The one common link between the biggest pop stars in history is the ability to reinvent. Miley Cyrus understands this — over the last decade she has gone from teen pop princess to shaven-haired bad girl to marijuana advocate with a reputation for wearing giant dildos on stage. It’s been quite the journey.
Now, to coincide with her latest release ‘Malibu’, she’s ditched the sex toys and gone back to her roots, making country-tinged pop music with not a rap feature in sight.
It is, in her own words, an attempt to bridge the political gap currently plaguing both the U.S. and the world more generally: “I like talking to people that don’t agree with me,” she explained in an interview with Billboard, “but I don’t think I can do that in an aggressive way.
I don’t think those people are going to listen to me when I’m sitting there in nipple pasties, you know? I like the way I think right now. But don’t Trump supporters like the way they think? So I’ve also got to be open with the way I approach people with my opinions. That’s the only way to make real change.”
It’s easy to immediately take a cynical approach to this statement, especially considering the current #wokepop trend ignited by Katy Perry’s political soundbites and live-streamed therapy session. Politics are profitable.
The problem with Cyrus is that, in the past, various elements of black culture in particular have proved to be extremely profitable for her as well – from fake dreads and gold teeth to Lil’ Kim outfit knock-offs and imitation twerking (which was put firmly on the map by bounce legend Big Freedia), she made a financial killing by shedding her girl-next-door image and re-emerging surrounded by black celebrities and dancers.
Xtina had a hip-hop phase, Britney did it with the Ying Yang Twins, Katy Perry has done it on several occasions – stars like to borrow heavily from hip-hop in particular when they need to redesign their image.
The problem is that, in Trump’s America, the same black people that once proved so lucrative are now in genuine need of support. Stars have the opportunity to commission innovative directors, break radicalized stereotypes with their work, offer money to underserved communities and, most importantly, use their platform to spotlight the most marginalized in the hopes of defending their rights.
While Cyrus has at least made some cursory efforts to have these conversations, she does now seem to have turned her back on the hip-hop that once cemented her success, saying it was too much about dick-sucking and fancy cars – a comment which, inevitably, caused an online shitstorm.
The star is, however, seemingly doing her bit for the LGBTQ+ community, which is unsurprising as she’s spoken briefly about her own gender identity and sexuality. Speaking to Out magazine, Cyrus explained: “I didn’t want to be a boy. I kind of wanted to be nothing. I don’t relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy, and I think that’s what I had to understand: being a girl isn’t what I hate, it’s the box that I get put into.”
She openly identifies as pansexual and, although she has never stated a desire to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns, it does certainly seem that Cyrus is far more open and, consequentially, progressive than most people in her position.
These elements of her activism appear to be genuine; the Happy Hippie foundation is a non-profit founded by Cyrus in order to tackle LGBTQ+ youth homelessness and a lack of education.
Not only does the group provide meals and care packages to people on the streets, Happy Hippie has also partnered with organizations to provide support groups for trans people and offer medical care to those suffering with HIV. “That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s what made me happy,” said Cyrus of founding the organization. “That’s what Happy Hippie is about: doing what you do, being happy and not hurting anyone. It gave me meaning in everything.”
Actions like these do set Cyrus apart from her contemporaries but, as is often the case, things get muddled when actual companies and profit come into play.
The star recently wrote a long Instagram post congratulating her brother Braison, who modeled for Dolce & Gabbana. She posted as a small aside that she didn’t agree with the brand’s politics which is more than fair – they have, after all, slammed gay adoption and released the questionable ‘Slave’ sandals.
It seems that, on this specific occasion, Cyrus was referring not to these mishaps but instead to their willingness to dress Melania Trump, which many saw as an endorsement of her pussy-grabbing spouse. Despite this extremely mild takedown, D&G responded with a lengthy post branding her “ignorant” and claiming they would never work with the star’s brother again.
This is only one example, but it’s one which highlights exactly why huge stars can only ever take their controversial opinions so far – genuinely divisive views, largely speaking, aren’t conducive to sponsorship and mainstream access. Cyrus seems to have realized this herself, moving swiftly away from the hardcore aesthetics which once made her a fortune and instead creating mildly political music to seemingly placate Trump’s America.
In a nutshell, this is precisely why the #wokepop trend is a bitter pill to swallow – the intentions rarely seem genuine. Political soundbites are being frantically drafted, rehearsed and packaged into press releases because messages of resilience are – or at least people seem to think – what sell right now.
It’s no longer enough for pop stars to literally do their job and entertain us at a distance; instead, they need to enlighten us on their own political ideologies, filter messages down into palatable pop and, in the case of Katy Perry, explore their past demons on camera in order to convince us that they’re genuine.
The stars genuinely making change are the ones doing so quietly; by using her platform to create the Happy Hippie foundation, for example, Cyrus has genuinely impacted the lives of thousands without leaning on philanthropy as a marketing crutch.
This move has, however, acted as a catalyst of sorts for a new public persona seemingly based on ‘activism’; think big-name LGBTQ+-focussed ad campaigns, hollow political interview responses and, of course, mild Instagram call-outs. No matter the intention, it’s difficult to take Cyrus seriously when she actively shies away from acknowledging or responding comprehensively to the complaints of cultural appropriation leveled at her in the past.
It’s difficult to respect an artistic vision which borrows heavily from one culture, exploits it for profit and then abandons it in order to placate a more conservative audience.
Ultimately, despite her unwavering support for the queer community, it feels disingenuous to brand Cyrus a progressive mind in any true sense of the word while she seemingly remains blind to the ever-growing importance of intersectionality.