As of Monday (Dec. 7), it’s been 834 days since Miley Cyrus’ infamous opening performance at the 2013 Video Music Awards. And yet, twerking, tongue-wagging Miley is still the most distinguishable and readily recalled image many people have of her.
To some degree, that’s totally understandable. In her quest to prove she’s beaten the odds and overcome the mindscrew of child stardom, Miley came in like a wrecking ball, toting a natural ability to provoke. It was an especially productive time for culture critics, who unleashed a barrage of think pieces about Miley and sexuality, feminism and “kids these days.” And at the center of it all, everyone couldn’t help but wonder: How authentic was she actually being?
Two years later, Miley’s come a long way and no longer has to legitimize herself. She still serves up WTF moments on the regular, but it seems it’s gotten to the point where less people are criticizing her, and instead anticipating, even applauding, her freshness and fearlessness. Because guess what? She’s a much more complex and layered person than what most people picture her as, and 2015 showed off her true colors in stunning fashion.
Her Dead Petz album and tour revealed her artistic vision.
Miley’s made three albums in the past five years, and they couldn’t be more different and more telling of her journey as an artist. She was trying to break free of her Disney Channel shackles on 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed, and started to find her footing on 2013’s Bangerz. The latter was a proper pop album that was adored by fans but divided critics, and you got the sense Miley was still fighting an uphill battle to be considered as a Serious Artist.
But then came this year’s Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, a psychedelic pop album made with Wayne Coyne and without major label support. It packs 23 songs into 92 minutes, and it’s varied, ambitious, sometimes avant-garde, but mostly just silly. A lot of people didn’t like it and decided Miley was committing career suicide, but mostly it just seemed like her equivalent to the Beatles’ White Album: a polarizing record that manages to be flawed and charming at the same time, but never feels insincere. This was Miley in full-on DGAF mode, making the music she wanted to make and releasing it for free, so it was easily accessible to the lovers and the haters alike.
Her artistic vision seemingly realized, she also set out on her Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz fall tour, playing smaller venues with the Flaming Lips as her backing band. The show is like stepping into Miley’s cranium, where her clothes are as scanty as her inhibitions — and it works. She’s just being Miley.
She was a Late Night TV darling.NBC
If the stage is where Miley’s vision as an artist comes to life, then late night TV is where she contextualizes that vision by showing who she is as a person. Take, for instance, her enlightening interview on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” where she spoke candidly about her approach toward nudity and censorship, and how her provocative style doesn’t define her. “My dad's cool because […] he’d rather me have my tits out and be a good person than have a shirt on and be a bitch,” she said.
When Joseph Gordon-Levitt visited Kimmel’s show last month, he also offered up some insight into Miley’s personality by lauding her work ethic. “I found that she was completely down-to-earth and professional and did a great job,” he said about working with her on the movie “The Night Before.” “And maybe that’s different than her image that she plays when she goes on TV, but I found that really comforting.”
Miley further sent late night ablaze by hosting “SNL” for the third time — serving as both host and musical guest — which is a pretty impressive feat for someone so young. The show played to her strengths and showed off her comedic chops, ultimately reminding everyone why they fell in love with her on “Hannah Montana” in the first place.
She memorably anchored the VMAs.Comedy Central
We’re of course biased here, but the consensus around Miley’s hosting turn at the 2015 VMAs was that it was her party, and we were all just along for the ride. From her jaw-dropping outfits (each one more bizarre than the last) to her batsh-t crazy finale performance, we all saw Miley in her true form that night. Predictably, some people loved it and some were just left baffled. But it was insightful, to say the least.
She used her voice to inspire change with the Happy Hippie Foundation.YouTube/Tumblr
Miley’s Happy Hippie Foundation was technically founded in 2014, shortly after she let a homeless young man named Jesse give an acceptance speech in her place at that year’s VMAs. But the organization officially launched in May, with a mission to help homeless youth, LGBTQ youth and other vulnerable populations. As part of the launch, Miley released the Backyard Sessions, a collection of music video collaborations with artists like Joan Jett, Ariana Grande, Laura Jane Grace and Melanie Safka.
Part of the foundation’s success might be that its trippy aesthetic and casual tone is quintessentially Miley, which ultimately makes it feel like a more inviting space for young people (the very population she’s trying to reach out to). And the world has definitely taken notice. In June, Miley received the Inspiration Award at The American Foundation for AIDS Research’s annual Inspiration Gala, where she delivered an incredibly moving speech. And in November, Miley was honored with the Vanguard Award from the Los Angeles LGBT Center for the work she’s done with the foundation, and her gracious acceptance speech is also worth a watch.
She got real about gender fluidity and sexuality.Tumblr
Understanding around gender identity and traditional gender roles started to noticeably change this year, thanks to celebrities like Ruby Rose and Shamir speaking out against the male/female binary and sharing their own lived experiences.
Among them was Miley, who told Paper magazine that both her sexuality and her gender identity are multifaceted. “I am literally open to every single thing that is consenting and doesn’t involve an animal and everyone is of age. Everything that’s legal, I’m down with… I don’t relate to being a boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl.”
In another interview with Time magazine to promote her #InstaPride campaign, which highlights transgender and gender expansive stories, she further spoke about her gender fluidity, saying, “I’m just equal. I’m just even. It has nothing to do with any parts of me or how I dress or how I look. It’s literally just how I feel.”
Miley also told Elle UK that she identifies as pansexual, meaning she’s open to falling in love or being sexually attracted to people of any gender. She had long been seen in the public eye as a very sexual (even hypersexual) artist, but these revelations ultimately changed the conversation about her sexuality — and, in the process, brought some much-needed awareness and understanding to different social issues.
She gave plenty of mature, show-stopping performances.
There was a lot of overstimulation happening on Dead Petz, which sometimes made Miley’s voice a little murkier and even forgettable. But several other performances this year showcased her knock-‘em-dead pipes, reminding everyone that she’s one hell of a talented vocalist.
First there was her impressive rendition of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” on “Saturday Night Live’s” 40th anniversary special. Then she stole the spotlight on Bill Murray’s Netflix special “A Very Murray Christmas” with her stunning, simplistic take on “Silent Night.” And she flexed both her vocals and her social activism with the emotional “Freeheld” ballad, “Hands of Love” (which is reportedly in the ring for a possible Oscar nomination).
All three performances cast Miley in a more mature light, proving she’s simply too complex to be cornered into one sphere of the music world.