Miley Cyrus Has Always Been More Than One Thing

Miley Cyrus performs at the 2015 Adult Swim Upfront Party at Terminal 5
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Tuner

Miley Cyrus performs at the 2015 Adult Swim Upfront Party at Terminal 5 on May 13, 2015 in New York City. 

It's easy to try and define Miley Cyrus as an artist and person. It's more rewarding to understand her complexities.

There's a new collective line of thought that goes something like this: Miley Cyrus has shed her controversial ways, turned her focus to issues that matter, and more or less grown up. It's a captivating narrative! It's also very incomplete.

Two years removed from the start of her Bangerz era and Twerkgate at the 2013 VMAs, Cyrus has spent the past few months focused on a charity campaign, social politics, recording covers of rock classics and keeping her clothes on. Her Happy Hippie Foundation was founded to aid homeless youth and raise LGBT awareness, and has done so through taped "backyard session" performances alongside artists like Joan Jett, Ariana Grande and Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace. In recent weeks, Cyrus has ripped Indiana's discriminatory legislation, supported Bruce Jenner's quest for transgender awareness and made some forward-thinking comments about gender norms, while also declaring that she doesn't need a romantic partner to be happy. She's also covered songs by the Replacements and Crowded House, earning a new avalanche of indie cred.

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In her Vulture review of Cyrus' performance at the Adult Swim upfront party earlier this month, Lindsay Zoladz writes about spotting the look on someone else's face when they realize that Cyrus "might actually be something more than a twerking, smirking, Gremlin-esque Horsewoman of the Apocalypse." I, too, have come into contact with those looks -- the moment it dawns upon someone that Cyrus is a pop personality no longer worth dismissing for her boundary-pushing antics. Often, they chalk it up to the passage of time. "She's over 21 now," one friend told me recently -- as if being able to legally drink means that you're an adult and no longer the spawn of Satan.

The reality is, Cyrus was never a demon, and she's not a saint now. She's both extremely articulate and gloriously messy. She's neither a paradox nor an inconsistency. Cyrus defies categorization, like everyone does to some degree, and that's perfectly okay. The sooner we can collectively accept that, the easier it will be to "get" what Cyrus is doing.

That's not to say that Cyrus hasn't evolved, even since her Bangerz campaign began two years ago. The audaciousness of "We Can't Stop" and its music video, which set the Miley Cyrus 2.0 ball rolling two summers ago, was couched in uncertainty: it's easy to forget that Can't Be Tamed, Cyrus' project prior to Bangerz and her last before jumping labels, was a total misfire, and that "We Can't Stop" was a radical sonic departure that she initially doubted could be a hit. Cyrus projected a confidence in her new image and music, but lacked the track record to pair the teddy-bear backpacks with statements of substance, or the adult fan base to accept her outside-the-box ideas. In short, she needed to launch Bangerz with a radio hit or two in order to get our attention -- which is why she called Mike WiLL Made-It for her first single instead of Wayne Coyne.

One hit album and tour later, Cyrus' stardom is secure, she's doing what she wants personally (and musically), and no longer needs gimmickry to draw attention to her music. Instead, she's using her music, body and being to draw attention to the issues that mean something to her.

"When you have all eyes on you, what are you saying? And that's what I had to ask myself a lot," she said in a recent TIME interview. "It's like, I know you're going to look at me more if my (breasts) are out, so look at me. And then I'm going to tell you about my foundation for an hour and totally hustle you." Days after giving that interview, Cyrus was onstage at New York's Terminal 5, talking to a bunch of suits about her Happy Hippie foundation while wearing pasties at the Adult Swim upfront. It's the ultimate bait-and-switch: draw people in with fun party songs and provocative sexuality, and then talk to them about real issues. Lots of pop and rock stars do this -- Miley isn't the first one to have a cause. But she's the one currently completing the biggest 180 in terms of perceived substantiveness.

But here's the thing: as much as Cyrus' messaging has developed, these are not new characteristics. Her Happy Hippie foundation may be new, but youth homelessness has long been a cause for Cyrus, who sent a runaway onstage to accept her Video of the Year award at the 2014 VMAs last August. While Cyrus now has her own charity to stump for, she's been attending benefit concerts since her Hannah Montana days, released a Bob Dylan cover for Amnesty International in 2012, has been celebrated by Do Something for her various contributions and dropped half a million dollars at an AIDS Research auction last October. Her Replacements cover won raves from the Pitchfork set, but she's been covering Dolly Parton and Fleetwood Mac for years. And although her recent quotes about sexuality were tremendously impressive, she's been proudly wearing anti-homophobia attire long before Bangerz.

On the other side of the coin, Cyrus' wild-child impulses have not disappeared, thankfully. She's still posting NSFW photos and promoting the #FreeTheNipple campaign, reveling in the art of exposing her body after years of being the face of the Disney Channel. Cyrus recently covered Khia's "My Neck, My Back" -- one of the most sexually explicit hits in history -- and is still getting trippy with the Flaming Lips. Think she's appropriating black culture, or that she's glorifying drug culture? Cyrus doesn't give a damn -- she's going to keep doing what she wants. Cyrus will never be buttoned-up, especially now that she has the ability to do and say whatever she wants without risking the alienation of a young fan base.

And isn't Cyrus ostensibly more entertaining when she can't be pigeonholed? Miley's currently working on new music, and if anyone claims to have the vaguest idea as to what it will sound like or how it will be presented, they're lying. Cyrus has more freedom than ever before, and she's using it -- but she's still the same person she was two years ago. In 2013, she wasn't a vapid, tongue-wagging monster. In 2015, she's not an all-knowing role model. She's more than one three-word phrase, and that's all she wants to be. She's not being who you, I or anyone wants her to be. She's just being Miley.