Credit: Rosie Wilson

Best of both worlds: Miley Cyrus, popstar or rockstar?

By Lucy Fitzgerald

From teen pop-princess to a post-twerk, Cranberries-covering punk, Lucy takes a look at Miley’s career.

Miley Cyrus’ recent array of performances, including a body of Metallica covers and swift announcement of a forthcoming rock album entitled Plastic Hearts, left some excited and others sceptical at her alteration of style. I attest that this duality is not shocking or new. After all, she’s been living a double life since her teenage years…

As Disney demigoddess Hannah Montana, Cyrus achieved great triumphs: a five-year TV show run, a world tour and an eponymous feature-length movie. But with that success came the burden of being a role model to a young fan base and, consequently, having to abide by a litany of rules – not exactly a productive environment for a creative artist in her formative years.  Considering the almost religious conformity demanded of child stars, it is totally understandable why they eventually rebel in order to pursue true artistic self-fulfilment (I, for one, will forever respect the Jo Bro’s iconic purity ring abandonment!).

Still, enduring the digging-in of Disney’s contractual death grips, Miley Cyrus released the album Breakout in 2008. While it was still distinctively child-friendly pop, it was not quite as bubblegum as her previous work. Exhorting environmental activism in the somewhat cheesy Wake Up America, her rapid maturation was evident. Breakout was the first album I ever bought (selected from ASDA’s glimmering CD wall, adjacent to some tempting Clubland Classics) and Cyrus’ penchant for covers dates back to that fateful year- I recall proudly asserting to my family that I KNEW who originally sang Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

Reaching the last lap of her Disney duties in 2010, and traversing a new realm of pop, Miley explored Dance-pop with Can’t Be Tamed, in which she flirted with sexperimentalism (coined by Krissi Murison); from the midriff-baring album cover to simulating a lesbian kiss with a backup dancer on stage which, of course, resulted in a heteronormative media uproar. The music video visuals showed Miley breaking free from a birdcage – clearly symbolising emancipation from all the Mickey Mouse expectations imposed upon her. 

Then on the quest to be taken seriously as a musician, Cyrus certainly gave people something to talk about in 2013. The Bangerz era was provocative: 420 and fornication, dank doobies and bedazzled boobies. However, with an appropriated aesthetic, she profited from Black culture and preserved racist stereotypes. I’m aware Nobody’s Perfect but jfc Miley. The infamous 2013 VMA performance with Robin Thicke is a stinging moment in social history. Subsequently, the insulting myth was entertained that Cyrus herself created the very concept of twerking. Religious Studies scholar Elizabeth Perez stated: “Viewing twerk through a western lens renders twerk “ratchet” or “ghetto”, delegitimising. When contextualised as a Black Atlantic, twerk appears the descendant of sacred dances in the worship of Afro-diasporic deities in Brazil, Cuba and Haiti.” As a young white woman, Cyrus’ impudent execution of the move trivialised and vilified the dance’s cultural significance. 

Hip-hop influences defined the 16-track album, and when speaking of Lil’ Kim, Miley said: “In a past life, I feel like that was me” … I honestly do not know what to say to that. Moreover, Miley has expansive lower, mid and upper-chest registers. The heartbreak ballad Wrecking Ball showcased her impressive mezzo-soprano range. 

The Wrecking Ball music video “broke the internet” (over 19m views 24 hours after its VEVO release) but, like much of the complex, multi-faceted art made by women, it was reduced to the visual. Her soulful tone was not the focus – instead, it was her skin. At the time, my school R.E. teacher recoiled, in horror and contempt, at my friend’s purchase of a Bangerz live concert ticket – “Nice girls like you don’t go to Miley Cyrus gigs!”. Of course, the demonisation of a sexually liberated artist has existed for decades. Depressingly, the vitriol lambasted at Miley occurred nearly a decade ago and, still today, when a female artist expresses sexuality on her own terms, the integrity of the art is totally berated (think Lockdown’s lifeline: WAP).

Cyrus’ 2012 Backyard sessions were favourably received; her raspy rendition of Jolene most prominentlyCyrus has long enjoyed the imprimatur of one Dolly Parton (the bluegrass babe played mentor/mate Aunt Dolly to Miley in Hannah Montana and fulfils the role of her Godmother in real life). Self-written and produced, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz (2015) was Cyrus’ fifth studio instalment, which she released on SoundCloud to stream for free. It was psychedelic in nature – a little poppy, a little rocky and hugely inspired by The Flaming Lips. 

Cyrus is acutely aware that, socio-politically, there hasn’t been a Party In The USA for some time and, in her 2019 EP She Is Coming, injected feminist punk ideology. She champions female empowerment, with the lead single Mother’s Daughter chanting “Don’t f*** with my freedom, I came up to get me some”. In the music video, an intersectional representation of female bodies and striking slogans command us (my body, my rules; not an object; every woman is a riot; virginity is a social construct, etc.). This was fitting reactionary cultural output to counter the abortion ban passed in Alabama in May 2019. Cyrus’ musical and social position has been increasingly dynamic. 

Miley’s rock vein has been pulsating for many years. Her Arctic Monkeys cover of Why’d you only ever call me when you’re high? in 2014 got Alex Turner’s nod of approval. In 2016, she performed with punk rocker Billy Idol. Both were kitted out with black leather and bleached hair – Cyrus appeared like his junior, physical anima on stage. Visually, Miley has maintained an edgy aura since 2013, with the cover art of She Is Coming referencing the Sex Pistols 1977 album Never Mind The Bullocks.

Cranking the amplifier up a notch, in her 2019 Glastonbury set, Miley covered Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters, and her recent single Midnight Sky is enchanted with a Stevie Nicks incantation – a sample of Edge of Seventeen. Miley employs different colours of rock and adds her own shade to all of them. Cyrus’ Blondie Heart of Glass cover in early October this year went so viral that she was bombarded with requests to release the recording on all streaming platforms. She also looks the part; Cyrus is truly the image of Blondie with her business-in-the-front-party-in-the-back blonde pixie mullet. Keeping us fed, Miley promptly released a version of The Cranberries’ anti-terrorism track Zombie. The Shannonsiders group hailed Miley’s cover as “one of the finest covers of the song that we’ve heard” and assured her that the late Dolores O’Riordan would have been suitably hypnotised.  

In terms of room to transition between musical categories, different standards are applied for women and Black artists who wish to be flexible in the music industry. When Tyler The Creator was awarded Best Rap Album at the 2020 Grammys, for the genre-bending IGOR, he expressed his complicated feelings about the decoration: “It sucks that whenever we—and I mean guys that look like me—do anything that’s genre-bending or anything they always put it in a ‘Rap’ or ‘Urban’ category. I don’t like that ‘Urban’ word. It is  just the politically correct way to say the n-word to me. So, when I hear that I’m like, ‘Why can’t we just be in Pop?; So, half of me felt like the Rap nomination was a backhanded compliment.” 

In her 2020 documentary Miss Americana, Taylor Swift made clear how difficult it is for women not to get cut by the industry’s double-edged sword; the expectation to progress in accordance with strict, conservative business ideals, rather than personal artistic growth. She stated: “The female artists that I know of, have reinvented themselves 20 times more than the male artists.”

Contrastingly, such limitations around versatility have simply never existed for White men. The Bee Gees were folk-rock before falsetto disco; Michael Bolton was a fist-pumper before ballad belter and Lonely Island collaborator; the Beastie Boys were punk before hip-hop and country legend Kenny Rogers was baptised in rock. With the exception of Wiley’s tangents, Ed Sheeran’s hopping on and off the Grime train went unquestioned, and, what’s more, it was rewarded with a UK chart No.1. 

Cyrus’ house burnt down in the 2018 California wildfires, but what it stole in material possessions, it gifted in spiritual epiphany. Cyrus has claimed her new rock project is the product of two years of self-discovery and development. This is no abrupt, Pauline conversion; heavy metal Hannah has been maturing in smiley Miley for years, and in 2020 it is now fully formed. 

I believe we need to surrender our prejudice-charged musical opinions and generally get over genre snobbery. We must reject the need to immediately question their legitimacy whenever they try something new. Total verisimilitude is not vital to vibe. Miley Cyrus’ four-octave-stretching pipes are up for anything, and her bold stage presence naturally fits with the gritty energy of rock. 

Thus, I endorse Miley’s prospective rock era, and whether later phases give us Euro Dance, Drum and Bass, or any other 7 Things I say we embrace them. I approve of her continuous experimentation – I believe she can “chill it out, take it slow and then rock out the show” if she wants to.  

Ultimately, to scrutinise the authenticity of every one of Cyrus’ sonic and stylistic choices is futile because she defines her own brand.

And, quite simply: She can’t stop. And she won’t stop.


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