The internet is a cruel place for people with shitty opinions about pop culture.
By its design, the blogosphere often produces hastily crafted arguments served up to a righteously enraged army of commenters, ready to tear them to rhetorical shreds. Case in point: Art Tavana's inexcusably awful essay last Friday for LA Weekly, "Sky Ferreira's Sex Appeal Is What Pop Music Needs Right Now."
Tavana's essay was internet culture writing at its shittiest — a sexist non-thesis about a female pop star. It even included the thermally confused descriptor "icy but also sweet, like a freshly licked lollipop." The internet predictably dug into the article, creating almost a micro-genre of backlash pieces. LA Weekly was forced to publish an apology before the end of the weekend.
On one hand, it's easy to feel for Tavana. We've all put words on the internet that we've almost immediately come to regret. On the other hand, no, his article is one of the worst pieces of cultural journalism that a semi-venerable publication has published in recent memory (and that includes the twice-weekly presence of Joe Soucheray).
But this ordeal was ultimately important because:
Tavana's article is a masterclass in how not to write an essay about a female pop star in 2016.
His mistakes lay an unintentional foundation for how we could someday get it right.
If you were to try to redeem Tavana's article by stripping out the horseshit, you'd be left with one half sentence — "Sky Ferreira's sex appeal [...] should be analyzed [...]."
This would have made a forgettable but salient tweet. Sky Ferreira has a lot of sex appeal, and it's hard to put a finger on what exactly she's doing with it. Songwriting and vocals aside — most people with poptimistic sensibilities agree that those are unconditionally great — what's most compelling about Ferreira is her manipulation of societal expectations of female celebrity.
Like her spiritual forebear Lana Del Rey, she plays her spectator's male-dominated gaze against an inchoate sense of her own post-authentic autonomy. Like Del Rey, it's hard to know how exactly her performance is supposed to make you feel. And, like Del Rey, this makes her really hard to write about.
That confusion is what makes Ferreira's public output so worthy of lengthy critical discussion. Whatever she's doing, it can't easily be summed up by pre-internet expectations of pop star sexuality. As Pitchfork writer Lindsay Zoladz said way back in 2013, "[the cover of 2013 Ferreira debut Night Time, My Time] isn't supposed to turn you on, it's supposed to make you feel gross."
The Night Time, My Time cover feels like a palpable violation, like it's something you shouldn't be looking at, something you never should have been able to look at in the first place. It simulates the feeling you'd get if you stumbled into an IRL bathroom and found Sky Ferreira taking a shower — you'd avert your eyes and back the heck out.
This is more or less the feeling that 95 percent of her output inspires, from her work with problematic photographer Terry Richardson to the nasty conclusion of the "I Blame Myself" video. She's not the Slash of looking hot — she's the Slash of making you feel weird for wanting to write about how hot she is.
That weirdness is what Tavana's essay has to offer. Regrettable as it is, his writing feels like a firsthand enactment of Ferreira's projects. His gross feelings about Ferreira make his reader feel gross, which in turn makes his reader feel even grosser for having had those similarly gross feelings in the first place.
In delineating his creepiness, Tavana exposes the masculine impulse to objectify, an impulse that Ferreira knows better than anyone how to subvert.
Sure, Tavana begins and ends in a tasteless affirmation of his horniness and gets nowhere near anything resembling self-reflection. But his observations serve as an inadvertent starting point for an important conversation about male objectification and contemporary pop music — and the tactics that artists like Ferreira are using to complicate it.
It's awfully hard to figure out the right words for that conversation, though. These are the times that try internet writers' souls, and these are the trials that hopefully inspire us to do a better job as a critical community. We've got to figure out how to write about sexually charged art in a way that doesn't place the words "killer" and "tits" anywhere near each other (in fact, we can probably nix those words altogether).
But we need to do that in a way that doesn't exclude the spectator's experience of the artist, even if that experience reflects something indefensibly icky. Ferreira may not be a think piece, but she is an artist whose work is uniquely positioned to force a challenging critical conversation.
It's our job now to respect that challenge and come up with something interesting to say about it.