White is Purity in the Rebranding of Miley Cyrus

With her brand new single, released over the weekend, Cyrus has scrubbed herself clean of that controversial hip hop past in the most obvious way possible.

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16 May 2017, 7:43am

Earlier this year, German skincare brand Nivea faced considerable and foreseeable internet backlash for a bizarre advertising campaign declaring that "white is purity". The offending ad, which depicted a woman wearing a white robe and sitting on a bed bathed in bright white light, was actually unremarkable save for its alt-right slogan. The colour white is prominent in advertising because of its easy associations with innocence and cleanliness—and in her new video for "Malibu", Miley Cyrus takes a leaf from Nivea's book.

With her brand new single, released over the weekend, Cyrus has scrubbed herself clean of that controversial hip hop past in the most obvious and diabolical way possible. Wearing only white, dancing on a beach and by a waterfall, lying in the grass, she sings about settling down with a Hemsworth brother. Her country twang is back. She's wearing pigtails. Like a model in a skincare ad, she looks innocent, pure, and happy—in a blank, post-lobotomy Stepford wife sort of way.

To be clear, "Malibu" is a dazzling piece of pop—and you wouldn't immediately assume a country song about the beach could be. As an earworm, it blows recent Lorde and Katy Perry singles out of the crystal clear California water. "Malibu" is catchy—so simple, so good. A pointed contender for song of the summer that's already begging for a club remix, designed to be put on cute summer fling playlists and to blare out of car speakers on road trips. Still, none of this erases the fact that its calculatedly stripped back lyrics and video represent Taylor Swift-levels of image control. They are a fascinating reversal and rejection of a genre she appropriated to great derision and commercial success with the release of Bangerz in 2013.

Tracing the stunningly successful Miley Cyrus career trajectory, you hit a roadblock around the Bangerz period. At this point her meteoric rise to fame, her leapfrogging from TV star to film star to country star to pop star, transitions somewhat inevitably into a dalliance with hip hop. Suddenly, the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus is collaborating with Future, and it's a little hard to swallow, even though "Wrecking Ball" and "We Can't Stop" undeniably live up to the album's title. All of this culminates in a VMAs performance so cringeworthy that it rivals Britney's infamous 2007 rendition of "Gimme More". Cyrus, wearing only beige-coloured underwear, promotes her new album by twerking onstage and lewdly miming with a giant foam finger, as Robin Thicke lurks in the background. The internet acts swiftly—she's laughing stock.

That same year, Cyrus will announce the end of her engagement to Liam Hemsworth and, as backlash against her "urban" image intensifies, enter a reclusive and experimental musical phase influenced by weed and MDMA. In 2015, she will come out as bisexual and then bypass her record label to release a free Soundcloud album called Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz. She will found Happy Hippie, a nonprofit foundation advocating for young queer people, and talk frankly about female sexuality and empowerment. But in 2016 she will start dating Hemsworth again, and then announce their re-engagement—neatly bookending her rebellious period with a stable, monogamous romantic relationship with a clean-cut movie star. In 2017, Cyrus will tell the press she no longer smokes weed. And she no longer listens to hip hop.

It all comes out in a recent interview with Billboard. Her promotion for "Malibu" and its upcoming album is tellingly accompanied by publicity shots of Cyrus wearing cowboy boots and a little red neckerchief. We learn from the interview that hip hop is too misogynistic for Cyrus' new image, which is remarkably like her old image, the one from her Hannah Montana years. Hip hop doesn't match her cute white tank top and denim shorts, or those girly blonde pigtails. Betraying her frighteningly uninformed and reductive understanding of rap music, she tells Billboard that it contains too much "Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock" for her tastes. "I am so not that," she says. Which is, in a way, true.

Of course, the Billboard interview implies that Cyrus had a choice—that she opted out of hip hop because it didn't suit her, didn't align with her values. The reality was a little different, but pop history is easy to rewrite when you've been playing the game as long as Cyrus has. So let's pause for a moment and recall the truth. Not only was Miley naive enough to believe hip hop was hers for the taking, but she also had the nerve to categorically reject the genre when things, predictably, didn't work out.

The Miley Cyrus hip hop appropriation issue was never entirely clear-cut. You can have some degree of sympathy for a musically-gifted young girl who grew up in a famously country music family discovering hip hop for the first time in her late teens and falling in love with it. You can also have a—somewhat greater—degree of sympathy for Nicki Minaj asking her what's good. Either way, we know now that Miley Cyrus will be just fine. "Malibu" has tens of millions of views already. The rebellious phase is over, and we're back to where we once were.

Some, but not all, famous people get a brand new start after a career faux pas—and they're usually famous people who look and sound like Miley Cyrus. In blue-skied Malibu, a hideout for celebrities so rich and famous they no longer have to live in LA, anything is possible.

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