As we slowly but surely inch toward the merciful end of 2020, it seems like there’s basically nothing that can happen that’s capable of truly shocking the world anymore. Everything has already occurred in a year that seems like a decade, and as a result, the ability to be genuinely surprised by any development seems like a distant memory.
With that said, there’s recently been a series of events that reminded me of what that feeling is like. It has nothing to do with politics or the state of the world in general, nor is it related to sports, movies, or television. No, I’m talking about Miley Cyrus, who has somehow managed to reinvent herself once again and left me grappling with a realization I never thought I’d anticipated: she’s actually…pretty damn good?
Prior to this year, we’d been treated to three very distinct versions of the daughter of the man who somehow took the world by storm with “Achy Breaky Heart” in the early 1990s:
- The Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus
- The post-Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus
- The Party Girl Miley Cyrus
The fourth iteration of Miley Cyrus that unexpectedly emerged at the tail-end of the previous decade is a musical chameleon. She can take the stage at the Grammys and pay tribute to Dolly Parton and she can bring Lil Nas X up on stage at Glastonbury to do a version of “Old Town Road.” She can also kick it on a Mark Ronson track and she can diva it up with Lana Del Ray and Ariana Grande for a song that was perhaps the only notable thing to come out of the 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot you’ve probably already forgotten about.
Going in all of these different directions is one thing, but doing it successfully (which Cyrus has routinely done) is another entirely. She sounds completely at home regardless of the genre of music she’s dabbling in, the people she’s performing with, or the setting where she’s showcasing the many talents I never would’ve guessed she had.
In recent months, her primary backdrop has been the friendly confines of her backyard, where she’s been performing songs as part of the “Backyard Sessions“ that have been released by MTV under the Unplugged banner. With the help of her band the Social Distancers, Cyrus has used these performances to treat us to covers of the classic tracks that have influenced her musical stylings—including “Just Breathe” by Pearl Jam, which even the band was wowed by.
It’s worth noting she’s started doing similar shows back in 2012, where she managed to turn some heads with her interpretation of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
In the years that followed, Cyrus would start sprinkling in at least one classic rock cover into her live shows, where she consistently performed songs by the likes of Pink Floyd and The Beatles during her sets. Her music might have always had a pop vibe to it, but she was never afraid to show you that she was an old-school gal at heart.
Eight years later, we’ve reached a point where her version of old tunes are better than a lot of the original music other artists are pumping out today, and if you’re wondering how the hell we got here, you’re not the only one.
The fact that we’re still talking about Miley Cyrus—let alone talking about her as one of the best and most unique voices in music today—is pretty astounding. There have been multiple times where it seemed like her career was on the cusp of ending but she has refused to fade away into the sunset and join the other child stars who have either succumbed to sad and unfortunate deaths, are toiling away somewhere in the dark universe of reality television, or found themselves out of show business completely and working as a contractor somewhere outside of Phoenix.
I’ve been rewatching The Wire recently, and one of the things that show has taught me is that in order to understand something, you need to take it all the way back to the beginning to see how it started. So let’s work this case properly, shall we?
Cyrus initially began garnering attention almost 15 years ago after landing the lead role as the titular character on Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana. She technically had a record deal, but the label that signed her had really signed her fictional persona. There was a difference between the two, and while both of them were popular in their own right, Hannah Montana was primarily her bread and butter.
Of course, it was only a matter of time until the two would go their separate ways. While the show wouldn’t come to an end until its fourth and final season wrapped up in 2011, her transformation into the Miley Cyrus we’d come to know began a couple of years prior when she released “Party in the U.S.A.” and made it clear she was ready to step out of her character’s shadow.
The song made it to number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and even though the Black Eyed Peas boxed her out of the top spot thanks to “I Got A Feeling,” it would remain on various charts for over forty weeks and went platinum seven times.
Over the next few years, Cyrus made some moves to shed her reputation as a Disney Star and establish herself as a Serious Artist. She landed a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live in 2011, and if it hadn’t been for a penis cake-licking incident, she would have been in the Adam Sandler movie Hotel Transylvania (it’s safe to assume her handlers were also less than thrilled with a video of her smoking salvia that surfaced the previous year).
By the time 2013 rolled around, Miley was ready to try something new with her music after being freed from her initial record deal and distancing herself from the squeaky clean image she was expected to maintain while under the careful watch of Disney. She sought out new collaborators including Pharrell Williams and will.I.am and appeared on tracks alongside Snoop Dogg (who was going by “Snoop Lion” at the time), Lil Twist, Wiz Khalifa, and Juicy J before dropping “We Can’t Stop” that summer.
The video for “We Can’t Stop” was an absolute monster that broke Vevo’s single-day viewing record at the time, and with it, a new era of Miley Cyrus was upon us. She came in hot with the help of drug references and a smorgasbord of innuendo and outright sexuality along with a near-seamless mixture of her pop upbringing and WiLL Made-It’s crunchy production, careening leisurely atop a droning mid-tempo beat and propped up by a catchy and infectious chorus.
Following the release of “We Can’t Stop,” Cyrus released “Wrecking Ball,” the second single off of her album Bangerz, which was accompanied by a video that featured her naked and swinging around on (you guessed it) a wrecking ball.
If there was any doubt New Miley had arrived, it was officially put to rest the very same day that video dropped when she appeared on stage with Robin Thicke at the MTV Music Awards, where things got a little weird.
Provocative video and controversial twerking aside, Cyrus’ new music was a revelation. It was full of confidence and self-assurance; her public antics might’ve made it seem like she was spiraling out of control, but what she was doing in the studio showed she had a handle on her artistry and the trajectory of her career. Her off-the-field behavior made headlines during the time, but they were always balanced out by her musical achievements, whether it was the success of Bangerz or doing things like performing on MTV Unplugged, where she delivered the network the highest-rated episode the show had seen in more than a decade
Following the success of Bangerz, Cyrus changed course a bit. She started hanging out with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, working on music he described as “a slightly wiser, sadder, more true version” of her earlier work. In 2015, she released Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, which wasn’t terrible but would still become a minor footnote in her discography. It seemed like people were cool with her venturing out into new musical pastures, but only to a certain extent.
It’s okay, Miley. That kind of thing happens with musicians that have been around for a while. A balancing act occurs in which the artist tries to spice things up some, but not enough to alienate their fans. It’s tough. Expectations are a fickle bastard, as listeners still expect a certain sound while the person behind the music wants to get some new creative juices flowing without turning their fans off entirely. Not everyone is able to successfully navigate this unexplored terrain, and for a minute there, it looked like it might do Cyrus in. If she had continued down the road of neo-psychedelia, it might have been fun for her, but she might have found herself without an audience in the process.
However, she managed to right the ship by pivoting one more time and finding some mainstream outlets to show off her evolution. She became a judge on The Voice, appeared on Black Mirror, and released Younger Now, an album that saw her veering further away from her past work by leaning into her pop and country roots. It wasn’t a commercially successful album, and to be honest, I personally didn’t even know it existed until I sat down to write this piece. With that said, it happened, and if anything, it showed Cyrus was both continuing to evolve as an artist and also not afraid to be her own guide as she forged on into a new stage of her career.
By 2018, it had become clear that Cyrus was a creative force to be reckoned with. Her voice (while not technically perfect) had become one of the most unique and original out there, now slightly weathered by age and life experience. It had almost become a weapon, but what she needed was some assistance finding the best way to use it. She definitely had ideas, but outside help couldn’t hurt—especially when one of those helpers was producer Mark Ronson, who had worked with Amy Winehouse back in the day.
He collaborated with Cyrus on “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart,” which was first released in 2018 and then appeared on his album Late Night Feelings the following year.
Cyrus performed one hell of a set at the Glastonbury Festival that same year, where she debuted her new throwback rock ‘n roller persona complete with faithful covers of Led Zeppelin and Metallica. Her whole look had changed; while she had once resembled some sort of pixie drug maven, she now fronted like the lead singer of a 1980s hair metal band with the aid of her black leather pants and greasy long hair.
This new stage in her career was decidedly different than those that came before it because you never really knew what you were going to get. Hannah Montana had the clean-cut vibe and “We Can’t Stop” Miley was your textbook Party Girl, but this one was adaptable. She was a shape-shifter who was able to become whatever she needed to be at any time. Her unpredictability—which had briefly become a liability earlier in the decade—was now one of her greatest assets.
Earlier this month, Cyrus announced her plan to record an entire album of Metallica covers and no one batted an eye. Instead, the news was met with genuine excitement (she also claimed to have made eye contact with an alien without really shocking anyone, because If anyone were to make eye contact with something from outer space these days, it would be Miley).
As we wait for her Metallica record and the other album she’s reportedly working on, we’re left to bask and revel in her cover songs. Shortly after the world went to hell, she performed Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” remotely on Saturday Night Live and then debuted a version of The Beatles’ Help!,” both of which were solid tributes to the original but featured her unique twist.
She’s since gone on to create viral video magic with covers of The Cranberries, Blondie, Hall & Oates, The Cure, and more. She also dropped the throwback dance jam “Midnight Sky” earlier this year, which was one of the funner songs to come out of the summer of 2020 (which, by all accounts, was not a very fun one).
Unpredictability can be a scary thing (especially during a year that is simply straight-up bananas; a toxic buffet of misery and sadness). I think that most people right now would love for things to be as predictable as possible, as it provides a sense of safety and comfort the world is sorely lacking.
However, predictability is also pretty boring, which is why the current Miley Cyrus is so phenomenal. She’s one of the most talented vocalists in music today and we have literally no idea what to expect from her next. An album full of Metallica covers? Sure. A Mark Ronson-produced album full of low-lit, smooth bangers? Why not? A country record featuring a guest spot by her godmother Dolly Parton? Let’s go!
It’s hard to imagine that, say, Grande or Beyoncé would ever shift their direction as dramatically and frequently as Cyrus has. They’re largely going to keep doing the things that have made them wildly successful, and for the most part, we know what those things are going to sound like.
As for Miley? Not so fast, my friend! She changes from day to day (if not from hour to hour); a moving target who keeps us on our toes and knows how to keep things as lively as they are surprising. We’re lucky to have her around, even if we’re not totally sure what she is or what she will be next—but at least we know how we got here now.