Portia Berry-Kilby

Halsey and the cultural appropriation of Catholicism

  • From Spectator Life
Image: Instagram

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.

In a society that seems deeply attuned to avoiding offence in every other arena, a little cultural sensitivity towards Catholics wouldn’t go amiss

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’.

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