My first awareness of the great pop icon that is Miley Cyrus came back when her claim to fame was Hannah Montana. At the time, I didn't think much of her at all - she was just another too-pure Disney girl. But even then she was hard to ignore, seeing her fake stage name and face plastered everywhere. For a time, it seemed that you couldn't walk down an aisle in Wal-Mart without seeing some product branded with the Hannah Montana logo. If I felt anything beyond indifference to her then, it was mild annoyance at her commercial popularity.
But slowly, that began to change. Why is that? Simply put, Miley came of age. Early on there was that Vanity Fair controversy, over a "seductive" and minimally dressed photograph of a 15 year old Miley taken by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. The public and the media cried out, that a teenage girl should be "sexualized" before the eyes of the masses. But I appreciated both the artistry of the photo, as well as its underlying statement about the irrepressible (for no lack of trying) sexuality of young women transitioning through adolescence.
Other controversies followed, including one about the use of a stripper pole during one of Miley's performances (remember when this was shocking, before it became her M.O.?), but what really turned me into a Miley fan was the release of her album Can't Be Tamed, which arrived within a year of her upcoming 18th birthday. The cover features Miley decked out in black leather, and the unapologetically sexy music video for the title track has her sporting the dark wings of a raven or a crow (or a fallen angel), breaking free from her cage. On the underrated album, Miley sings about liberty (Liberty Walk) and independence (Robot), in addition to the usual songs about love and partying (Who Owns My Heart). It seems calculated to present Miley Cyrus as an independent, sexual agent, breaking free from the oppressive purity of her previous Disney-fried image.
A lot of people were upset about Miley's new image, disappointed that the sweet Hannah Montana their daughters all looked up to had become this sultry vixen. But was Miley not allowed to grow up? Just because she had been a child star, was she beholden to some unwritten contract to maintain a squeaky clean image? Weren't the girls who followed her as Hannah Montana growing up, too? Was this reaction due to the paternalistic (dare I say, patriarchal) instinct to keep women the innocent, asexual angels we unrealistically expect them to be as little girls? It was never for a moment unclear to me that all the furor over Miley's R-rated antics was (and still is) a symptom of the conservative impulse to suppress women's sexual agency. Who better to look to, then, for a true feminist icon?
If Can't Be Tamed was, for me, Miley's "coming out" album, then Bangerz is the album where she truly comes into her own as a pop star. Her style as a musician is more mature, and her image - still sexy, and more fashionable than ever - continues to evolve. The release of the album last year (2013, which I dub the Year of Miley) was just one in a string of noteworthy press involving the antics that were fast becoming typical of Miley, such as her twerktastic performance with the foam finger at the MTV Video Music Awards, and the release of her music video for Wrecking Ball (the seminal breakup anthem of the new millenium, although the righteous anger that infuses FU is infectiously fierce), featuring an all nude Miley licking a sledgehammer and riding a - yep, you guessed it - wrecking ball.
It was her participation in the skin cancer charity Protect The Skin You're In, for which she modeled nude, that solidified my resolve to pick up Miley's new album, Bangerz, and cemented my dedication to her as a pop icon. By this point, Miley Cyrus has become such an outrageous figure, that she's ripe for both parody and ridicule, but I see much of her antics as part of the nature of being a perfomance artist, and behind it, it seems to me, is this extremely confident young woman who is not afraid of her own body; and that threatens a lot of people. The fact that she gets so much slack for the sexual nature of her videos and performances is proof positive that here in the twenty-first century, as a culture, we are still disgustingly intimidated by a sexually confident woman.
A lot of the material on Bangerz could be superficially written off as a paean to partying. And this is part of Miley's aesthetic. Why should we begrudge young people their parties? Life is to be enjoyed. But it's not her singing "love, money, party" that makes me so fiercely loyal to her. Partying is just the foil for a self-confident and celebratory worldview. When Miley sings "we can't stop, and we won't stop", she's not just talking about the party. She's referring to her passionate resolve to "do her thang", or in other words, be just the person she is and was meant to be. It's about turning away from the haters and the judgers and the people who would dictate how you should live your life, that cause you to doubt yourself and feel ashamed of who you are. These are the people that spread so much hate and intolerance in the world - and Miley is offering the solution: believe in yourself, whoever you may be.
And the amazing thing is, that through all the hate and intolerance, some people are getting it - mostly young women like Miley herself. I went to see Miley Cyrus in concert last night, and the sheer volume of sexually confident (if just for a night) young women in attendance was truly inspiring. An uninitiated bystander might describe it as Teen SlutWalk: The Concert, but the truth was that this was an accepting space where women seemed to feel safe to express themselves sexually through fashion without fear of harassment (or worse), and where persons of alternative sexualities could feel welcome. How awesome - and what's more, how feminist - is that? It was a pleasantly transcendent experience for me, and it has amplified my respect and dedication to this woman, whom some may understandably revere as the Goddess incarnate. I'd go see her in concert again tonight if I had the opportunity, and I eagerly look forward to hearing about what she does next.