One of the true joys of my life is following the identity-defining journeys of young pop stars and the cultural artifacts they give us along the way. It’s not even something I feel the need to caveat with shame or irony. I simply find it a fascinating and courageous kind of performance art.
When I think about my own identity-carving years, there are more than a few moments that still feel deeply personal. Young stars navigate this awkward transformation on a stage a hundred feet in the air. They explore themselves as an act of public consumption. It’s an act of bravery.
Of course, few make it through the journey without amassing as many critics as mistakes. They encounter countless tabloid headlines, trending hashtags and thought pieces enumerating their missteps. (I know, because I read them all.) As their audience, we remind them that this is the price they knowingly pay for their riches and fame. They become fodder for our indictments about society in general. It’s not even about them, as The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich explains in a recent review of Miley Cyrus’s latest single, Malibu (and her “creepy return to wholesomeness”):
These shifts aren’t so interesting for what they broadcast about the state of an individual performer’s philosophical posture… far more compelling is what they indicate about an artist’s commercial potential, which is inextricably tied to the public’s hunger for change, and for new and flashier iterations of the same thing.
I, too, find it compelling to examine the public’s hunger for what pop stars offer us. But it makes less sense, particularly in today’s cult-of-personality media environment, to isolate this from who a performer is. Pop artists straddle the line between abstract archetype and singular individual on a daily basis. (It’s more or less their job description.) Their songs and how we feel about them can’t be untangled from the source.
For example, it would mean something entirely different if, as Petrusich suggests, Dolly Parton sang Malibu. The lyrics might be imbued with a sense of worn wisdom, the instrumentation might take on a settled kind of peacefulness. Instead, Miley’s fans will understand the song in the context of her convoluted, at times willfully ignorant, at times deeply pained, recent years. Maybe some will understand it to be about “what [a] grownup woman looks like: pretty, tamed, straight, still, white.” But to me, that’s on the much less interesting end of the spectrum of possible interpretations.
I don’t see Miley’s billowy clothes and glossy makeup as attempts to align herself with the expectations of womanhood. It was only earlier this month, in an interview with Billboard meant to drum up anticipation for Malibu, that she reiterated her pansexual, gender-fluid identification. It’s more likely an aesthetic manifestation of what it feels like to find peace in her personal life, at least for now. As a song, Malibu captures a moment in time that feels eternal (even if it isn’t). I suspect many people— of varying ages and gender identifications — will know that feeling, and some will be transported to it with Malibu. I am.
My appreciation isn’t a defense of everything Miley is or has been, so much as a recognition of her ability to portray song as emotional catharsis. I rarely retire old records when new ones come out. I prefer to continue to call upon them in turn when the right feeling strikes. (Spotify’s proliferation of feeling-based playlists is proof I’m not the only one.) Perhaps because of this, I have an easier time reconciling naughty Miley and wholesome Miley; raunchy-liberated-tongue-wagging Miley and glowing, almost puritanical Miley. She’s not the only person I’ve known capable of embodying both of these ideals at once.
There is more than enough room for the wide array of Miley deconstructions we’re surely in for. Petrusich’s clearly strikes a chord with many who are trying to digest the star’s latest reinvention. Others, who find themselves taken by the visceral feeling of Malibu, may appreciate a much simpler reading (born miraculously in that most wretched of places, the YouTube comments section):
Bruh I can feel her happiness as if it were mine.
Same, @PegasusAnarchy. Same.