This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
When Hannah Montana came to fruition in 2006 it quickly became an integral part of Western millennial childhood for three simple reasons: the jokes were phenomenal, it appealed to blondes and brunettes because she was secretly both, and everyone—EVERYONE—has teenage dreams of being a secret pop star. If you look at the career trajectories of Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, or any other child star, it was probably inevitable if not predictable that Miley Cyrus would go on to become the poster girl for nipple pasties, self-release a psychedelica record with Wayne Coyne, and present the VMAs wearing dreadlock extensions and a selection of outfits that can only be described as "Cyberdog does 70s revival." But does knowing who’s going to get murked in the Eastenders Christmas Special prevent millions of people from tuning in to watch how badly they may or may not fuck it? Absolutely not.
Whether it’s her wardrobe (or perceived lack thereof), her feminism, or—god forbid—her music, the Miley Cyrus we have come to know tends to rub some people up the wrong way. A lot of the criticism tends to revolve around the image overhaul that came in tandem with her fourth studio album, Bangerz, which saw her go from “clean teen” idol to twenty-something “bad influence” seemingly overnight. Considering the video for “We Can’t Stop” was the first we’d seen of her since 2010’s “Who Owns My Heart”—in which the most outrageous thing she did was pair a mesh bandana with a selection of beaded necklaces—the shift in gears was so sharp it would have taken even the most unshakable of liberals a moment to collect their thoughts.
A recent study conducted by Vouchercloud asked 2,287 British parents which celebrity role models concerned them most, and 78 percent cited Miley Cyrus as a negative influence on children. Reflecting on the results, Chris Johnson, Head of Operations at Vouchercloud, told the MailOnline, “She started out as the perfect teen idol in Hannah Montana and then when she reached a certain age, she decided to rid herself of the clean-teen image […] It’s typically not a parent’s dream for [their children] to prance around with not a lot of clothes on, partying their lives away.” But, significant as it is in its own way, there is so much more to Miley than how she chooses to present herself.
Over the last two years, we’ve seen Miley's name pegged to conversations around feminism, cultural appropriation, sexuality, and age ratings on music videos. The same could be said of other female popstars—Katy Perry, Rihanna, Beyoncé, to name a few—and much of that has to do with a new elevated awareness of those issues in general, but in the last two years we’ve also seen Miley becoming increasingly self-aware, increasingly engaged, and increasingly outspoken. From her All American Family-friendly beginnings as Hannah Montana to her current role as a gender fluid provocateur on a mission to change the world, the evolution of Miley Cyrus’ career has been one loaded with questions surrounding sexuality, identity, authenticity. It’s one of the most interesting transformations mainstream music has seen this side of Napster, and here begins our Noisey guide.
Hannah Montana, Disney Beginnings, and Purity Rings
These were the proverbial good old days. A time of innocence and optimism where dancepop songs with lyrics like “Get up / Get loud / Start pumpin’ up the party now” were nothing but sincere, platitudes like “Pink isn’t just a color, it’s an attitude!” were thrown around like Goodreads quotes, and all of Cyrus’ outfits included a matching purity ring with then-boyfriend Nick Jonas before he was crowned King of the Twinks and dating her was still considered a mark of uprightness. What a time to be alive.
With Miley playing the character of Miley Stewart—living a double life as a typical teenager by day and a famous pop singer by night—and the role of her dad/manager played by her actual real life dad/manager Billy Ray Cyrus, Hannah Montana is like a millennial dramatization of Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America." It was a slapstick-heavy, family values-promoting portrait of tween life in 2006, complete with overacting and canned laughter with Billy Ray’s unsavory soul patch hovering disconcertingly in the background at all times. For all intents and purposes, it was a “safe” show in that it represented everything conventionally idyllic about growing up in Anywheresville, USA. It was the antidote to other teen dramas airing at the time—Skins, Gossip Girl and Misfits—that were compilations of every possible parental nightmare. Just think how differently we would reflect on Hannah Montana now, had the show run under its original name of "Alexis Texas."
Forging an Identity Outside of Hannah Montana
Never before has an artist tried to rebrand themselves so flagrantly as when Miley Cyrus released Meet Miley Cyrus: a double disc album with the first serving as the soundtrack for the second series of Hannah Montana, and the second as Miley’s debut studio album.
Until this point, Miley had been a 14-year-old girl playing a 16-year-old character—and this release marked the moment when the former began to eclipse the latter as Miley began to segue into the throws of her own teenage girlhood and test the water of a career outside of her TV persona. The effort was met with mixed results, with Kathi Kamen Goldmark from Common Sense Media calling it a “synthesized and over-processed” effort which would “irritate anyone with more mature music taste." It was later certified quadruple-platinum. So suck on that, Kathi. Anyway, it worked because what followed next was one of the best-selling singles in chart history.
“7 Things” Is Released
Let’s just take a breather for a second and appreciate this 10/10 slapper that is almost definitely airing out all the shit baggage from her relationship with Nick Jonas.
"Party in the USA," Coming of Age, and Miley’s First Boob-Related Controversy
Still 2008, Miley legally changed her name to "Miley Ray Cyrus," released her second album, knowingly-titled Breakout, and found herself amid her first controversy after posing nude with a silk blanket for photographs taken by Annie Leibovitz, which appeared in Vanity Fair and were the first of many, many boob-related disputes to come. People still thought of Miley as Hannah Montana—and technically she still was, the last season didn’t run until 2010—but she was also creating her own agency outside of that.
By the time “Party in the USA” dropped in 2009, we had already started viewing Miley as her own pop star rather than an actor playing the part of one. At this point the video has been viewed almost 500 million times on YouTube, and it’s obvious why. Those “And a Jay Z / Britney song was on” refrains are the unspoken definition of “guilty pleasure”—they’re right up there with the choruses for Hanson’s “MMMbop” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby” as contenders for the greatest and most grating melodies ever written—but they’re also total genius. In this era, Miley was the absolute embodiment of the average teenage girl navigating her way through life on a cocktail of pressure, homesickness, and emotional confusion, because boys. They may be reductive on face value, but the lyrics to “Party in the USA” remind us all that whether you’re a teenage girl or an old-ass man, nothing temporarily lifts your troubles like your favorite jam coming on iPod shuffle, in the club, or over the “wireless."
Rebirth, Rebellion, and RCA Records
The world didn’t get a whole lotta Miley between 2010 and 2013, with appearances mostly limited to spots on American Idol, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and a few covers here and there, plus this amazing video of her smoking a bong on her eighteenth birthday whilst listening to ROCK MUSIC. In hindsight, we can probably consider these her years of self-reflection, rebellion, and re-birth (as well as a long overdue break). Then she signed with RCA Records, who would release Bangerz.
If there was any sign at all of the impending bitchslap Miley was about to plant on the face of pop culture, covering artists whose main characteristics were leather and pouting, getting busted for smoking Salvia, and signing with a label that also housed A$AP Rocky, Kesha, Christina Aguilera circa Stripped and Britney circa Britney Jean was probably a reasonable indicator. Still, even for someone who did pick up on all the hints dropped there would have been no way of being emotionally prepared for the cavalcade of social media shitstorms that actually came to pass.
The VMAs, Bangerz, and Everything #Problematic
Here’s the bit you're all painfully aware of; the period that I wouldn't be surprised left some people with PTSD. First, there was the video for “We Can’t Stop,” which is three and a half minutes of Miley dry-humping various objects and people around the house; then came the VMAs performance with Robin Thicke—the choreography that launched a thousand thinkpieces; swiftly followed by the video for “Wrecking Ball," which is three and a half minutes of Miley doing the exactly what you shouldn’t do with a cold hard surface to avoid getting piles.
The makeover that Bangerz had done on Miley catapulted her from riches to ratchet with no grasp of cultural sensitivity whatsoever. The word “problematic” has never been more omnipresent, and with that came a level of character analysis that very few pop stars had been given before: in offense of articles, in defense of articles, Sinead O’Connor calling her a “prostitute of the music industry” in an open letter, and thousands of people telling her how much they preferred the character she performed as a child to what seemed to be the most authentic representation of her actual personality to date—it was never ending. But it also worked.
That VMAs performance has gone on to be remembered as a pivotal moment in Cyrus’ career. If there was any doubt about her identity before then this really propelled her as far away as possible from her role as Hannah Montana and into a new one as one of the most “controversial” pop stars in recent memory. Not to mention one of the most powerful; after a four-year absence Miley made it to #17 on Forbes Most Influential Celebrities of 2014, previously coming in at #13 in 2010 when she was still “rolling in Hannah Montana money." The performance shocked those who saw Cyrus as an archetypal tween, a “daddy’s girl” figure with a Disney contract and a purity ring, but at least at this point we can say that Miley is in charge of her own image. As she said to Jimmy Kimmel this year: “My dad would rather I’d have my tits out and be a good person than have my shirt on and be a bitch.”
At this point in her career, Miley was blowing up in a media sense but mostly because people were repulsed by her. Everything she did, she draped in such a level of spectacle that you really had to focus hard to see the creativity that was the driving force behind all the bare asses. The Bangerz tour was brought to visual life by John Kricfalusi, the Ren and Stimpy creator, who used it to debut a series of terrifying animations featuring dildo limbs and bestiality. She also made her first move into hip-hop by jumping on tracks with Snoop Dogg, will.i.am, and Mike Will Made It. Patrick Ryan of USA Today even credits Cyrus' collaborations with Mike Will Made It with contributing to his prominence, suggesting that his position as an executive producer helped him jump "to the forefront as an interesting character […] in an era where a lot of producers have fallen behind the scenes again."
LGBT Activism, Gender Fluidity, and Body Image
It’s difficult to process the amount of controversy Miley Cyrus kicked up during the Bangerz campaign by wearing grills and not much else, straddling anything in sight—wrecking balls, oversized hot dogs, your mom’s patience—and quite literally landing the verb “twerk” into the Oxford English Dictionary. If you type “Miley Cyrus scandal” into Google, you get over 32 million results, and a hefty chunk of it comes from 2013.
There were a good few tentative months after all that happened during which it was fairly easy to dismiss every video, every performance, every antic, as thoughtless provocation. But as time went on it became increasingly apparent that, although much of what she did was definitely unjustifiable, Miley has an awareness of social issues that wasn’t necessarily expected or demanded of her. In an interview with Out earlier this year, she said, “All these things that I do get all this attention. But then what do I do once I have everyone’s attention?” The answer to that is apparently: comment on youth homelessness in America by inviting Jesse Helt—one of nearly 114,000 homeless men and women presently living in California—to the VMAs in 2014 to collect the video of the year award on her behalf, launching a non-profit charity aiming to support America’s homeless LGBT youth, performing “Backyard Sessions” with prominent LGBT artists like Laura Jane Grace, embracing gender fluidity, coming forward about the fact that not all of her relationships have been heterosexual, and revealing that Hannah Montana gave her unrealistic beauty standards, which led to body image issues and anxiety attacks.
There was also that Paper Magazine cover feature where she posed nude with a pig and what looks like phone charms dangling from her pubes, and railed against Christian fundamentalism. There’s nothing particularly shocking about that until you consider her hometown of Nashville is at the center of the Bible Belt, the seat of the National Baptist Convention in America, and full almost entirely of people who wouldn’t take too kindly to figures in the Old Testament being referred to “fucking Santa and the tooth fairy.”
Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz
Okay, so Miley tanked at presenting the VMAs 2015. “Her skits never landed, her monologues were clunky, and her outfits poorly mimicked vaporwave collage art.” On top of all that, she got absolutely bodied by Nicki Minaj on live television. You all saw. It was a shitshow. So let’s just move past that and talk about the stranger matter of her new self-released album with The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, called Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz.
Ahead of its release, Coyne told Billboard: "She does the pop thing so great, so it still feels pop, but a slightly wiser, sadder, more true version. Some of it reminds me of Pink Floyd and Portishead”—and he’s not wrong, but he also could have gone on for another 20 minutes, rattling off the boundless spectrum of other influences that have been packed into this 23-track album like a million pounds worth of gak into a smuggler’s bumhole.
Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz is the kind of album that could only been made at a time when the commercial success of mixtapes, Soundcloud producers, and app-based releases are forcing us to reconsider how an album is defined. It’s a “post-album” era album. The fact that Big Sean and Ariel Pink both feature is a fairly decent indicator of where Miley is positioning herself now; somewhere between a Mike Will Made It production credit and the kind of experimental pop only John Maus can pull off because he is so simultaneously direct and ambiguous it’s genuinely impossible to tell whether he’s being serious or not. Miley, on the other hand, has all the subtle nuances of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
But then extravagance has always been her thing, whether it’s the staged drama that came with Hannah Montana or fucking a foam finger on stage. If anything, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz is a testament to the extent to which she now plays by her own rules—even when she really, really could have done with an editor. The album has all the ill-advised free reign of someone who has been advised and curtailed for her entire career, and finally given a vote of confidence on her own artistic license. That doesn’t make Dead Petz a technically good album, but it is a flag of independence, and as Meaghan Garvey writes for Pitchfork, “Presumably, Cyrus will look back on all this and laugh, having learned something about herself and about making art, and move on, as she seems to have done with 2013’s Bangerz.”
In Hannah Montana, Miley Stewart goes to great lengths to keep her true identity under wraps, worried that if people knew her secret they would only like her because she's famous. Now she seems to have stepped out from the carefully crafted persona that defined her teenage years and loitered around the public consciousness thereafter. Miley Cyrus has arrived at a place where she has a strong grasp on and control over her own identity, and she couldn't give a shit whether you like her or not.
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