month, which occasioned more cultural analysis than a group of Joycean scholars in a Dublin pub on Bloomsday. In attempting to decode the incident’s significance -- or lack thereof -- it would impossible to arrive at a consensus, but few would argue that the Cyrus’ stunt was not a plea for publicity.
That alone should call its authenticity into question. And yet drawing us further into a state of perpetual skepticism is the late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel, who, inspired by Cyrus’ antics, recently concocted a phony “twerking gone awry” YouTube video. As you recall, the video featured a would-be twerker who is knocked on her head and eventually sets herself aflame. Once the clip went viral, much of the world bought it -- not because the video was in any way realistic, but because we wanted to believe that a fiery demise is a fitting end for anyone who would publicly emulate Cyrus.
This week, we are once again faced with a suspicious bit of Cyrus-related theatrics: Miley’s escalating feud with Sinead O’Connor.
To briefly recap: In a Rolling Stone interview published last week, Cyrus said her video for “Wrecking Ball” was inspired by O’Connor’s classic video for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which itself won three VMAs in 1990.
O’Connor caught wind of this and took it upon herself to pen an open letter to Cyrus. In the letter posted on Facebook and elsewhere, she attempted to impart some motherly advice to the young pop star. In a nutshell, she said she was “extremely concerned” that Cyrus had allowed herself to be pimped out by the music business. “It’s so not cool, Miley,” she wrote.
It was a well-intentioned rant, albeit a condescending one. But Cyrus did not appear to take the constructive criticism well. In fact, she responded by comparing O’Connor to Amanda Bynes, the troubled actress known for wild Twitter theatrics who has reportedly been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Taunting O’Connor, Cyrus posted a screenshot of O’Connor’s 2011 Twitter rant in which she pleaded for a psychiatrist to bring her meds. Cyrus tweeted: “Before Amanda Bynes.... There was....”
O’Connor, who has said she suffers from bipolar disorder, was not amused. On her Facebook page Thursday, she threatened legal action against Cyrus for her “attempt to deliberately cause me harm and hurt. ... Ms Cyrus’ lawyers will be contacted by mine regarding this matter. ... I confirm also that I do not at all support or condone the abuse or mockery of those who have been brave enough to openly discuss mental health issues. Mockery causes deaths. Period. It is an unacceptable form of bullying, no matter who it is doing the bullying.”
Then, in a second open letter, O’Connor called on Cyrus to apologize and remove the post. Cyrus didn’t, and instead responded with another cheeky Twitter retort: “Sinead. I don’t have time to write you an open letter cause Im hosting & performing on SNL this week.”
It’s here where the suspiciousness of the feud reaches its peak level. As anyone of a certain age recalls, O’Connor had one of her most defining pop-cultural moments on the “Saturday Night Live” stage, when, in an impromptu 1992 protest against sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II. The irony is not lost on Cyrus, who tweeted a photo of the incident on Thursday.
So could it all be a hoax? Could it be that Cyrus and O’Connor have deftly orchestrated an elaborate online feud, all with the intention of appearing on “SNL” together this Saturday night and letting the whole world know we’ve been punked? It’s an appealing possibility, if only because Cyrus, who so clearly lacks true musical talent, could find a kind of vindication in the role of a Barnumesque trickster. The alternative -- that all that twerking, gyrating and sledgehammer-licking is rooted in artistic sincerity -- is far less appealing.
Unfortunately, O’Connor’s role in all this makes the hoax theory a little harder to swallow. While certainly not above theatrics, the Irish singer/songwriter has never been much for deceit. There is no irony in what she does, whether it’s shaving her head, tearing up pictures of the pope or penning long missives to Miley Cyrus. She has always acted out of rawness and honesty. In music, those attributes can be gifts. But in the tweet-filled, meme-fueled cacophony that is 21st century pop culture, sincerity is not the most helpful quality.
This brings us to her third open letter. O’Connor makes it clear that she takes the issue of mental health seriously, and she reiterates her hope that Cyrus will apologize -- both to her and Bynes -- and remove the offending post. She also states that she has “no interest whatsoever” in meeting Cyrus.
Is the letter in itself a ploy for attention? Of course -- it’s been shared on Facebook more than 1,200 times. But is it part of a larger ruse to appear on “SNL” for a long-awaited follow-up? Alas, the sincere-to-a-fault O’Connor would probably never submit to such trickery.
But if it turns out she does, remember who said it.
(P.S.: We can just about guarantee there will be a bit devoted to the feud, one way or another.)