Miley Cyrus knows how to keep people guessing — she’s done it for more than half of her life, ever since she became a teen queen on Disney cultural juggernaut Hannah Montana. In those days, she displayed a proclivity for messing with people’s expectations — whether she was orchestrating that headline-baiting sexy Vanity Fair cover at 15, or showing she already was struggling with the expectations that came with being a Disney Good Girl (recall the outrage among parents when Hannah Montana shared that her favorite show was Sex and the City).
That’s why it was no surprise when Cyrus was able to reintroduce herself, dominating media coverage in the back half of 2013 with a twerk-and-tongue-filled VMA performance that she parlayed into more interest in her upcoming adult-sounding, well-reviewed album Bangerz. The question that followed her at the time, however, was how she could keep it up. When your apparent shtick is to shock, there comes a point when it becomes routine, and — for viewers and for listeners — there may be a point where they tune out. See: Cryus’ raunchy Bangerz tour special, which aired on NBC in July and bombed in the ratings.
So the stage was set for another transformation, and transform she did, wearing a conservative-ish all-black ensemble at the 2014 VMAs Sunday where she won the Moonman for Video of the Year. Of course, it was the speech afteward that really generated interest: By sending homeless teen Jesse up to accept the award on her behalf — and with a tearful Cyrus looking on — she signaled a new act in her career. “I feel like the VMAs gave me a platform to use my voice, and these people don’t have a voice right now…Last year, no matter how much people talk about [my performance], you don’t feel full,” Cyrus explained to reporters backstage. “I feel completely full.” On Facebook after the performance, Cyrus stated that this wasn’t just a one-time photo op. “This is just the beginning for me,” she shared, before directing people to My Friend’s Place, a homeless center for young people in Hollywood. The transformation to Miley Cyrus, Consciousness-Raiser had begun.
Obviously, there will need to be a wait-and-see approach to the 21-year-old’s next moves, but for fans, it’s certainly an encouraging sign as to the upcoming direction for the rabblerouser/legitimately talented singer. It appears Cyrus will be following the Madonna/Lady Gaga model as opposed to the just-the-music antics of Katy Perry. (This isn’t to say Perry doesn’t promote good in the world; she simply doesn’t make it a prominent part of her public persona.) Think instead of Lady Gaga’s Born to Be Brave Campaign and her focus on body positivity, or the role Madonna held in the ’80s and ’90s directing attention toward many controversial issues, including early support for gay rights. An encouraging sign for this potential new Miley: Celebrities famous for their work on social issues, such as Susan Sarandon and Maria Shriver, have already tweeted praise at her. (Caveat: For this transformation to fully work, Cyrus also needs to educate herself a bit about cultural appropriation, among other issues.)
Picture it: How great would it be if, over the next few years, she fully harnesses the pop-culture power of “Miley Cyrus” to become an Angelina Jolie type: as famous for her art as she is for the way she uses her voice? As crazy as that sentence is to type — and clearly, one good deed isn’t all it takes — let’s just remember that in 1999, Jolie was best-known as a blood-vial-wearing “weirdo” who kissed her brother at the Oscars, among other “wild girl” behavior. Years later, Jolie explained her public transformation into global humanitarian, saying she had all this energy and didn’t know where to channel it. Fingers crossed Cyrus channels that famous tongue into a worthy voice.