I can’t speak for everyone when I say that watching Miley Cyrus writhe around Whiskey A Go Go doing a guttural rendition of “Zombie” by The Cranberries hit me like a Sambuca chaser at 2AM – but it does seem to have struck a collective chord.
The performance has been trending across social media since it aired live on Sunday, generally accompanied by the words “AMAZING” and “JSDHFKSDF”. I guess it’s where many of us are at right now, but whatever handle I had left on my emotions has been shown the door by Miley and her James-Hetfield-chuffing-20-B&H-a-day voice belting out a song written in memory of two young boys killed in an IRA bombing.
Miley Cyrus has been in a perpetual state of transformation since 2008. She’s gone from Disney actress, to controversial pop star, to self-releasing a sprawling psychedelic album with Wayne Coyne, to Instagram girlfriend country pop, to “Cattitude ft. RuPaul” in the same amount of time it’s taken Ed Sheeran to make three near-identikit albums in the same plaid shirt.
Objectively, it’s been hit and miss. There was Bangerz – an album eternally tethered to 2013 for all the wrong reasons, its accompanying VMAs performance with Robin Thicke (which was like watching all my sleep paralysis demons having a ketty party) and a song called “Milky Milky Milk” that we probably could have done without. Though her public persona has remained largely the same throughout the 2010s, each artistic reinvention has been an extreme departure from the last – and, for one reason or another, they have all missed the mark.
Miley suffers from the same problem as Nicki Minaj: there is no question at all about her talent and individuality, but her albums as a whole rarely reflect the full extent of either. There have been some great pop songs along the way, but nothing that couldn’t have been done by Kesha, Katy Perry or Taylor Swift. All that considered, it’s been oddly gratifying to see Miley hit her most confident stride to date as lead singer in the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll cover band.
One thing her detractors and stans can agree on is that Miley can fucking sing. It’s not unusual for pop stars who have been in the public eye since childhood to spend a long time figuring out their “thing” in real time, but covers have been the one consistent part of Miley’s artistic identity since the start – from her power-pop redo of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” on her 2008 debut, to Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” on 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed, to her beloved version of “Jolene” in 2012.
Her live shows have also been consistently cover-heavy (in 2011 she performed Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit" 21 times), but last year her sets began to lean towards a near-even split of classic rock covers and her own material. Take Glastonbury 2019, for example, which saw her tackle Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, Amy Winehouse and Led Zeppelin like she was fronting a local band playing at a Hobgoblin, prompting the NME headline: Miley Cyrus reinvents herself as a rockstar.
It certainly does feel that way. Throughout the pandemic, Miley has been performing a variety of covers in her back garden (Cowboy Junkies, The Cardigans, Britney Spears). Covers have also been a significant part of the roll-out of her TBA “super rock and roll” album (its lead single “Midnight Sky” was released as a B-Side to her cover of Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass”, and she did Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” for SNL at Home).
I can’t help but feel like she’s intentionally painting herself into a Venn diagram of her own influences – a firm repositioning after a decade of missteps (though it has to be said she’s always taken them with confidence). It’s never been hard to see where Miley gets her inspiration, but for the avoidance of doubt she recently uploaded an Instagram post of her photoshopped into an old picture of Debbie Harry and Joan Jett.
As many comments on social media have noted: rock suits Miley. Her voice, which only gets deeper and raspier with age, is absolutely perfect for it. Even as a teenager it had the weather-beaten quality of a woman who’s spent the last 50 years drinking whiskey and arguing. Obviously, that lends itself well to pretty much anything lifted directly from the 70s, but it’s also beginning to affect her own songwriting.
The stand-out moment of “Midnight Sky” – a glossy synth-pop single that evokes Tango In The Night-era Fleetwood Mac and samples Stevie Nicks’ "Edge of Seventeen” – is the part of the chorus where she fully goes for it (“See my lips on her mouth / everybody’s talkin’ now”). That unmistakable Miley roar lets you know who you’re listening to, rather than what you’re listening to – something you can also hear on parts of 2019 Mark Ronson collaboration “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart”. Clearly, Miley can sing anything, but until recently most of her album material also could have been sung by anyone. To her benefit, that’s becoming less and less the case.
In the same way Brad Pitt is often said to be a character actor trapped in a movie star’s body, Miley Cyrus is a classic rock star trapped in a modern pop star’s branding. It’s possible the last decade has been a case of trial and error; attempts to align energy, sound and look into an aesthetic that feels like her, rather than trying an identity on for size. For the first time since Hannah Montana, that has now happened. The slick mullet, sweating-out-a-comedown make-up and gnarled voice is a combination no other current pop star could pull off.
Whether that translates to the new album is yet to be seen, but it does smack of “how did this not happen sooner?” – which usually foreshadows a breakthrough moment, if not a Greatest Era. Amid the misery and chaos of 2020, Miley Cyrus may have finally found herself.