The pop star’s career is a case study in courting public expectations by rebelling against them.
“I’m everything they said I would be,” Miley Cyrus sings, her voice dewy with disappointment, on her new album, Plastic Hearts. She’s apologizing to a lover she let down. But who’s the “they”? It’s you, the listener. It’s the imagined audience of Hannah Montana, the fictional pop star Cyrus portrayed in her early teens on the Disney Channel. It’s the actual audience of Hannah Montana who tracked Cyrus into adulthood. It’s the casual fan and casual hater, the pundits and influencers, and the friends and rivals. It’s basically everyone—because for the general public, people like Cyrus exist as examples of what fame does to a human life.
Cyrus knows by now that the concept of Miley Cyrus can’t be separated from the expectations that have followed her since tweendom (and maybe even before, as the daughter of the country star Billy Ray Cyrus). As she morphed from kid’s TV idol into tongue-wagging pop provocateur in the early 2010s—and then, across the decade, spent time as art punk, queer activist, and demure folkie—she has been ridiculed as excessive, desperate, fickle, insensitive, immature, and bad at twerking. She has never really bothered with countering the criticism. She has, instead, seemed to become more Miley with every phase, and by flipping her finger to the public, she’s only drawn more interest. Cyrus’s rowdy new album, out last Friday, is one of her stronger provocations.