Miley Cyrus and the road from Disney darling to rocker chick.
On March 24, 2006, the first episode of Hannah Montana aired on Disney Channel.
The premier was an instant hit, earning 54 million views and subsequently launching the career of then-14-year-old Miley Cyrus, daughter of famed country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. Almost overnight, Hannah Montana evolved into one of the most iconic Disney shows of all time. It wasn’t long before Miley’s face was plastered across the bedroom walls of pre-teens everywhere.
Much of the show’s success can be credited to its original soundtrack. The songs were pure pop and positivity, featuring Disney-approved lyrics about friendship, self-confidence, and livin’ life to the fullest. As a care-free 10-year-old whose self-confidence was yet to be squandered by the perils of puberty, Hannah Montana’s music really resonated with me.
“You’re right, Miley,” I would think. “Everybody makes mistakes.”
I utterly idolized Miley Cyrus, as many girls my age did. When Breakout came out in 2008 — her first studio album unaffiliated with the Hannah Montana franchise — I loaded up my iPod shuffle with each track and listened religiously. Aptly titled, Breakout provided a glimpse of Miley beyond her role as Hannah Montana; the woman behind the wig, if you will. While certainly not as bold as some of her later music, this album had an edginess to it unparalleled by her Disney-discography.
Take Breakout’s lead single, “7 Things,” for example. The song is less about a school-girl crush, and more about the complexities of a toxic relationship, illustrated by lyrics such as You’re vain, your games, you’re insecure / You love me, you like her and The seventh thing I hate the most that you do / You make me love you.
While Miley’s Disney gig undoubtedly propelled her career as a solo artist, it also placed her beneath a microscope.
Disney stars are often held to near-impossible standards in terms of their public image, and there’s little room for personal-growth, experimentation, or mistakes. This is especially unfair considering most of these celebrities are hired as teenagers — a time when growth, experimentation, and mistakes are the name of the game.
In 2008, when Miley was just 15, intimate photos she took for her boyfriend were leaked on two separate occasions. That same year, Miley faced fierce backlash after the release of her Vanity Fair cover, on which she was wrapped in a sheet with her bare back exposed. She later apologized for the image, saying in a statement, “I have let myself down. I will learn from my mistakes … My family and my faith will guide me through my life’s journey.” She has since revoked this apology.
Looking back, I’m inclined to think that instances such as these played a huge role in how Miley’s music evolved moving forward. By the early 2010s, Miley’s image had changed entirely. As if to symbolize her entry into a new era, she traded her long brown hair for a short, icy-blonde pixie cut, and her pop-rock sound for a mix of synth, pop, R&B and hip hop.
Although songs like Cardi B’s “WAP” make Miley’s “We Can’t Stop” (2013) sound like a nursery rhyme, at the time the track was considered quite provocative, featuring lyrics such as It’s our party we can love who we want / We can kiss who we want / We can screw who we want. From this point onwards, Miley’s artistic choices became increasingly controversial: she posed naked in her “Wrecking Ball” video, twerked at the VMAs, and sported an oversized diaper and pacifier in her BB Talk (2015) video, to name a few things. This time around, however, her controversies were intentional, unlike when she was a teenager. I can’t help but think that through these controversies Miley was simply fulfilling a need to express herself freely and openly — express her sexuality, her boldness, her queerness — because during her Disney days, she wasn’t allowed to do so.
In a 2013 interview with Barbara Walters, Miley’s words said it all: “I don’t think I was ever really happy with who I was.”
Today, in 2020, Miley has taken on yet another new image. In the past few months, she’s released a series of new wave, rock, and grunge covers, from Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” to Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” to “Zombie” by the Cranberries. Along with her single “Midnight Sky,” released in August, the songs perfectly showcase Miley’s smokey, powerful voice. Her blonde hair now shaped into a shaggy, Joan Jett-esque mullet, she’s fully leaning into the role of rocker chick, and it suits her. Her new album, Plastic Hearts, is set to arrive soon, and I’m looking forward to hearing how her sound continues to evolve.
I think part of the reason I’m so emotionally invested in Miley and her career is because I grew up alongside her. Miley has undoubtedly played with different identities over the years, and so have I — I’m not exactly a care-free ten-year-old anymore. The lesson I get from all this is pretty clear: nobody’s perfect.
Graphic by Chloë Lalonde @ihooqstudio