These are the tracks that made Miley Cyrus, Miley Cyrus.
We’ve known many iterations of Miley Cyrus. We’ve known her as Destiny Hope, the eldest daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus. We’ve known her as Hannah Montana, whose double life helped define afternoon television for an entire generation. We’ve known Miley the renegade, Miley the reckless, Miley the reprehensible, Miley the reformed, Miley the revolutionary.
With each new release, Miley Cyrus appears to almost completely obliterate previous versions of herself from the public’s mind and makes you focus on what’s right in front of you. Whether she’s securing her wig or waving her tongue or firmly planting her middle finger straight in front of the camera, Miley Cyrus is – for better or worse – everywhere, and she has been for over a decade.
So, let’s take a look at the 10 songs that define Miley’s career, in all the twists and turns it has taken.
Miley Cyrus auditioned for the eponymous role on Disney Channel’s hugely successful show Hannah Montana when she was just 11 years old. It’s hard to fathom the level of superstardom she’d be catapulted to because of the show, but her talent was on display right from the opening credits. Her comedic timing was surprisingly great, and she still managed to cling to the right amount of cheesiness that has been endlessly memed. But her vocals are what grounded the show’s legacy, and under that blonde wig, they were never better put on display. Playing around with the guitar tinged-pop she’d find herself doing in the years following her introduction to the world, Miley’s declaration of imperfection on “Nobody’s Perfect” was almost prophetic looking back – nobody’s perfect, so prepare for her to fuck up.
While Miley pretty effortlessly bounced between characters as Hannah Montana ran its course, the songs that Hannah was singing and the songs that Miley was singing were – in all honesty – cut from the same cloth. However, when Cyrus dove headfirst into distancing herself from the show with her 2008 album Breakout, fans got to see growth as Miley Cyrus began to bloom.
Enter “7 Things” – written by Cyrus when she was just 16 years old. It feels like a diary spewed into song – feelings colliding with another in ways we struggle to understand, sprinkled with skulls and love hearts. You can hear her southern twang peek in at moments which is endearing, giving a glimpse at the raw power she’d tap into later on.
Even while she was still a teenager, Miley was beginning to show that she was more than a one-trick pony. While most of her biggest hits as both herself and Hannah Montana bounced around in pop-rock, it was her swan song and goodbye to the franchise that really made people stand up and pay attention. “The Climb” builds and builds into one of the most memorable ballads of the late 2000s, and not once does she falter over its orchestral climax.
Dabbling into country just ever so slightly, “The Climb” let Miley unleash her powerful and distinct vocals in a way the relatively basic melodies she had been assigned in the past never allowed her to. It’s a defining moment of her career because it segues so beautifully between phases of her life – it still has the vague beam of hope that Disney is known for, but also showcases authenticity as Miley began to show the world who she really was, even if she herself was still figuring that out.
“Party In The U.S.A.”
She wears short shorts now. She’s donning heavy make-up now. She’s pole dancing on ice cream carts on stage now. It’s hard to believe that “Party In The U.S.A.” was basically a throwaway track when it was chucked on Cyrus’ EP The Time Of Our Lives after it was rejected by Jessie J, but thank god it was. It’s that sickly sweet pop patriotism that serves as a complete escapist fantasy. It was the Mrs. Miniver of pop songs in the 00s – wrapped in vague love of country that was completely palatable across the board (until she began performing it). While she wasn’t quite distanced from Hannah Montana, “Party In The U.S.A” is earworm-y enough that the blonde wig feels like an ancient relic, giving Miley the freedom to step forward into the unknown.
Plus it was championed as a celebration song after Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011. Make of that what you will.
“We Can’t Stop”
It’s unbelievable what a haircut can do for a popstar’s career. Lady Gaga dyed her hair blonde and became the biggest thing on earth. Rihanna swapped sun-kissed waves for a short black bob and became a style icon. Katy Perry cut all her hair off and bleached it blonde and... well, they can’t all be hits. However, when Miley cut all her hair off and bleached it blonde, she was stepping out for utter and total world domination.
She exploded back on to the scene after a quiet period with “We Can’t Stop,” and became easily the most talked about celebrity for at least a year. She was brash, she was unapologetic, she was controversial, she was cringeworthy. She was putting her stiletto right through Hannah Montana’s eye, making sure any semblance of her child star past was dead and gone.
While “We Can’t Stop” and the surrounding performances were controversial merely for the sake of being controversial, “Wrecking Ball” – Cyrus’ biggest hit to date and easily one of the best pop songs of the 2010s – was controversial because people weren’t ready to take Miley seriously after such a publicity stunt. She sat there, naked and heartbroken, atop that demolition ball and sang her heart out. She stared directly into the camera, daring the world to come for her. And they did – the takes about that song, Miley’s image and its cultural ramifications were ceaseless.
She took all the hits and the blows, but out of the rubble emerged a true superstar. “Wrecking Ball” is, indisputably, when Miley Cyrus became Miley Cyrus.
What else is there to do after delivering a near-perfect pop moment then to fuck it all up with white girl dreadlocks, strange stunts and throwing paint at the wall to see what sticks, only for nothing to stick at all.
That’s exactly what happened when Miley dropped her free and deeply experimental album Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz. The album saw her collaborate largely with Wayne Coyne and his band The Flaming Lips, and all that came from it was a sticky, confusing mess. That mess was dropped onto us with "Dooo It", which saw her sing about how much she loves weed and how much she loves peace. It was jarring to watch Miley take a huge stumble, with such a deep and painful lack of self-awareness.
When Miley returned after two years with "Malibu", a sanitised, palatable and understated love song about the beach, it was truly like a breath of fresh air. We were witnessing Miley rebuild her public image after seeming like she was too far gone, and it was so believable only because we’d seen her at her weirdest. You know what society doesn’t deem as weird? Wavy blonde hair, dancing through a field, playing with dogs. Miley’s calculated reintroduction harked back to her country roots and even the cheesiness of her Hannah Montana days, but it worked – who thinks about Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz now?
“Nothing Breaks Like A Heart”
While “Malibu” and Younger Now was all about a reformed Miley, it didn’t really stick. Perhaps she was ahead of her time as she was a year or two early for the yeehaw renaissance of 2019, but that didn’t matter – she had her eyes set on another route. Under a glistening disco ball and with Mark Ronson at the wheel, Miley strapped herself into the backseat on the dancefloor ballad that is “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart”.
The song, while not Miley’s own, is critical in her career path as it signalled a laser focus on using her undeniable vocal power. No wrecking balls, no twerking, no cultural appropriation. Miley did what she does best – she sang. She really, really sang.
Now we get to “Midnight Sky” – the latest chapter in the never-ending story of Miley’s career. After a career of trying to move away from her past as much as possible down whatever path opened to her, “Midnight Sky” is about going back – back past even her own birth. The rasp in her voice leaves your skin tingling, the absolute bombast of the 80s rock meets disco production leaves you craving a stadium to scream the words out. It’s electrifying, energised, rejuvenated.
If Miley Cyrus recharged herself with “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart”, she tiptoes masterfully on overload with “Midnight Sky”. And while we don’t know where she’s going to take us next, we can be sure that Miley Cyrus is no longer cowering in fear of her power as a vocalist or as a songwriter. She’s ballsy, she’s fearless and she’s reckless. And she won’t hear anyone tell her otherwise.
Main Image Credit: Sony Music