Culture

Miley Cyrus Grows Up

Cyrus performs on the Today show in May. (Reuters photo: Brendan McDermid)
Aging teen warblers eventually learn to shed their self-indulgence.

The sanctimonious thrill of flaunting one’s outrage against Donald Trump is like a drug that can prove difficult to give up. Last fall the recovering Sandersista and fervent Hillary Clinton backer Miley Cyrus spoke of “a sea of terrifying Trump supporters and posters” in her hometown of Nashville and posted a photo of herself doubled over suggestively in a yoga pose over the caption “Kiss my ashtanga a** if you aren’t voting for Hillary Clinton.” In January she marched against Trump and posted an Instagram broadside against his immigration policy.

Now Cyrus, still only 24, is rethinking the marketability of pop-star agitation and activism. When people buy bubble gum, they rarely ask for broccoli flavor. Yet Cyrus also seems genuinely wiser, chastened by her ill-advised foray into lefty activism and the annoy-the-bourgeoisie gonzo aesthetic that went with it. Like Cincinnatus returning to his plow, Cyrus has reverted to her farm-girl persona and heartland-friendly music, although instead of laying down her sword, she has put aside her nipple pasties and bong. “This is crazy, but I haven’t smoked weed in three weeks!” she says in a Billboard interview. The duration of her self-abnegation may not sound too impressive to you. But she claims it’s the longest she’s ever gone without indulging in pot. “I’m not doing drugs, I’m not drinking, I’m completely clean right now,” she says. It’s a start.

Promoting a forthcoming album that’s billed as being much more personal than political, Cyrus is adjusting her politics. “Unity is what we need,” she says in her Billboard mea culpa. Acknowledging that she lives in a bubble of “outspoken liberals,” she vows not to “just f***ing preach to the choir anymore,” adding, “I’m giving the world a hug and saying, ‘Hey, look. We’re good — I love you.’ And I hope you can say you love me back.” She promises to steer clear of acting like the Dixie Chicks and “getting my album smashed in the streets” in favor of a more temperate choice to “talk to people in a compassionate, understanding way — which people aren’t doing.”

To change one’s brand from gyrating pop star to soulful and engaged troubadour isn’t easy. You’ve seen Madonna go mad. You may have gagged at Lady Gaga. Cyrus might find particularly instructive the example of Katy Perry, who also campaigned for Clinton last fall. Perry changed her Twitter bio to “Artist. Activist. Conscious.” while asking fans to “rise up” against Trump. She mowed down her hair, traded her lubricious California-girl look for that of an eyeball-munching albino ice monster, and tried to whip her political anger into the contours of an album, Witness. It flopped. Debuting at the top of the Billboard chart in June, it suffered a catastrophic 89 percent sales drop in its second week and now stands at No. 157. Sales for an upcoming tour are soft: “Tickets,” noted one unkind blogger, “are selling for less than a box of tampons.”

Perry canceled a planned September 27 show in Charlotte, citing an unspecified family obligation, but did not reschedule the concert. She also canceled a September 16 appearance in Buffalo, citing “production delays,” but didn’t reschedule that one either. A glance at ticket-selling sites turns up thousands of unsold seats at many venues. “I know nothing,” reads Perry’s current Twitter bio.

Cyrus is doing a bootlegger’s turn away from Perry’s path. Since 2013, when she made a regrettable appearance on the MTV Video Music Awards to annihilate her endearingly cute image in favor of a flesh-colored PVC bikini while executing a raunchy dance move the world learned was called “twerking,” Cyrus has been presenting an upraised middle finger to conventional tastes. Is anything quite so tiresome as a child actress desperate to prove she’s all grown up by being embarrassingly lewd?

For years, Cyrus continued to cultivate the aesthetic of a hip-hop sex punk from outer space.

For years, Cyrus continued to cultivate the aesthetic of a hip-hop sex punk from outer space. She posed for pictures at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards topless except for metallic silver suspenders meant to evoke bondage gear. On her last tour, supporting an album called Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, she appeared onstage in “a unicorn outfit with a strap-on phallus,” as Billboard noted. “All the ­nipple pastie s***,” she explains now, is “what I did because I felt it was part of my political movement.”

So the politics of twerking didn’t deliver for her. These days Cyrus is wearing a frilly pink dress in one Billboard photo shoot, denim cut-offs and cowboy boots in another. It’s all of a piece with what is promised to be a back-to-basics musical style in her new album — her father, Billy Ray, says she has turned ardently back to her Tennessee roots. Having grown out her brown-blonde hair, stopped sticking her tongue out, and begun smiling again, she again looks pretty rather than possessed.

The media that gushed about Cyrus’s strenuously achieved vulgarity at the MTV Awards shows (knocking her only for appropriating it from black culture) can be counted upon to scold her for realigning herself with the forces of the cute, nice, and normal. Indeed, they’re already wagging their fingers at her: “You’re not going outside dressed like that, Missy! March right back upstairs and take some clothes off!” An alarmed headline in The New Yorker ran, “Miley Cyrus’s Creepy Return to Wholesomeness.” Fortunately for her, only a small minority of her audience consists of woke feminist magazine writers. Most of the rest of us don’t think it’s creepy to be wholesome.

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