Miley Cyrus: The rebirth. Is she becoming a train wreck or is she in complete control?

“You’re not a train wreck…you’re the train pulling everyone else along”(Eells)   – Pharrell Williams


Miley Cyrus with Robin Thicke, performing at the MTV Video Music Awards

Fig.1: Miley Cyrus with Robin Thicke, performing at the MTV Video Music Awards

Recently Miley Cyrus has come under a lot scrutiny for her actions, from a once admired Disney darling to what some might say a fully fledged train wreck. Her career has gone from tremendous highs, partly because of her Disney roots, to what we see now as her possible spiral down a path that has been only too familiar with other artists such as Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears and Amanda Bynes. But first, the subject that I want to focus on is Miley Cyrus’ transformation as an artist; her ‘re-birth’ and whether or not she is setting herself up to be a complete train wreck, similar to other child stars such a Lindsey Lohan and Amanda Bynes or whether she is in complete control of her reinvention, and she knows all too well what she is doing and that her actions are strategically planned. 

Before Miley Cyrus was known as she is today, a booty ‘twerking’, crotch grabbing and tongue baring exhibitionist, she was this wholesome Disney star that was a role model to young children everywhere. Her career took off when she became Hannah Montana, she represented America’s sweetheart, along with the well known Disney image; sweet, wholesome, innocent and someone, for young girls especially, to look up to. However, as Hannah Montana was a product of Disney and as Disney is a large conglomerate business, they have a lot of control over whom and what they own. Therefore in order to break free from the proverbial chains, Miley Cyrus has swung from one extreme to the other in her own series of controversial events. Cyrus herself has commented on the restrictions she has faced as a young teenager and how this has affected her departure from Disney;

“They [Disney] try to make someone not grow up but you can’t do that to real, normal people…”If I’m doing something I’m going to do it right but then once I’m away from it I’ll do it my way.”(‘Miley Cyrus On ‘Hannah Montana’)

Clearly, Cyrus is trying to detach from what she used to represent, and as a result, people have noticed and remarked on what they call the death of Hannah Montana. In that, as of her now infamous Video Music Award performance of her summer hit We Can’t Stop with Robin Thicke [see Fig.1], people are paying their condolences to the death of cute and lovable Hannah Montana character (Singh). For instance fellow celebrities are even acknowledging that Miley and Hannah have become completely severed, singer Adam Levine openly stated on social media site Twitter that as of Cyrus’ performance, “last night was less of a Miley performance and more of a funeral of Hannah Montana”(Ibid). On the contrary, instead of looking at this as the death of one identity, this is more of a rebirth of another, and in this case it is Cyrus’ new and somewhat true identity.

But what is this rebirth? Who is she trying to appeal to? Well if her new image is anything to go by then she has made a complete turnaround from what she once was associated with. From a young pop artist to a wannabe ‘black’ R’n’B performer. Critiques have called Miley Cyrus out on this and have branded her as appropriating ‘black culture’. R’n’B is rhythm and blues and was predominately performed by African-American musicians and this style of music become popular for the African-American, thus writer Robert Palmer defines R’n’B as; “a catchall term referring to any music that was made by and for black Americans”( As of which, R’n’B artists have ranged from Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, to today’s African-Americans, R’n’B artists, such as Kanye West, Usher and Missy Elliot. But when comparing Miley Cyrus with these artists, you can see why people are up in arms about the association between the two. This is partly due to Cyrus’ need to ‘twerk’; for which she has gained widespread attention, “Miley Cyrus was the conduit that brought twerking to the mainstream consciousness”(Mbakwe), even though, “twerking isn’t new. Its ubiquity may seem sudden, but mainstream media’s merely catching up to something that’s existed in black global culture for years”(Ibid), said blogger Christiana Mbakwe.

Taking this into consideration, critics have in masses dismissed Cyrus as someone who is not trying to be black, but instead using black culture as an accessory to maintain her status in music, and in particular one critic, goes one step further and directly addresses Cyrus in his article, Miley Cyrus, Stop Disrespecting What ‘Feels Black’ (Owens). Ernest Owens asks Miley Cyrus to,

“Stop associating your fixation for “twerking” as a chance to feel black …Stop capitalizing off of racial stereotypes as a way to shape your image, how about just be your own damn self and embrace that.”(Ibid)

To which Cyrus has replied to the individuals that have the same judgment as Owens, as she tries to assure people in a very open way, via social media site Twitter that; “I know what color my skin is. You can stop with the friendly reminders bitch”(B.).  Continuously Cyrus defends herself by insisting that she is not appropriating black culture and so disputing the claim that she is pretending to be black, “I’m from one of the wealthiest counties in America…I know what I am. But I also know what I like to listen to. Look at any 20-year-old white girl right now — that’s what they’re listening to at the club”(EUpublisher02).
On the contrary to whether or not Miley is appropriating black culture, the question is, is she accepted by the urban, R’n’B, black audiences she is so very much trying to appeal to, or is she rejected by them. In fact the former seems to be more accurate following her notorious VMA [Video Music Award] performance, Cyrus received commendation from famous black R’n’B artists such as Pharrell Williams who messaged her; “You’re not a train wreck,” he says later. “You’re the train pulling everyone else along.”(Stewart) Then there is Grammy award winning artist Kanye West who told her, “there are not a lot of artists I believe in more than you right now”(Ibid). From the same article that the comments were found above, the writer, Dodai Stewart questions Cyrus’ actions. With all the support for black artists, and the influence and appropriation she has supposedly gained, “might lend some credibility”(Ibid), it is possible that this ‘black obsession (blackcession)’(Ibid) is a phase. For instance she has expressed that she is over ‘twerking’; “Now people expect me to come out and twerk with my tongue out all the time. I’ll probably never do that shit again”.(Eells) Whether or not Cyrus will stay true to her word, only time will tell; so I would keep my eye out on her future performances, because you know critics will be there waiting with pen and paper in hand.

Likewise, Miley Cyrus is not the only artist that has gone through stages of reinvention and in that process, appropriate different cultures to help promote their own image or rather to appeal to a wider demographic. Artist, Gwen Stefani is well known for the use of ‘Harajuku Girls’, which are women or young adults that are associated in the Harajuku District of Tokyo, Japan. And as the Urban Dictionary describes; “Harajuku is…where teens and young adults shop and hang out to explore their own fashion trends. So a Harajuku girl is a young, female participant in this fashionable subculture”(Rae). However, not everyone is accepting of how Stefani has commoditised this unique culture; Salon writer Mihi Ahn discredits Stefani and describes that,

“her appropriation of this subculture makes about as much sense as the Gap selling Anarchy T-shirts; she’s swallowed a subversive youth culture in Japan and barfed up another image of submissive giggling Asian women”(Ahn).


Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku Girls (left) and Stefani’s product merchandise inspired by the Harajuku Girls

Fig.2: Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku Girls (left) and Stefani’s product merchandise inspired by the Harajuku Girls

Rather crass but truthful, this subculture is about self expression and individuality and yet as Ahn also points out “Stefani ends up being the only one who stands out”(Ibid). Stefani is not staying true to the cultural aspects of a Harajuku girl, and by itself assimilates and homogenises the girls into a single person. As Fig.2 shows the Harajuku girls are pushed into the background and wear all the same clothing, resulting in a lack of individuality; whilst Stefani becomes the one who is center of attention, and in turn makes the Harajuku girls a product of her own corporate selling machine. What? Yes, Gwen Stefani has used the Harajuku brand to sell her own album, merchandise (COTY Inc) which has brought her much success and profit. In 2005 Stefani earned an annual gross income of $90 million(Crowe), just with the sales of L.A.M.B. which was her clothing label and perfume line [see Fig.2.] along with bags, accessories and other collections; all inspired by Harajuku fashion. Comparable to Miley Cyrus, it can be queried that as she is doing the same as Stefani but with black culture, and sequentially using it to sell her image and music records. After all, not long after her VMA performance and the release of her newest single Wrecking Ball, Cyrus’ new album Bangerz has been released, to which the album has a more R’n’B vibe,  in any case this is what Cyrus’ herself strived to achieve; “I want urban, I just want something that just feels black.”(Winfrey Harris)
The question that can now be asked is how long will Cyrus’ ‘new’ identity last? And is it just as phase? For we have seen this time and time again, in relation to her contemporaries they also manifest chameleonic qualities, specifically Madonna. Madonna is one of the biggest examples out there, for she is the ‘Queen of Appropriation’(Appignanesi & Garratt, 148) as Richard Appignanesi and David Garratt have labelled her. She has reinvented herself over time in her vast career, and so, “Madonna been seen through the years as a full-blown whore [Like a Virgin], Catholic schoolgirl, material girl [Material Girl], punk rebel [Borderline], bleach blond [Vogue], and the list goes on and on”(Farrell).

Furthermore, what we now see Miley Cyrus doing, Madonna has done just the same and lecturer Matthew Donahue of popular culture studies acknowledges this, and states that Madonna,

“has great ability to gain attention, a great ability to turn controversy into publicity, even using bad publicity to her advantage to keep an audience and maintain her pop-culture icon status”(DeMarco).

Miley Cyrus is gaining all this publicity and most often negativity for her actions, but whether or not it is actually harming her career is debatable. Cyrus’ bawdy routine at the VMA’s might have garnered negative press, but it also put Cyrus in the forefront of people’s minds. In his blog, Jonah Berger discusses Cyrus’ actions at the VMA’s and identifies that this could have been the best career move she could have made. For Berger points out that following her performance, it “quickly became the most tweeted event ever, with over 360,000 tweets a minute”(Berger), and as a result, “she moved from one of a zillion pop-stars competing for attention to the it-girl of the moment”(Ibid). Hence, all this negative publicity just might be the boost Cyrus needed to kick-start her career again, but this time away from her now alter-ego Hannah Montana. Even Cyrus herself spoke about the effect of bad publicity in her made for TV documentary The Movement on MTV, where she says, “You’re always going to make people talk, you might as well make them talk for like two weeks rather than two seconds”(Lipshutz). Which, in her case has worked; her latest album, Bangerz, is at the top of iTunes in 70 countries as of mid October, her VMA performance has currently gathered over 5.6 million views on YouTube and she has found herself center stage in many magazine covers and lead articles, such as Rolling stone, Cosmopolitan and Bazar

Back to the topic at hand; is Miley Cyrus becoming a train wreck or is she in complete control? Despite all the controversy surrounding her, she still manages to assure people that she knows exactly what she is doing and just because her image in changing does not mean it is a bad thing.  For she says; “I know what I’m doing. I know I’m shocking you”(Eells) and as Cyrus later points out in her documentary The Movement, she labels herself “a strategic hot mess”. Now if this is not deliberate validation of Cyrus’ own control over her image and career choices then what is? In the end, everyone has a rebellion in themselves but the extent to which they act on it is up to them. Therefore people rebel in a matter of different ways, and as for Miley Cyrus this new identity‘re-birth’ is a way for her to rebel against her old self; her Disney self. Moreover, this rebellion for Cyrus and her changing image, like previously stated, has not become a bad thing, and so, if Cyrus’ antics were harming her career shouldn’t  it be over by now?  For she has not become a train wreck like some of her peers;  Lindsey Lohan and Amanda Bynes come to mind, she has not been to rehab or had anyone step in and cause an intervention because they are worried about her making bad choices. The fact is, Miley Cyrus is purely growing up and as all teenagers do; they experiment with their identity and therefore Cyrus is perfectly in control and fully aware of her actions.

What to take away from this post is up to you, nevertheless, Miley Cyrus is the protagonist here. Whether people want to see her as a train wreck or a systematic business women; there is something which we can all agree on; she is definitely making headlines no matter what she does. Up to now, see is in complete control of her image, actions and individual choices. People say she is appropriating black culture whilst others are encouraging of her choices, even from those inside this culture’s music; such as Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. However this overarching question of whether Cyrus is train wreck or in complete control, I feel can be summed up in a quote that Pharrell Williams said once again; “You’re not a train wreck…you’re the train pulling everyone else along” (Eells). For we are all still intrigued by this once Disney-darling, who is now evolving into her own crazy, unpredictable self-image, to which we cannot wait to see what she does next.




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