In her renowned 1973 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey – to whom the term “male gaze” can be attributed – wrote that, “Woman stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” In a world “ordered by sexual imbalance,” Mulvey wrote, female bodies represented passivity in pleasure, and male bodies were the engineers, the enjoyers.
Conversations about femininity and nakedness in art, and categorizations of gender, have broadened since 1973. Firmly in place, however, is the male tradition of using female imagery as a surrogate for that which masculinity restricts access to – sensitivity, vulnerability, mercy, grace. This idea of the male gaze is no longer confined to academia or theory. It’s a concept increasingly confronted in pop culture, and certainly in music, as artists of various genders – Lizzo, Vivek Shraya, St. Vincent, Serpent With Feet – redefine how we comprehend desire.
And so it feels fair to ask Mike Milosh, who performs as Rhye, the Toronto-born and Montreal-educated R&B musician whose new album, Blood, features the back of a naked woman on its cover, why that is. Rhye’s 2013 full-length, Woman, also features a naked woman, shown from mouth to clavicle. His limited-edition Summer Days vinyl features a naked woman crouching on the shore of a beach. His T-shirts and posters feature naked women as well; one design portrays a woman, chest-to-knees, bashfully covering herself with a pendulous arm. The cover of 2017 single Taste, too, features a naked woman, photographed from behind. The video for Please features a rare appearance by Milosh, in an intimate group-tugging situation starring a handful of women alongside him.
None of this is to say nudity or intimacy are inappropriate, and Milosh is far from the first male musician to use a body not his own to represent some part of himself that cannot otherwise be articulated. Physicality goes deep, and that’s okay. But such imagery, always faceless in photos, consistently servile, merits contemplation. (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 2013 album Push the Sky Away, on which Cave’s wife, the model and fashion designer Susie Bick appears completely naked, comes to mind, though Cave, too appears in that image beside her. Albeit wearing a suit, so there you go.)
“I don’t find the female form without clothes inherently sexual or objectified,” Milosh says over the phone from Los Angeles, where he resides and on this particular day is recovering from food poisoning. “I think it’s vulnerable and beautiful, and I think Geneviève is beautiful, so I’m shooting her to try and represent the beauty that I’ve tried to put into the songs.” (The album artwork model is Milosh’s partner, Geneviève Medow Jenkins, who Milosh says is his creative director. She shot his press photos, and the two photograph each other regularly.) “She’s a big part of my creative life, she travels with me. It’s not often that you find someone who you can be creative but not competitive with.”
Milosh says the depiction of naked women is an expression of vulnerability.
“It’s not about being macho,” he says. “I think that’s an important thing to put out into our culture, because so much music right now is presenting such an archetypical image of male behaviour. … There should be a lot more representation of softer men. There’s nothing wrong with being vulnerable and gentle.”
So shouldn’t he be the one who’s naked on the cover?
“My girlfriend jokes with me about that,” he says. “At this particular time in our society, I think it would feel self-aggrandizing to have me be the singer, me be the producer and me be the naked person on the cover. It’d be too much me. There is part of me that thinks that would be very special. I’m not dogmatic about anything, it’s not like I have to have naked women on everything.”
Lyrically, Milosh lays himself bare, pleading for affection as though being loved is his most primal compulsion. An elongated “Let’s make a home” and “Baby please, I’m on my knees” are two of many dire lines where dignity and ego are scrapped in lieu of emotional exposure. He’s a beautiful singer with a nearly five-octave range, and a talented, ambitious, acclaimed composer. (Milosh did 76 interviews in a three-week span during the promotional lead-up to Blood.) Perhaps lyrics are too safe a haven for male emotion, to the point that feeling turns to projection in any other medium, such as, say, an entire discography’s worth of album artwork. (It is also worth noting that Milosh’s management declined to disclose his age.)
Given the consistent fixation on his view of and relationship to the female body, my mind imagined Milosh to be a lubricious, brawny bro-type. To the contrary, he took the stage at Toronto’s Massey Hall earlier this month, affably and graciously, in an oversized cardigan and scruffy jeans, so modest in stature and tender in disposition that I recalculated my own assumptions about masculinity, the sheer farce of it.
Milosh is onto something when he says sensitivity should not be considered a feminine trait, and that softness shouldn’t equate to shame. Rhye’s laudable quest for vulnerability would be a coup, if only he could express through the body he lives in.