[Welcome to "Art Tavana vs. the World," a monthly column in which L.A. Weekly's angriest (and nerdiest) music critic, Art Tavana, takes on his many nemeses in an ambitious quest to boldly go where no other critic has gone before.]
[Update Saturday, June 18: L.A. Weekly music editor Andy Hermann has posted a response to widespread criticism of this essay.]
Sky Tonia Ferreira, 23, has a name that reads like a turbo-charged Italian sports car, or the kindred spirit to second-generation Italian-American pop star Madonna, the most ambitious woman to ever wear a pink cone bra. Both Sky and Madonna have similar breasts in both cup size and ability to cause a shitstorm.
When Ferreira dropped her debut, Night Time, My Time, three years ago, the bare-breasted album cover nearly broke the internet. Misogynists claimed it was a desperate attempt to sell records; feminists saw it as the calculated move of a defiant young woman. A third unnamed group that included me couldn't help but reminisce about Madonna's defiantly atomic boobs — the two knockers that altered the course of human history.
In the now-infamous photo, taken by Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noé, Ferreira looks like a dirtier Madonna: square jaw, strong eyebrows, lulled green eyes, crucifix, bleached blond hair, translucently pale skin and killer tits. America's already established that Ferreira looks like a lot like Madonna (there's a V magazine spread based on this concept), but we almost never have the audacity to admit that her looks —specifically, her Madonna-ness — is her most direct appeal to the American consumer. But to pretend that looks don't matter in pop music is ridiculous. Looks matter; they will always matter. This is pop music, a genre firmly grounded in the aesthetic of '80s magazine cutouts and Calvin Klein adverts.
But Ferreira is more than just a sex symbol or real-life Less Than Zero character. She's been singing semi-professionally since she was 14. She's got talent — not like Christina Aguilera or Ariana Grande, but she's got pipes comparable to Madonna. She's also a genius self-promoter who understands her brand better than her record label or handlers. Working with Vampire Weekend and Haim producer Ariel Rechtshaid on her debut, along with Dev Hynes on "Everything Is Embarrassing," helped her orchestrate a career coup d'état that pulled her away from her label's outdated vision of making her the next Britney Spears.
She's too nasty to be anyone's schoolgirl fantasy; she looks like an unvarnished Madonna styled by Maripol, with the vaguely mystical presence of Nico and the faux-punkness of a Sex Pistols groupie. In other words, Sky Ferreira is the most deliberately pimped-out example of a modern pop star. She's not a mindless product like Britney, or a depressed indie-pop singer like Lorde, but she's also not bitter or punk, like Meredith Graves, or a feminist superhero like Grimes. She's the pop star who's so personally cool that her record label, Capitol, doesn't need to hire a team to mold her.
It pisses people off that Ferreira is not just a pop star but also an accomplished actor (she's in David Lynch's revived Twin Peaks) and fashion icon (not just a Hedi Slimane pet but someone who actually has her own Marc Jacobs line of eyeliner). She's also genuinely dedicated to all three mediums, not exactly a dilettante, which is unheard of these days since nobody, not even Beyoncé, can do all three without coming off as grabby. This is why she's so hated by the elitist snobs in the indie scene, who tell me all the time that she can't sing, or that she's dumb. Some even pretend they don't know who she is, maybe because she's friends with L.A. party animals like Blaque Chris, or because she's seen so often at Cha Cha Lounge, a former gay bar in Silver Lake that's now an indie musician hot spot (people don't want to accept her as "indie").
She pisses people off in other ways, too. When Ferreira works with local artists like Lucas David to sketch the BDSM-inspired album art for Masochism (her much-anticipated new album; release date: eventually), they think she's trying to be artsy or anti-feminist. Those same people took her to task when she had the chutzpah to defend photographer Terry Richardson, when everyone else just assumed he was an unmitigated pervert. “Basically if one more person has the nerve to ask/tell me that I’ve fucked Terry Richardson, I will slit their fucking throat," she said in a lengthy and badass Facebook post in 2014, in which she also noted that she doesn't let a past history of sexual abuse define her.
But here's what I think pisses off people the most: that Ferreira, like any great pop star, is profiting off her fresh-faced beauty. But there's nothing tasteless about this. Why can't we see her sex appeal as talent as opposed to privilege? Ferreira's sex appeal, like any woman's, isn't entirely a gift from God. It isn't something she's simply born with. It had to be sharpened and used like Beatrix's sword in Kill Bill: with fine, deadly precision.
Like Madonna and Lady Gaga, the two boldest pop stars in history, Sky never looks awkward doing anything. I'm convinced a video of Sky Ferreira doing nothing but staring at a photo of Sky Ferreira would go viral. This is a talent; it's her instrument. Her sex appeal is equivalent to the feeling a musician like Slash (as opposed to, say, Joe Satriani, who's more technically proficient but boring) puts into playing his guitar.
When I say Ferreira looks like Madonna, I also mean to say she has the same kind of innate charisma that most normal people lack. I'm not trying to otherize this woman; it has nothing to do with her gender. Michael Jackson never looked awkward standing over an industrial fan and grabbing his crotch, either. He was the definition of cool in his prime (until about 1992, when things got weird).
When Ferreira snaps back her faux-blond hair in a music video, or does a Michael Jackson finger snap (her grandmother used to be MJ's hair stylist), or when she takes off her big sunglasses and stares seductively into the camera, curling her candy-red lips like an English punk rocker, it never looks unnatural. I can't say the same about Katy Perry, or Taylor Swift, who look perpetually uncomfortable as they desperately try to appear cooler than they really are. Katy Perry has publicly admitted this. Taylor Swift's entire brand is based on looking awkward and connecting with other awkward people during sad times in their lives.
Stage presence, those practiced onstage mannerisms of a well-crafted pop star — everything from how they use their lips to sing to how they whip off an article of clothing with runway-model confidence — is the very essence of what makes someone like Madonna seem alien to us. Pop stars are better than us in their ability to look cool, because they never look stupid doing anything. The scene in Truth or Dare when Madonna's slurping her soup is an example of how a pop star makes mundane shit look interesting.
To see how Ferreira fits into this elite group, simply look over her Instagram. There isn't a single photo of her that isn't flawlessly, almost offensively cool. Even in the candid photo of her nude in the shower, soaking wet, she looks natural, like she's shooting a home video, rather than being photographed by a creeper. She looks like a more cherubic Sharon Stone, icy but also sweet, like a freshly licked lollipop.
This is why Ferreira's music videos are so minimalist and cool. All you need is Sky, a leather jacket, some cherry-red lipstick and someone reminding her to snap her hair back. The video for her breakout single from 2012, "Everything Is Embarrassing," is basically a monochromatic tribute to Sky touching her hair for four minutes. "You're Not the One," her coolest-looking video, is just Sky teasing us with a leather jacket. Her effortless, user-friendly sex appeal has resulted in some righteous huff from less beautiful people, who've vilified her as a talentless model who's famous for no reason.
Male subjectivity aside, the cosmetic potency of Sky Ferreira's sex appeal shouldn't be objectified or rejected; it should be analyzed, studied, photographed in the same way we've spent decades writing essays about Elvis' hips and Madonna's breasts. We need to embrace the untidy concept that sexuality is part of every pop star's circuitry. We should expect them to be hotter than us.
Sky Ferreira's appeal is that she's the geek's dream girl, Alabama from True Romance, except she looks like a supermodel from an obsessively vain novel like Glamorama. There's also something dark and unpleasant about her look, which fans our fetishized interest in both how she composes her career and the crazy possibilities of Masochism as both fine art and electro hair-metal for millennials who need something a bit dirtier than Taylor Swift's candy-coated fakeness.
Sky Ferreira is at the El Rey on Wednesday, June 29.
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Art Tavana is a music critic and inflammatory Facebooker who updates followers on his opinions as L.A.'s resident #AngryNerd. Find him on Twitter (@noisejourno) and Facebook.