The typical pop star reinvention cycle is something we’ve seen many times before. Madonna’s done it, Lady Gaga’s done it, Britney Spears has done it — the list goes on. It’s a pattern that’s existed for years: A performer, often a woman, sheds the persona that launched her career in favor of something totally different. Usually it’s a little sexier, more mature, maybe even raunchier.
Male pop stars go through these reinventions, too, but when their female counterparts do it, it seems the whole world is standing by, ready to criticize their every performance or clothing choice or paparazzi photo.
It’s no secret society loves tearing women down. As Sady Doyle, author of Trainwreck, said in a 2016 interview with Heleo, “I think that as long as women have been in public, there have been people very invested in policing the way they’re allowed to engage with the world.”
In the case of pop music, that’s no different. Let’s look at Miley Cyrus. The former “Hannah Montana” star is going through a reinvention of her own right now, but instead of shedding the good-girl image she was known for at the beginning of her career for something more risqué ― she’s been there, done that ― she’s moving in the other direction.
The woman who once danced on Robin Thicke while violating a foam finger, gloated about smoking weed and swung naked on a wrecking ball, is once again embodying a wholesome persona. Cyrus, much like her hair, has seemingly grown out of the wild child phase. She’s gone back to her roots, literally and figuratively, and the only remnants of her short-lived past are her bleached-out ends. You might even say she’s attempting to come full circle. However, much like the first time Cyrus tried her hand at a reinvention, she’s not having an easy go at it. We, as part of a society interested in the rise and fall of our public figures, aren’t letting her live down her past shortcomings.
Cyrus is a highly public figure, and has been since she was just a preteen cog in the Disney star machine. From the get-go, the now-24-year-old was positioned to be a role model for young girls ― whether or not she actually wanted that role didn’t seem to matter ― and any time she strayed from her squeaky clean mold, people made sure to point it out.
There was the Vanity Fair photo shoot she did with Annie Leibovitz at age 15, in which she posed topless, save for a large, billowing sheet covering her chest. Cyrus stood by the image at first, but after the public outcry, said she was embarrassed by it. Then there was her performance at the Teen Choice Awards in 2008, during which she rode an ice cream cart and held a pole for balance. That sparked controversy too, and she was called out for pole dancing. It didn’t matter that what she did barely constituted as pole dancing. She was 15, and the simple act of holding a pole was enough to cause outrage.
Fast forward a few years to the “Bangerz” era. There was her now-infamous MTV VMAs performance with Robin Thicke, during which she wagged her tongue around and grinded on him, all while dressed in a flesh-toned latex two-piece, because it was the closest to naked she could be ― and she really loved being naked. The backlash came in hard and fast.
Plenty of the response had to do with Cyrus’ clear-cut cultural appropriation, which shouldn’t be ignored. Some critics called her past VMAs act a “minstrel show,” pointing out how she reduced her black backup dancers to “exaggerated sex objects.”
Others, however, took issue with her in-your-face sexuality. One mother wrote an open letter slamming Cyrus, calling her “a desperate girl screaming for attention: Notice me. Tell me I’m pretty. See how hot I am. I know all the guys want me. All the girls want to be me.” Other folks online called the performer “trashy” or “wild and just out of control.” “Morning Joe” anchor Mika Brzezinski concluded Cyrus must be “deeply troubled, deeply disturbed” and suffering from “confidence issues.” There was even a meme floating around in which Billy Ray Cyrus’ face was superimposed into a photo from the performance, as though he were pensively watching over his daughter.
In the months following that performance, Cyrus did anything and everything to make us forget about her PG past. (And you can bet she didn’t apologize for her “raunchy sex show.”) Given the scrutiny she’d endured in her Disney era, you could look at Cyrus’ X-rated transformation as an attempt at taking some control over her image, holding up a huge middle finger to the people who’d watched her rise and falter before. Cyrus could be seen as what Doyle calls a “trainwreck,” that is, “a woman who has her narrative stolen.” In Doyle’s words, this woman “becomes a public spectacle and a sort of culture villain, either for being sexually too much or emotionally too much, often both.”
The more Cyrus performed her new sexualized persona (see: the videos for “Wrecking Ball” and “Adore You” and her eventual penchant for wearing strap-on dildos in concert), the more members of the public ― fans and critics alike ― were able to contort the way they viewed her. It was a game of pop cultural tug of war.
Cyrus didn’t let that stop her from pushing the boundaries.
“There’s now nothing [she] has to hide from us. There’s nothing more we can take from her,” Doyle told Heleo of Cyrus. “We can’t steal images of her naked body, because she’s giving them away. That’s what I see her doing, leaning into the trainwreck so as not to be swallowed alive by it.”
Now, as Cyrus tries to shed her “Bangerz” persona for something a little more toned-down and less about the spectacle, we have, once again, continued to find fault with her latest reinvention.
Some criticisms against Cyrus and her old persona, like those taking issue with her exploitation of black culture and how easily she discarded it for her benefit, are certainly valid. In a May 2017 Billboard interview, the once-again wholesome Cyrus addressed the cultural appropriation (but denied her guilt), adding that she can longer listen to most rap music: “It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ ― I am so not that.”
HuffPost’s own Zeba Blay summed it up in response, “How convenient it is for her to call out hip-hop’s misogyny (a reality that black feminist hip-hop fans have to grapple with in a real way) after she exploited black female bodies in her own music videos and stage performances.”
But other criticisms ― primarily those lobbed at her sexed-up persona ― are harder to digest. In that same Billboard interview, Cyrus offered a brief explanation of her much criticized, overly sexual past. “All the nipple pastie shit, that’s what I did because I felt it was part of my political movement, and that got me to where I am now,” she said. But did she need to?
In terms of the way Cyrus chooses to present herself ― sexual, wholesome or otherwise ― where should critics draw the line? We get mad at her for being too sexual, too vulgar, but when she goes on to embody the subtler norms our society promotes, we also find it “creepy,” as Amanda Petrusich wrote in The New Yorker, “inauthentic” as Anne Donahue wrote in an article published by Flare, or as Lucy Watson at Junkee wrote, “boring as hell.”
This love-hate narrative is nothing new. One minute we love Taylor Swift for promoting girl power, the next we’re calling her fake, accusing her of using feminism as a marketing tool. Same goes for Selena Gomez ― we praise her when she brings awareness to mental health, and when she poses with a “fall risk” bracelet on, straight from the hospital where she was being treated for lupus, we accuse her of sending the wrong message to her fans.
It’s hard not to think that if Cyrus, or any of her fellow female pop artists, were a male pop star ― say, Justin Bieber, for example ― the reactions to her reinventions wouldn’t have been so harsh.
Like Cyrus, Bieber began his career with a pretty wholesome image, but somehow managed to skip the role-model requirement that seems compulsory for young female pop stars. The singer has had his fair share of public mishaps over the years — peeing in a bucket at a restaurant, getting arrested for driving under the influence — but instead of being raked over the coals for his indiscretions, Bieber seemed to emerge from each one unscathed. Take his recent, shoddy rendition of the Spanish lyrics of “Despacito,” which led even one of the song’s original writers to defend him on NBC News.
Did he get a free pass? (Well, not everyone let him off that easy.)
Bieber’s narrative has become one of redemption, about finding purpose (that’s even the name of his latest album), and we ― this writer admittedly included ― are eating it up. We want Bieber to succeed. We don’t care about all the stupid things he does (especially when he’s pumping out jams like “Sorry” and “What Do You Mean?”) because we expect him to continue making dumb mistakes. We don’t afford someone like Cyrus that same allowance to fail.
Alternatively, there’s Justin Timberlake, whose career arc embodies aspects of both Cyrus’ and Bieber’s, but has been relatively tame as far as controversies go.
Like both Cyrus and Bieber, he embodied a family-friendly persona for much of his early career. Since he was part of the Disney machine, it’s fair to assume he was expected to keep his clean image intact. It wasn’t until Timberlake’s messy public split from Britney Spears that he really began his transformation from teen heartthrob to bona fide sex symbol.
Timberlake adopted a smooth R&B sound, and worked with producers like Pharrell Williams (much like Cyrus) and Timbaland. As Cosmopolitan pointed out, the singer has gotten away with cultural appropriation for years, and only now are people taking note. (Remember that tone-deaf tweet about Jesse Williams’ BET Awards acceptance speech?) He’s sold millions of records and won Grammys.
One reason that could explain the ease with which both Bieber and Timberlake have continued to rise is the simple idea that, as Constance Grady wrote at Vox, our culture has a “general willingness to grant good-looking young white boys more leniency than we grant to young women (or most other people).” Of course they’re both flawed-yet-talented people, but so is Cyrus.
For the former tween star, a true “redemption” in the eyes of the media may not be possible. Not only does she now have to prove herself as a serious artist, she has to reconcile her past with her present and do so in a way that seems honest and authentic. Transcending her “Bangerz” era, especially without acknowledging the mistakes she made along the way, was never going to be easy. Things like her Happy Hippie Foundation and her recent performance at the One Love Manchester show might prove beneficial in appeasing opponents, but at this point, it’s not clear whether she’ll be able to truly move on ― she herself has noted she’ll probably never be able to live down her “Wrecking Ball” music video.
And maybe we’re the ones to blame. After all, we’re the ones who perpetuate this cycle of love and hate.
You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Read more here.
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