It’s a sad commentary on popular culture that a female child star must often strip herself of all dignity to shed a wholesome image and survive as an adult in the entertainment industry. The year 2012 was a turning point for Miley Cyrus. By then, she had solid bona fides as a child singer and actress, having made her name playing the title character in Disney’s Hannah Montana and taking her singing act on the road to support the series. No longer the teen talent, she was turning 20 that year and perhaps could feel that the time was neigh for her to cast off her youthful image and make a play at becoming a mature songstress.
Having a somewhat famous dad in the industry (country singer and actor Billy Ray Cyurs) and her television show and film already under her belt (2009’s Hannah Montana, directed by Peter Chelsom) as she entered adulthood did not guarantee success at that critical stage. The stakes were high, and the window was closing on her chances to build from where her childhood talents had taken her thus far to achieve a legitimate career as an adult female song stylist.
To her credit and my endless enjoyment, Cyrus decided in that pivotal moment ten years ago to take the artistic high road and launch a subtle, understated platform for this rite of passage that she titled The Backyard Sessions, a series of videos posted on YouTube in 2012, 2015 and 2020. She chose to do so in an industry that normally favors overstatement, if not outright sensationalism, and that choice came with risks. The stage she set for the videos was thoughtful, with a minimalist aesthetic. Stripped of all the usual trappings of pop videos, the backdrop for these critical performances was an unassuming garden setting on a pleasant afternoon, hence the ‘backyard’ reference. The sessions featured her sitting vulnerably, if not a bit awkwardly, alone on a stool near an acoustic ensemble of young men providing just the right degree of unobtrusive talent.
This was Cyrus striking out on her own and ditching her Disney-branded image. No longer the kid star with an attitude, she was now a gentle, demure diva wearing a delicate blouse and flowing long skirt, caressing the mic, but only in tender reverence for her craft.
She chose to cover several iconic female vocalists, including Dolly Parton (“Jolene”) and Melanie (“Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma”). Her rendition of a relatively obscure song from Nina Simone’s catalog, “Lilac Wine”, struck me most upon my first listening. Her delivery for that number is both wispy yet aching, a torch song sung with a soft glow, lit by embers of melancholy and longing. It was so soothing and heartfelt that I found myself listening to it as a sort of lullaby each night before I turned out the light. It was a balm for my troubled soul during a particularly trying time in my life and I will always cherish her rendition of the song for that reason alone.
My response notwithstanding, and despite being generally well-received, The Backyard Sessions did not make Miley an overnight sensation or the ‘next Britney’. Soon thereafter, perhaps sensing that window about to close forever, she hired Britney Spears’ ex-manager, a seeming expert at converting young women burdened with a Disney image into raunchy pop music tarts. Spears, along with Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, had been Disney survivors as young talent, all featured on the revived Mickey Mouse Club in the 1990s. (I guess it’s corporate media’s way of using kiddie shows as a training ground for rookie talent who, if they perform well, move on to play in the major leagues.)
As a matter of pure conjecture, I assume she or someone who had her ear advised that America often soon forgets talented young females. That is unless their careers are relaunched with a publicity scheme that amounts to a two-by-four of raunch struck squarely between the eyes of a country’s distracted collective gaze. This appears oddly more often when the artist is trying to graduate from childhood stardom to the next logical phase of the long and successful career that her gifts warrant. It seems incumbent upon these young women to cast off their childhood innocence by stripping them down to little clothing and having them engage in a public hyper-sexualized dance as some rite of passage.
All this reached its climax with Miley’s performance on stage with Robin Thicke at the 2013 MTV awards. With her long brown hair shorn to a pixie blond style that sported horn-like buns, clad in flesh-colored underwear, and her tongue jutting absurdly upward, the image of a demonic nymph was complete. The whole episode was described at the time as ‘disturbing’ and ‘cringe-worthy’. Geesh, what a talented young woman must do to keep a career alive in this world.
After American audiences were adequately scandalized, Cyrus was duly deemed ‘all growed up’ and began appearing regularly on magazine covers and the like, and darned if her bankability rose dramatically. Her ‘comeback’ recording release that summer, Bangerz, was a global commercial success, helped undoubtedly by the twerk heard ’round the world. This included her infamous video featuring her hit single “Wrecking Ball” where she continued the debasement of abject media exposure, swinging nude astride a large ball hung from a chain. “Wrecking Ball” garnered 20 million views worldwide within 24 hours of the video’s release. She and her promotional team had swung for the fences, and the sweet memories of her backyard interlude were soon forgotten. Her team’s machinations made damn sure nobody would forget the new Miley Cyrus anytime soon.
Thanks in no small part to the brave and bold exploitive directions of Britney Spears’ ex-manager, Miley could now continue her career as a woman, apparently unfettered by the stigma of underaged innocence. With her enfant terrible act behind her, she could transition to her long game. She settled into a more comfortable niche, building a stable career as an artist with brass, wit, puckish spirit, and most importantly, who could sing the hell out of a song. She may not be at Spears’ level in career sales, but she avoided the slide into oblivion that befell the likes of Tiffany and others before her.
Cyrus is now particularly adept at pulling off signature renditions of familiar covers, as she originally proved during The Backyard Sessions. She continues to pursue her song stylings with alacrity and aplomb: just check out her performance at George Clooney’s AFI Tribute from 2018, where she does her delightful take on the hit from the soundtrack for the Cohen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? Priceless.
That’s not to say it all didn’t come with a price. Cyrus seems not only wiser these days, but there’s also a tinge of the world-weary survivor in her demeanor, manifest in a premature whisky voice now oddly emanating from her diminutive frame. So, in some ways, the Miley I admired so much, playing the ingénue in her backyard, never really left. She’s still there, lurking in the gallery of personas that help her adapt to and stay viable in an industry that expects reinvention and controversy.
I don’t blame her for the temporary insanity of her 2013 performances. They may have been tasteless and beneath her, but they bought her safe passage to the other side of childhood stardom, where she can now just exist, hold steady and impress. Hers were merely survival tactics in a world that will often forget a young woman if the only thing she reveals for all to see is her remarkable talent.
Halperin, Shirley. “Miley Cyrus Signs With Britney Spears’ Manager”. The Hollywood Reporter. 8 March 2013
Halperin, Shirley. “Note to Miley Cyrus” Please Stop; Plus Other VMAs Ruminations”. The Hollywood Reporter. 26 August 2013.
Kroll, Katy. “Twerk It Out: Miley and Robin’s VMA Performance, One Year Later“. Rolling Stone. 22 August 2014.