Like all revolutions, this one started with a single shot.
On March 20, 2013, when Miley Cyrus posted a video of her twerking to J Dash’s “WOP,” we had no way of knowing it was the preamble to her Declaration of Independence, that with each posterior pop she was further distancing herself from her Disney-fied past and beginning her bid to become the most audacious star in pop. Mostly we were just wondering why she was wearing a unicorn onesie.
After all, at the time, Miley was in a weird place. She was in the middle of an on-again/off-again engagement to Liam Hemsworth, had been hanging out with topless dancers and Tyler, the Creator and was — in theory — working on an “explicit” new album, the follow-up to 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed, which had the ignominy of being her first not to debut at #1.
In short, the writing was on the wall.
And yet, nine months after that twerk video was released, by hook or crook and through sheer willpower alone, Miley Cyrus has completed one of the most remarkable (and successful) reinventions in recent memory. She returned to the top of the charts with Bangerz , scored two of the year’s biggest singles (and videos), crossed over to hip-hop, created no shortage of controversy, and gave us one of the most memorable VMA performances of all time . Those are, of course, just the shorthand highlights.
Now she reigns as MTV’s Artist of 2013 , an accolade that certainly could serve as one final kiss-off to her critics. But unlike, say, Kanye West, Miley’s not interested in settling scores (“I don’t pay attention to the negative,” she told MTV News), rather, she seems hell-bent on continuing to carve out her niche in the world of pop. And, just like the aforementioned twerk video, she’s determined to keep doing it as if the outside world didn’t exist at all.
In a way, that’s the most amazing thing about Miley’s return: by all accounts, she’s calling the shots, and she continues to get them right. There were probably some in her camp who thought it didn’t make sense to work with Mike WiLL on Bangerz, go for broke on “Wrecking Ball,” or bring controlled chaos to the VMA stage. Yet, Miley pressed on, either because she’s too young to understand why those concerns were warranted, or, after a decade in the business, too smart to consider them. Probably both. Like her fans, she’s of an age where genres don’t matter, and arbiters of acceptability matter even less. Unlike her fans, she’s been working since she was 12, long enough to realize that the only person who knows what she wants is her.
Consider, for example, her EMA performance of “Wrecking Ball” in November. It was the first time she’d graced an MTV stage since the VMAs, and, well, let’s just say expectations were high. But rather than go for shock, Miley instead opted for awe, delivering a powerhouse vocal performance in which zero foam fingers were harmed . Of course, less than an hour later, she’d smoke a joint on stage, mostly because she thought her fans would love it. It was unpredictable, it was over the top, it was, in a sense, the perfect example of her ethos: Don’t do what’s expected of you, do what you want to do.
It’s sort of brilliant, really. And yet, few in her position have the smarts (or the stones) to put that anti-plan into action. Miley does. And because of that, she operates within a unique space within the pop sphere: unlike many of her contemporaries, she seems real.
Ultimately, that’s what separates her from the rest of the field. Compared to the Arianas and the Selenas of the world, Miley’s decisions don’t feel as if they’re the end product of branding meetings and focus groups. Instead, they are unfiltered (and unhinged) to the max. And sure, both Katy and Gaga featured rappers on their respective albums this year, but they felt more like after-the-fact accessories. Miley, on the other hand, seemed to include French Montana or Big Sean on Bangerz mainly because she was, first and foremost, a fan. Let the critics cry about cultural appropriation … Miley’s just going to keep doing her thing, partially because she’s just 21, but mostly because she spent the first 10 years of her career doing anything but.
Make no mistake, Miley’s independence has been hard fought; and now that she’s the one in control, good luck trying to wrest it away from her. It would be easy to chalk up her 2013 success to pure luck, but that would be selling her short. Perhaps it’s time we all give her credit, not just for making all the calls, but doing so without fear or hesitation. Will others attempt to replicate her IDGAF-style career reinvention in 2014? Almost certainly. Will they succeed? Probably not. If we’ve learned anything this year, there’s only one Miley Cyrus.
And to think, it all started with one twerk video.