In 2008, Miley Cyrus made her VMAs debut. Nominated for Best New Artist alongside Katy Perry (both were edged out by Tokio Hotel), the Hannah Montana star took to the red carpet in a belted black dress, and stood beaming in the way most wee teens might. Remember this image, and then compare it to the tongue-waggling chanteuse who grinded alongside Robin Thicke five years later. Cyrus not only affirmed the show as a platform for artistic re-branding, but also used the VMAs to express the stages of her own sexual awakening,
And with this last peaceful hippie iteration, she has successfully phased herself out of the demo of the Video Music Awards.
The VMAs boast a long history of controversy. In 2009, Kanye West infamously interrupted Taylor Swift’s win by declaring that Beyoncé has the best video of all time, and in 1997 Fiona Apple used her acceptance speech for “Criminal” to remind us that the world was bullshit. Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley used the VMAs to demonstrate their affections in 1994, and Beyonce used a performance of “Love On Top” in 2011 to announce her pregnancy with Blue Ivy. But then there’s the sex.
Think back to the iconic Britney Spears, Madonna and Christina Aguilera performance of “Like A Virgin” in 2003. Comparisons between Britney and Madonna had been mounting since the early days of Britney’s career (spurred on by increasingly sexual songs like “I’m A Slave 4 U”), while Spears and Aguilera were often compared as former Mickey Mouse Club alums-turned-teen pop stars. However, 2002 saw the release of Aguilera’s Stripped, an album steeped in themes of sexuality, self-discovery, and female power, where Spears’ approach to sex was less explicit – especially with the release of Crossroads that same year.
But then Madonna and Britney kissed onstage, that sexy, deep French kiss that said Brit was down for anything, and Spears was catapulted to a whole new realm.
Which is the same trajectory followed by Cyrus. After bypassing the 2009 and 2010s VMAs, the singer reappeared in 2011 in a mixed-print Roberto Cavalli dress, signalling a more mature approach to the red carpet (despite the piece still being extraordinarily modest by Miley’s standards). But in 2012, she took a bigger chance: she rocked a black dress with a plunging neckline which aesthetically removed her from the legacy of the family-friendly Hannah Montana. Through her wardrobe, Miley was establishing her evolution into a grown-ass woman by wearing something Hannah never would.
Then there was 2013.
Over the course of that year, Cyrus began to launch a rebrand. She cut her hair even shorter, joined Instagram, and was included in Maxim’s Hot 100, which completed the transition from Disney icon to bankable (and adult) pop star. So when she showed up to the VMAs to honor the molly-referencing “We Can’t Stop” – nominated for four Moonmen – it would’ve been understandable to see Cyrus further commit to the PG-13 version of Miley. But instead, she made headlines when she chose to grind with and twerk on Robin Thicke during his performance of “Blurred Lines.” Miley literally shed her image and clothes – even if the message was iffy. (The song romanticized lines like “You know you want it,” which is the unofficial battle cry of men who don’t care about consent.)
But, like Britney kissing Madonna, Miley used her performance as a means of establishing herself as a fully-realized Sexual Person. And she did it efficiently: in less than five minutes, Cyrus had proven to the world that she was not Hannah Montana, indeed. She went from Disney to “deeply disturbed” for being a “stripper.” She was different, “evolved,” and in on the sex jokes. After all, innocence plays a huge role in pop…until an artist turns 18 – then, it’s considered boring and outdated. So why wouldn’t Cyrus use the VMAs (an award show that urged big moments and catered to the youths) as a jumping off point for a rebrand? But here’s the thing: it’s hard to come back from that, especially when there’s no evolution for a pop star outside of the narrative of one’s sexual awakening.
So in the months following Cyrus’ VMAs twerking, she began living loudly and problematically. She posed for noted sexual harasser Terry Richardson, appropriated hip-hop culture, and even after a subdued return to the VMAs in 2014, returned in 2015 to host the awards where she wore dreadlocks, was called out by Chance the Rapper and Nicki Minaj, and seemingly remained completely oblivious as to why there was a backlash and how she was on the receiving end of such criticism.
So, here we are today. With Miley slated to present at this year’s VMAs (after taking 2016 off, naturally), we’re likely going to see another version of the singer; another extension of her branding. Because that’s what the VMAs have come to do best. After all, the Taylor/Kanye moment allowed Swift to position herself as a perpetual underdog, while the 2003 ceremony ushered in a new era for Britney Spears (and effectively erased Aguilera from the conversation). In 2014, Beyoncé used her Vanguard win to stand by the word “feminist,” and Kanye used his own honor in 2016 to announce his intention to run for office. While some of us may not think so, the VMAs are the ideal platform for reinvention as they’re a direct line to young audiences who truly give a damn.
The VMAs are the ideal platform for reinvention as they’re a direct line to young audiences who truly give a damn.
But in Cyrus’ case, her trajectory is even more rooted in VMAs history and resonates in a different way among her fanbase. Unlike Spears or any former teen star who’ve blossomed into grown-ass artists, Miley grew up through a succession of award show appearances – her abandonment of innocence, sexual awakening, and the fallout of refusing to take responsibility for her own actions can be charted through a very specific MTV production. And being able to watch her grow up in such a public arena is a reflection of the millennial experience en masse: no, we may not be able to document the moment we left our childhood selves behind, but we can certainly chart the way we’ve grown as people through social media.
So where can Cyrus go from here? In 2017, Miley’s latest installment is aligned with “maturity” through themes of settling down, nesting, dialing down her look, and reconnecting with nature.
At only 24, Miley is singing in her latest video in an Elvis costume, talking about perspective; about how old she now feels. And that arguably sends the message that she’s come full circle, and it’s time to hand the reigns over to the next generation. Because the older we get, no matter how cool we think we are, it becomes harder to relate to something geared specifically towards young people. The thing is, with Miley Cyrus seemingly leading that charge, who is she handing the reigns to?