Miley Cyrus: Lost in Wonderland

She’s just bein’ Miley – but what does that mean?

Miley Cyrus 2023 (Image; Jonnie Chambers)

After failing to catch the public eye for an uncharacteristically long period of time, Miley Cyrus is suddenly having a moment.

Following record-breaking streams on Spotify, Miley’s cathartic-yet-chill new single “Flowers” appeared at an easy no.1 on the Hot 100, staying put for six weeks and casually keeping a rather better breakup hit (SZA’s “Kill Bill”) from the top slot. Her new studio album, Endless Summer Vacation threatens similar success, and a recent People feature let “close sources” proclaim the new narrative: In the wake of a seemingly endless uncoupling with a Hemsworth, Miley is “happier than ever!” As opposed to the punkier Plastic Hearts (2020’s Hemsworth breakup album), the message here is close to that of 2017’s Younger Now – you know me from my chaos, but girls just wanna have peace.

Chances are if you were to recall three images of Miley right now, one of them would be the sight of her stripped down to shining, flesh-colored vinyl undies, hair bunned up, tongue out, a foam fist on her hand extending a finger (and not the one you’d figure). Oh – and Beetlejuice Robin Thicke somewhere in there. Miley was nowhere near the first teen pop star to seize open sexuality as an expressway to liberation; Britney and Christina each deliberately escalated the suggestiveness they’d started with, albeit within accepted limits. Miley’s ‘offense’ at the 2013 VMAs was also all suggestion – just louder, raunchier suggestion than precedented. Seen from where she began, the performance spoke volumes. It’s a question of what she’s been trying to say to us since.


VIDEO: Miley Cyrus “Flowers”

We forget that Miley was big before nearly all the other pop queens by whom we measure the standard – Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles. Some of the best critics working today are also people for whom Hannah Montana was formative pop culture. But its apparently narrow target audience – little girls – has always made it a lightning rod for adult derision. Still, no amount of snarky commentary could undermine how massively popular the show and its star were. So it’s wild to recall that at the turn of the century, few country stars were seen as bigger than father Billy Ray – so big he got his own show, something called Doc on something called Pax, on which Miley made her screen debut. One more potential nepo baby had found her hunger for the spotlight. But when Disney decided her comic timing and unusual voice merited the lead on a sure-to-be star vehicle, Billy Ray was on a path to total eclipse.

“That voice” came up more than once when I asked a few tuned-in friends how they saw Ms. Cyrus in the grand scheme. It was already pitched rather low for a 15-year-old on her first single under her given name (the polished-onyx pop-rocker “See You Again”), and it’s only gotten huskier, punchier and fuller-bodied since. Almost every other aspect of her is less certain, chiefly her talent as a writer. She’s credited on most of her songs, but even less gifted at articulating her process than Taylor Swift. Moreover, there are scarce quotes from her numerous collaborators about exactly how much Cyrus brings to the table. But put her at the helm of a charged-up cover and she fucking soars – you’ve never heard a better version of “Heart of Glass”, and the original is the best song on the best album of 1978.


VIDEO: Miley Cyrus “Heart of Glass”

This doesn’t mean that she struggles to come by good material, however much she’s responsible for it. Concocted primarily in collaboration with production team Rock Mafia, the joyously juvenile tunes on Meet Miley Cyrus and the less consciously cute material on 2008’s Breakout are near-perfect pop. Cut back when guitars were still all over the radio, they’re some of the most invigorating fake punk millions of dollars have ever been poured into – miles from Bikini Kill, but a hard enough sugar rush to leave you feeling those tremors for hours after. The deep cuts (“The Driveway”, “East Northumberland High”) are no less a trip than the hits, and there’s a great cover of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, where hyper stabs of string quartet war with hard-rock riffs. And few pop singers can rev their instruments all the way up with so little effort.

Seeds of confusion were already being sown on Breakout, however; its title alone indicated the paucity of imagination with which Miley approached the question of reclaiming her identity. It isn’t necessarily hard to see why a top-rated TV show you star in and a tour whose sales are at Beatles-Elvis levels are something to break out of – how can a 16-year-old, apt to rebel by definition, connect with such astronomical markers of success? But while Meet Miley Cyrus counterposed its faux-punk against the cybernetic bubblegum of the Hannah Montana disc, Breakout weakens its own impact with changes of pace. Ballads “Bottom of the Ocean” and “Simple Song” are simply corny, and while the midtempo rockers around them at least compel her to heat up vocally, they’re similarly sappy and generic. Another track is a plea to heal the nation’s bleeding divide – always a risky idea for pop.


Everything I read’s global warming, going green

I don’t know what all this means

But it seems to be saying

Wake up America!


I guess in a generous reading one could call that “proto-Thunberg” (though it was probably written by some middle-aged pro condescending to his idea of a teenage voice). But though she’s lent her energy to some valiant charitable causes over the years, when it comes to her art, Miley rarely has the convictions of her courage. And that seems to be the theme throughout her career – an impulse in search of an aim.

Still, Cyrus’ star stayed its meteoric rise through the end of the aughts. Four songs from Hannah Montana: The Movie were credited to Cyrus, including the hit slowburn ballad “The Climb”, which hinges on its incredible vocal, and the proto-Bangerz “Hoedown Throwdown”. After casually launching a fashion line, Miley then put out an EP, The Time of Our Lives, with a “finding myself” cover – eyes poetically closed, hand behind her head (emotion unclear), a guitar I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of her on stage with on her leg. Its hit was “Party in the U.S.A.”, a classic synthy Dr. Luke (blech) production which I somehow forgot has a guitar on it, a lithe and chunky electric part. It’s pure pop otherwise, and Cyrus’ masterpiece, even if Jessie J wrote it with Claude Kelly and the bad doctor. Between its equation of Jay-Z and Britney as pop heroes and its inspiring this, the song should’ve hit no.1 (it stalled at no. 2) and lingered.

With her gummy, babyish smile, Miley has one of pop’s more distinctive faces, but the forgotten rest of the songs on Time of Our Lives feel nothing if not faceless. This went triple at least for Can’t Be Tamed, a 2010 album that attempted to crank up Breakout’s breakoutiness. Under an unbecoming auburn dye job (wig?), thumb hooked in the front of her studded leather pants, Cyrus looks profoundly uncomfortable on the cover. On the music underneath, the life that seeps so easily out of her voice is choked out by an ungainly arsenal of machines. The occasional interesting lyric surfaces – “who owns my heart?/is it love or is it art?” – but there’s almost nothing worth rescuing, and tameness is the ultimate effect: as hedged a breakout as a not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman could conceive. Later that year, Cyrus brought the Hannah Montana project to a faint close, its last soundtrack her first album to miss the top 10 (it peaked at #11).

The year 2010 was also the year where salvia broke out; a video of Miley partaking of the drug – from a bong, quelle horreur – expanded its audience even further. It’s shocking how rapidly standards of shock have relaxed from then to now. Back when Cyrus’ “fairy [as well as actual] godmother” Dolly Parton was first asked by a plucky interviewer about her fairy goddaughter’s improprieties, they totaled – this is an actual quote – “a daring haircut” (a deeply flattering pixie cut), “marijuana use” (I guess they thought “salvia” was a strain), and “an early engagement” (she was 20). Cyrus later claimed her firing from Hotel Transylvania was due to delivering, and licking, a penis-shaped cake to Hemsworth while on set, and I would’ve loved to read Yahoo! News euphemizing that. Having abandoned both college and a fourth album, Cyrus was hiding out on screen and plotting a revamped return to the radio.

“If [Miley] needs my opinion on something I will surely give it,” offered the fairy godmother. “I know she has thought all this through. We’ll let her go and do her own thing.” That was Parton’s take in the wake of Cyrus’ scandalizing VMA performance. And in retrospect, the comeback album that finally surfaced in late 2013, Bangerz, feels like a promotion for the performance, rather than vice versa. Though it opens with one of her best recordings, the assertive yet ethereal “Adore You”, Bangerz is a mess, attempt after attempt to weave southern hip-hop and other primarily Black styles into Miley’s blank white canvas. “It’s bananas like a fuckin’ orangutan, bitch”, comes that nasal drawl in the middle of “Do My Thang” – do you think it sounds convincing in context? The attitude merits credit: unlike on Can’t Be Tamed, she totally means it. But so few of these songs are pleasant, or even cohere.


VIDEO: Miley Cyrus riffs on her 2013 VMA performance during her SNL monologue

But the VMA performance, ahh, the VMA performance – the stuff of legends, and the reason she was in the top ten finalists for TIME magazine’s Person of the Year (she lost to Pope Francis), as well as why my hairdresser told me she was going as a tongue for Halloween. The response at the time was almost all hot outrage – if Cyrus’ antics weren’t seen as nuclear-strength vulgarity, they were written off as feeble and gauche. But this and only this time, Miley had everybody’s number. “I know what I’m doing. I know I’m shocking you. When I’m dressed in that teddy bear thing, I think that’s funny”, she stated, adding that the effect for which she was going was, indeed, “a creepy, sexy baby.” No matter how stodgy or ironized the voice, every publication was unanimous in its dismissal. No one recognized it as one of the most effective sexuality-reclamations in pop history (and few now credit it for its long-game destruction of Robin Thicke’s career).

The result was contrarianism three ways – first Miley against the decorum of normal sexy-pop-queen expectations, then the media (who set those expectations in the first place) against her revolt, then the contrarians against that, and God love ‘em, the latter didn’t know how right they were. This was no striptease; Miley was just gonna show you her balls and not give a shit. There was no pretense to her performance – zero affectation. It was just a girl, gone wild, and if you surrendered your prejudices it wasn’t hard to see it wasn’t actually hurting anybody. But she’d spent her whole career playing with guises, Hannah Montana concealing Miley Stewart concealing popstar Miley Cyrus (an ever-shifting persona) concealing real person Miley Cyrus. This was just her: the gloves, and so much more, were off. Those aforementioned standards of shock? It’s possible Miley is directly responsible for their relaxation.

Kathleen Hanna was among those who saw the light, tweeting a response to an image of herself Cyrus put on Instagram in 2014: Hanna in a bikini top with SLUT scrawled on her stomach. (The top comment: “who is that?”) “So sweet you posted pics of me… have an idea for an album that only you are daring enough to make.” (Jenn Pelly got to the “Kathleen Hanna Montana” joke first.) To this day, only Hanna knows what she meant, though the idea of surrounding Miley, at full ferocious voice and stripped of inhibitions, with a cacophonous careen of Bikini Kill-style punk intensity is a good one on its face. But though it was always a long shot of an idea, the missed opportunity drives home the one thing untouched by the force of Miley’s vision: her music. You never sense that tight, smitten grip on her own actual art Beyoncé, Robyn or Taylor always evince.

But Miley did end up making the album only she was daring enough to make, in 2015 (the year she also did an explicit nude photoshoot, with noted creep Terry Richardson no less). She’d been hanging out with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, another artist who loved getting high and naked, and he became the main collaborator on her 92-minute, 23-song, free, independently-released album Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Ugly down to its titles (“Milky Milky Milk”, “Fweaky”), I was sincerely hoping for the kind of hot mess that grips your attention. But in the greatest shock of all, while it cries out for an editor, it’s boring – serviceable soundscapes in search of discernible landmarks. The nicest hook rips off the Flaming Lips’ “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”, and it concludes with not one but two songs in which Miley breaks down while playing a piano, only to give up and mash a bunch of keys.

She followed this by starring alongside Woody Allen (and living God Elaine May) in the formerly esteemed director’s Amazon miniseries. What’s good, Miley? These were low-profile years for Cyrus – a significant swing of the wrecking ball back from the cultural primacy she’d momentarily attained. And I remember how off-brand the shock of “Malibu” was, hearing it for the first time in 2017 (a blissful radio year). The most notable thing about the comeback track, which peaked at #10, is how strenuously normal it is. This was mellow Miley, sand between her toes, breeze through her bleached pompadour, quietly reflecting on the chaos that’s surely all behind her. Its parent album’s title, Younger Now, was a part of the attempted reframing; the reference is to Dylan’s “My Back Pages”, itself a casual shrug re: casting off a wild past. The album sounds lovely, and it’s highly competent, including a spirited duet with Parton and an affecting ballad from a bisexual POV. But it was called out as the bland-out it was.

Younger Now was a critical and commercial failure – not because it was trounced and ignored, but because it was met mostly with indifference, where four years before the only thing you couldn’t be to Miley was indifferent. But it invited indifference, its strategy hedged in a way that couldn’t possibly feel true to the person we’d come to know. So she planned a three-EP sequence, starting with 2019’s She is Coming (note title). This was essentially Bangerz with finesse, atmospheric like trap (“Party Up the Street” is gorgeous), but otherwise the same disconsonant mélange of Black styles, odd guests (Ghostface Killah, RuPaul) and that cipher of a leader. “Don’t fuck with my freedom,” she sings on “Mother’s Daughter”. “I’m nasty, I’m evil.” It went to #54. Months later, she announced a final separation from her Hemsworth. The other two EPs were canceled.

“It’s really important for people to be in control of their own destiny,” Miley said around this time. “And that means having the confidence to be who you want to be.” That quote was from an episode of Black Mirror, in which she plays Ashley O, a pop sensation constrained by industry machinations. Her big hit is a bubbly interpretation of Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole,” which is disappointing – we couldn’t get an original song? – but it allows her to break out at the end into some serious grinding rock, where she always seems most in her element. (“Ashley Fuckn O” is her revised moniker.) It’s the clichéd popstar arc in miniature, the story of a thousand careers, though it gives one pause about this star. She’s had the weight of the world on her shoulders twice – as a wholesome icon in 2007, and the polar opposite in 2013. You wouldn’t blame her if she wanted to drop out entirely. But I think she relishes it, the chance to make music for a reliably massive audience.


VIDEO: Miley Cyrus “River”

“I still really love pop music, and I love music that can be played at the club”, she explained later, waving away Younger Now in the same breath. She was justifying her latest sonic switch, with the Mark Ronson-aided Plastic Hearts, a record I cannot claim to have noticed coming out three years ago. On the cover, she looks like Billy Idol (who guests), but the music is more like the Killers trying to make a classic Stevie Nicks album (Nicks also guests). It made the top 10, unlike its singles, and was affectionately received – this was the shapeliest, most committed album she’d released since her first two. And while the songs were at times confused and disharmonious, and the singer a little anonymous (even as she belted at her most winningly raspy level), it was improved by the sense that unlike Dead Petz, she knew what she was saying, and unlike Younger Now, she meant it. Not one of these songs was anywhere near as good as “Party in the U.S.A.” by any means. But they were confident and well-made, and worth being proud of.

As I stated at the top, Endless Summer Vacation is closer to Younger Now: strategically tempered. While it’s optimistic and empowered, the overall vibe is “weary”. But it’s also the closest she’s come to a really good album – the textures are sumptuous and soothing, the lyrics are cogent and occasionally surprising, and Cyrus is singing as well as ever, shifting dynamics without a hint of strain, where fifteen years ago she could sound awkward cooling down and getting sincere.

And while she’s made quite a bit of breakup music, the new songs feel clearer-eyed than the ones before – hopefully, she’s kicked her Hemsworth habit for good. Perhaps she’s due for a new partner, or collaborator, or just a therapeutic spell of being single and maybe not even being on stage. But the stage is where she belongs, and it’s possible the tour she did in the wake of Plastic Hearts kicked off an ongoing period of rejuvenation. Check out the Attention album, a live record from that tour whose cover is just her bethonged ass, and which nobody noticed last year nevertheless. Cue up her cover of Janis Joplin’s “Maybe.” Attempting to do Janis at karaoke is ill-advised. But not only does Miley instantly illuminate the song, she somehow matches Joplin’s power with none of her strain.

No matter how confused an artist Miley is, that’s her great gift: that fuckin’ voice. And it’s as likely as anything else that one day down the line, she’ll put it to a use that surprises and impresses us all.


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Ryan Maffei

Ryan Maffei is a freelance writer, musician and actor in the Dallas area. He was a member of the lost punk group Hot Lil Hands and the lost pop group the Pozniaks. He loves the Go-Betweens and was lucky enough to write liner notes for their box sets.

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