Miley Cyrus has shed many skins throughout her time in the public eye. From dough-eyed. double-life Disney star to controversial and crude and everything in between, Miley Cyrus as an entity has proven herself to be endlessly transformative. She's six albums deep into her career – with a seventh underway – and she's still in her twenties. Through those six albums, she's traversed – sometimes carelessly – country, pop, trap, rock, disco, psychedelic and still continues to push the boundaries of what society thinks she is capable of. But, historically, there's one thing she's done consistently well and frequently enough that sets her apart from her contemporaries.
Cyrus' penchant for covering other artists' songs is well documented. In her first few albums, when she was still pulling remnants of the Hannah Montana wig out of her hair, she recorded some covers and released them officially. There's a hyperactive, pop-rock version of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" on 2008's Breakout, and there's a slow-burning, R&B-fused cover of Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" on 2010's Can't Be Tamed. But it was in the last days of 2012, when Cyrus uploaded a familial cover to her YouTube channel that gave the public no choice but to listen.
At 275 million views at the time of writing, Miley's cover of her godmother Dolly Parton's "Jolene" is stirring, smoky and raw. She lets her southern twang – that she had hidden for a while preceding the cover – free and the song somehow becomes even more heart-breaking than the 1973 original. No Miley Cyrus music video since 2017's "Malibu" has amassed that many views, and even the original – which is slightly chirpier with Parton's fluttering vocals – pales in comparison at 47 million views.
From there, her proclivity for performing other people's songs strengthened. She matched Lana Del Rey's signature melancholy nostalgia note for note in her version of "Summertime Sadness". She crooned and swooned with intriguing aloofness on her cover of Arctic Monkeys' "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High". She even invited Ariana Grande to pull off an arena-ready duet of "Don't Dream It's Over", made famous by Crowded House – which the two would later perform at an actual arena as part of the One Love Manchester benefit event.
The discourse around Miley's covers runs large and deep throughout the internet. Following the searing and raspy cover of Blondie's "Heart Of Glass" cover, social media has exploded with admiration of Miley's vocal talents.
In fact, the response to the "Heart Of Glass" cover has been so overwhelming, Miley has released an official version on streaming services. Not even her version of "Jolene" has scored that treatment.
The most popular comments on the music video for the original "Heart Of Glass" are all about how Miley's cover did it justice, even if it was completely transformative.
"Miley created a different sound... but totally did it justice," one comment reads.
"This is one of my favourite songs from my childhood and Miley did a great job at singing it, it's rare to see such good covers," another reads.
Some other comments on Miley's version of the song help give some insight as to why she does them at all. The cover was so highly acclaimed that it even won over those who had existing notions of what Miley Cyrus is about.
"I'm an old school rocker, and I never thought I'd have any interest in Miley Cyrus," a comment reads on Miley's performance. "But she's bad ass."
Cyrus is bridging a gap here between fans outside of her demographic, welcoming them in with open arms with material that they recognise. These sporadic covers also give her a chance to work within the pop machine in a way that she likes.
"I learned a lot in the last year that don't make plans because things just constantly change," Cyrus told Zane Lowe in an Apple Music interview earlier this year. "It makes you feel super stuck to structure and inflexible."
Cyrus has made note of how she doesn't want to adhere to the standard album release structure that the powers that be would like her to. Covers help keep her fans fed while also subverting those standard stifling album release schedules.
"I felt like for my life – the way it evolves and constantly changes, the way I change, how public my experiences are – it doesn't make sense for me to wrap up that body of time in just a few songs," she told Zane Lowe.
Miley Cyrus the performer is inherently chameleonic. From the very beginning, the public's introduction to Cyrus was literally a television show that was centred around her ability to transform. There's no one single defining image of Cyrus in the public eye. Her dewey, wide-eyed appearance on Hannah Montana is as famous as her bleach blonde faux hawk of the Bangerz era. The sun-kissed home-grown feel of the Younger Now days is as associated with Miley as her leather-cladded, intensely-studded, mullet-donning persona is now.
You don't have to be all that enlightened to spot the link between Cyrus' Hannah Montana days and her complex relationship with identity and public persona now. She has made no secret of how the Disney show impacted her mental health and her thoughts about her body. In 2015, she told Marie Claire, "I was told for so long what a girl is supposed to be from being on that show.
"From the time I was 11, it was 'You're a pop star! That means you have to be blonde, and you have to have long hair, and you have to put on some glittery tight thing'."
"I was made to look like someone that I wasn't," she continued, "which probably caused some body dysmorphia because I had been made pretty every day for so long, and then when I wasn't on that show it was like, 'Who the fuck am I?'"
But Cyrus' struggle with identity ultimately led to her greatest gift. This completely malleable persona, subject to Cyrus' every whim and fancy, makes her the perfect artist to sing songs belonging to other people, and do so believably. Nothing ever seems too out of place for her because she never stays in one lane too long, anyway. Think of Adele, for example, who has made a career of singing booming piano-led ballads. Now imagine her covering BLACKPINK – It wouldn't happen. Miley's constant reinvention has kept her free from such creative confinement.
Her voice helps, too. With an incredible rasp and southern twang, Cyrus has managed to distinguish her singing voice from all of her contemporaries – a particularly daunting task considering just how much music exists in 2020. Her voice is so uniquely hers that Cyrus – ironically – couldn't pretend to be anyone else if she tried.
Her consistent shapeshifting combined with a voice that's all her own has meant that the songs she covers are given a unique new life, too. When Cyrus is singing "Jolene", she doesn't sound like Dolly Parton. When she's singing "Heart Of Glass", she doesn't sound like Debbie Harry. Instead, her covers serve as homages to those that made them famous, while Cyrus simultaneously stretches her ability and her perception. These covers are tools for her to build her repertoire, and to help shape her sound for whatever original project she dives into next.
She's due to take to the hallowed MTV Unplugged stage on October 16 in the 'Miley Cyrus Backyard Sessions', where she will once again debut some new covers. While the world waits for her forthcoming seventh studio album coming in the near future, we can revel in how Cyrus puts her own spin on beloved songs of the distant, and not-so-distant, past.