Portia Berry-Kilby

Halsey and the cultural appropriation of Catholicism

Halsey and the cultural appropriation of Catholicism
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I can’t say I have a terribly favourable view of the modern music industry. But when I heard that pop artist Halsey’s latest album If I Can’t Have Love, I want Power had an album cover inspired by Jean Fouquet’s Virgin And Child Surrounded By Angels, taken from the right wing of the Melun Diptych, I wondered if I’d find a sequin on the threadbare fabric of popular taste. Alas, I shouldn’t have got my hopes up.

The American singer’s album was released last week and the cover depicts her and a baby in a pose resembling Fouquet’s Virgin and Child, bare boob and all. Aside from the grandiose nature of this gesture - to put oneself in the place of the Mother of God requires some hubris - such role play is not, in and of itself, first-degree blasphemy. Of course, girls and women worldwide play the role of Mary – just think of the school hall Christmas nativity. But such performances usually communicate the beauty of the Incarnation. Halsey, however, isn’t interested in such innocent symbolism.

Commenting on her ‘artwork’, Halsey said it was about ‘the dichotomy of the Madonna and the Whore. The idea that me as a sexual being and my body as a vessel and gift to my child are two concepts that can co-exist peacefully and powerfully.’ Even Halsey’s implication that she, like Mary, became pregnant (though clearly not à la Holy Spirit), is subsumed by her wish to make a greater statement about herself as a woman with sexual desires. One of the singles on the album is even titled I am not a woman, I’m a god.

As for posing as the Madonna and Child in order to show the harmony between childbearing and sexuality, Halsey is indulging in a well worn trope of popular culture: she will be well aware of the absurdity, and audacity, of using a Marian image to convey herself ‘as a sexual being’. Disrespecting catholic iconography in this way is not especially original or indeed subversive: Madonna was already at it in the eighties. Indeed, Catholicism has long been seen as fair game for this sort of cultural appropriation, despite the centrality of Mary to Catholic beliefs.

Halsey exemplifies the disregard that today’s pop culture shows towards the core tenets of Catholicism. Yes, Jesus died for us all. But he didn’t die for us so that we could all free the nipple and strike a pose as His Blessed Virgin Mother.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for high art filtering into low culture. I’m not, however, so keen on a constant dumbing down of The Good Stuff so as to cater to the crass tastes of the day. And when it comes to Halsey’s latest album cover, the end result is not so much artistic fusion as it is a flagrant appropriation of the sacred.

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In a society that seems deeply attuned to avoiding offence in every other arena, a little cultural sensitivity towards Catholics wouldn’t go amiss. After all, Halsey isn’t the only pop artist to use her pregnancy as an excuse to run roughshod over the Catholic art tradition.

Nicki Minaj was guilty of similar bad taste in 2020. By way of announcing her pregnancy, Ms. Minaj tweeted a photograph of herself, and her exposed bowling ball belly, captioned ‘The Virgin Mary by David LaChapelle’. LaChapelle was the artist, and Nicki Minaj was, believe it or not, the Virgin. As metaphors go, I can’t say I was terribly convinced. 

Image: Twitter

What baffles me most is the complacency of today’s Catholics when it comes to the misuse of their iconography. I’ll admit asking ‘What Would A Muslim Do?’ offers an all too easy method for highlighting the double standards at play in popular culture. But which pop singer would release an album cover featuring themselves dressed as the Prophet Mohammed? As a minimum, one would expect a few Guardian columnists to be foaming at the mouth. When it concerns the Catholic tradition, however, there is no such hesitancy shown for causing offence. And, while I wouldn’t suggest Catholics launch a crusade against Halsey and her ilk, I would appreciate a little more outrage. Perhaps then the music industry would think twice before it appropriates the sacred in name of being creative.