If the 22-year-old is still experiencing a rebellious phase, it's one that's going on three years and perhaps reached its apex earlier that evening when Cyrus hosted the VMAs. In two and a half hours on the air (with a seven-second delay), the former star of Hannah Montana beefed with Nicki Minaj, flashed her breasts and lit a joint, all the while mocking her very credentials as the night's MC. (Viewership for the live broadcast was down nearly 40 percent, according to Nielsen.)
"She's one of the great provocateurs of her generation," says Entertainment Tonight executive producer Brad Bessey, who described leading the following morning's staff meeting with a stressful scramble: "How much of this are we going to have to put bars over to get past the censors?"
The Parents Television Council's obligatory denouncement aside, it seems audiences, and certainly the media, have become either numb or increasingly accepting of Cyrus' status as exhibitionist and unapologetic button-pusher. And like the pop star herself, they’re less concerned with whether or not there is an album behind it.
Indeed, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, the singer's self-released psychedelic project with art-rockers The Flaming Lips, had a muted reception and won't qualify for the Billboard 200. (SoundCloud also doesn't factor into Billboard's streaming tallies.) It did, however, help boost her social numbers in the VMAs' wake. Cyrus earned a 2,300 percent spike in YouTube subscribers when compared with a week prior, and a 54 percent gain in Instagram interactions. Cyrus' Twitter followers increased by 17 percent to 22.6 million. Solid live stats for a celebrity, but not necessarily effective for RCA, the label looking ahead to her next proper album, which is still far off in the distance. Despite having reteamed with collaborator Mike Will Made It on eight to 12 tracks, progress has been "slow-going," says a source, with no release date in sight. The record company, meanwhile, anxiously waits out this sonic sojourn in hopes of finding another Bangerz on the other side.
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By all accounts, that 2012 album, Cyrus' first — and, so far, only — studio set for the Sony-owned label, was a home run with 1.1 million copies sold, according to Nielsen Music. "We Can't Stop," a track passed over by Rihanna, reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, while "Wrecking Ball" snagged the top spot for three weeks. Its success helped justify a pricey partnership between Sony and producer Dr. Luke, and launched the career of Atlanta's Mike Will, who has gone on to win Grammy Awards and work with Fergie, Big Sean, Mariah Carey and Minaj. He also is credited on five Dead Petz tracks.
While genre-hopping is not uncommon for young and still-developing artists, Cyrus' musical direction remains a mystery. Her recent features include tracks by such rappers as Future and Rae Sremmurd's Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy, whom she joined in a sweaty clip for the Mike Will song "Drinks on Us," alongside cameos by Wale, French Montana and Juicy J. But she also has worked with the electro-inclined Phantogram and Moby, who tells Billboard, "What she's doing musically is more interesting than any other pop musician on the planet. Makes me think that all pop musicians should make pilgrimages to Oklahoma and Wayne's compound."
In fact, if she's pushing anything these days, it's pot. "We love Miley," says High Times magazine editor-in-chief Dan Skye, who credits Cyrus' "outspokenness and unabashed willingness to enjoy herself" as one of many reasons the marijuana community has embraced the pop star. And certainly co-signs from such stoner icons as Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa don't hurt. "It's time to make her stoner of the year," Skye adds enthusiastically.
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Such endorsements don't exactly play to the mainstream crowd, and Cyrus, it seems, could not care less. "She should continue to set the tone with her wild fashion and cultural thoughts," says one insider. "Work with Kevin Parker from Tame Impala or Blake Mills or Poly Boy, who produced E-40's 'Choices (Yup).'"
"Miley is like Madonna — she’s very aware of what she’s doing and makes a lot of strategic decisions,” adds Bessey. “But you could also compare her to Patti Smith in that she’s very much an authentic voice. Miley is going to say and do what she wants, whether it impacts her career positively or negatively."
Radio personality Chris Booker of Los Angeles' KAMP-FM concurs. "If you stripped away the clothes, the antics, the shtick and looked at the person standing there, you’d see an immensely gifted artist," he says. "She can sing better than 75 percent of the acts on pop radio. She can act effortlessly, she's charming and her presence is off of the charts. She’s an artist for the 21st century and they look a little different than they used to."
Additional reporting by Eve Barlow.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 19 issue of Billboard.