Anne T. Donahue on Miley Cyrus and the Erasure of Self

“I will always be the naked girl on the wrecking ball. No matter how much I just frolic with Emu”

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Miley Cyrus is back with Liam, and seems to have tamped down her inner-weirdo. But is she being true to herself?
(Photo: Getty)

Like any person alive on this planet, Miley Cyrus is filled with regret. While appearing on the Zach Sang Show this week, she condemned her 2013 video for “Wrecking Ball,” admitting she hadn’t thought about its long-term repercussions.

“I’m never living that down,” she said. “I will always be the naked girl on the wrecking ball. No matter how much I just frolic with Emu, I’m always the naked girl on the wrecking ball. I should have thought how long that was going to have to follow me around.”

Which is fair. Arguably, the biggest part of growing up is realizing that when we were younger, we made choices we wouldn’t make today. For some of us, those choices were consuming multiple packs of Mike’s Hard Lemonade or wearing low-rise flared jeans. But in Miley’s case, she’s referring to her then-brand of artistic expression. And that’s making her latest incarnation of self seem less like an organic evolution than it does a Bieber-esque apology tour.

Over the last month—and particularly in the wake of her her reconciliation with Liam Hemsworth—Cyrus has very obviously changed. A far cry from the young woman who twerked onstage with Robin Thicke or appropriated hip-hop culture, she’s been making a conscious effort to present herself as a new woman, having replaced her Terry Richardson aesthetic with long white dresses and her flair for exhibitionism with wandering around fields. It’s as though she wants us to know that she’s different now—that she’s better, smarter and above the person she used to be.

But, despite change being an important part of personal growth, this incarnation seems inauthentic.

Whether because of the speed of her reinvention or her flippant rejection of the culture she co-opted, Cyrus’ insistence on condemning her past infers that she’s treating her life and her career as something to be categorized as “before” and “after.” Before reuniting with Liam, she was rebellious, risk-taking and foolish—while after, she’s wiser and seemingly more wholesome. Ultimately, her dismissal of the “Wrecking Ball” video tells us that she thinks she’s above the schtick she’d worked hard to establish as an authentic display of self-discovery. And her Instagram remarks about gravitating towards “uplifting, conscious rap” seems to suggest that she never understood or respected rap in the first place.

And it’s disappointing, especially since being accountable for the choices we make is just as important as growing as a result of them. If Miley feels like her best self while singing “Malibu” and wearing all-white-everything, that’s fantastic. But it’s important to note that we’d take the singer no less seriously if she stood by who she used to be, too. We’re the sum of our pasts, f-ck-ups and all.

It’s interesting to watch anyone in the throes of reinvention, condemning the past while running full steam ahead into what they hope will be a better future. But now that Miley has so publicly distanced herself from the persona that earned her grown-ass pop star attention, how will she keep our interest?

We know the woman can sing. We know, based on how calculated her Bangerz-era rebellion, that she’s smart. But outside the realm of her musical skills, it’s hard to gauge where Miley fits in under the pop umbrella. Having not built a career on reinvention the way Katy Perry has, nor by adhering to a genre like Adele, we have no way of knowing who Miley Cyrus actually is. I mean, even Taylor Swift’s slide to pop was nearly a decade in the making—and even then, she very adamantly announced her intentions to make a sonic change for 1989. Miley seems to be just figuring it out.

And that can be her brand, provided it’s authentic too. But what raises a red flag is the fact that Miley’s public distancing from her more outrageous persona parallels the re-introduction of a man who knew her before “Wrecking Ball.” And while falling in love with Liam again is terrific, it is less so if her identity is intrinsically linked to their status; if she’s pushing the weird and experimental parts of herself down to fit into a particular role. Or worse: if she’s evading her past to lend currency to her present—as if she can just leave the wrecking ball behind.

More from Anne:
Ivanka Got Booed and Anne T. Donahue Is Here for It
Anne T. Donahue on Jian Ghomeshi & the Currency of Outcry
Anne T. Donahue on the Pepsi Implosion: Where’s Kendall’s Apology?

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