Over the past year, I have become familiar with a particular look that appears on someone’s face when they are considering for the first time that Miley Cyrus might actually be something more than a twerking, smirking, Gremlin-esque Horsewoman of the Apocalypse. I saw it on my dad’s face a few months ago when we watched SNL 40 and a surprisingly clothed Miley performed a surprisingly excellent cover of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” making great use of her growly twang. I saw it on the faces of a few friends last week, when we were talking about Miley’s cover of the Replacements’ “Androgynous,” trying to square away our past perceptions of a vacuous Hannah Montana with the startlingly progressive comments Miley has made recently about her gender and sexuality. And I saw it on the faces of a few companions Wednesday night, as we all took in Miley’s bold and brilliantly bonkers performance at the Adult Swim upfront party at Terminal 5.
I went mostly out of curiosity: Now that it’s been about two years since “We Can’t Stop,” what would Miley Cyrus even play at this sort of thing? The answer is a little bit of everything: Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” a new song with the Flaming Lips, “A Boy Named Sue,” “A Day in the Life,” a stripped-down piano-ballad version of her song “Drive,” an arrangement of Bangerz’ title track that reimagined it as a reggae song (and provided occasion for her to light a cigar-size blunt and pass it around the front row), and, yes—the only song in the set that catered to the crowd’s expectations—a faithful version of “We Can’t Stop.” Miley is a versatile enough vocalist to make all of this work, somehow. And at almost every turn, the eclectic and uncompromising performance felt like a bit of a fuck-you to anyone who’d come to catch a glimpse of a more polished and conventionally sexy pop star. “I lived a life where I had to be something every day and had to be a character,” Miley said this month in a Time interview, “and it wasn’t necessarily who I wanted to be. And now I’ve dedicated my life to being whoever it is that I want to be, and also constantly learning and evolving.”
It’s also been nearly two years since VMA-gate and the ensuing media maelstrom, but Miley does seem to have learned and evolved quite a bit since then—love her or hate her, she’s no longer someone you can dismiss as an empty-headed pop star with nothing to say. “I see a lot of people in suits here,” she told the kinda-stuffy crowd on Wednesday, “Which tells me that you have some money to spare.” She then gave an impassioned spiel about her Happy Hippie foundation, which raises money for homeless (and particularly LGBT) youth. But I also began to wonder if the charity, and discussion around it, has finally given Miley the vocabulary to talk more honestly about her own privilege—a vocabulary she’s been sorely lacking any time she’s been criticized for breezily appropriating black culture. During Wednesday night’s Happy Hippie monologue, she told us how grateful she felt to be able to “stand up here with [her] titties out” while she’s living among people who are driven out of their homes because of who they love. “I Have a Dream” this was not, but it still felt like a promising baby step forward.
More than anything, though, it’s pretty thrilling to watch a female pop star project a sexuality that’s so gleefully liberated from the straitjacket of femininity. The Miley I saw Wednesday night walked around with a cocksure swagger, even as she was dressed as a glitter-bombed butterfly with pink pasties—a pantomime of femininity so over-the-top it almost felt like drag. (She told the crowd that she always gets her costume ideas “about two days before the show” and fittingly dedicated the night to Amazon Prime.) Toward the end of the set, she covered Khia’s “My Neck, My Back,” seeming to take extra enjoyment in telling the audience of suits to “lick [her] pussy.” Many of them seemed unsure of how to take this. (“Tough crowd,” she’d muttered earlier in the night, and she wasn’t wrong.) “Do you know how many times a day I turn on the radio and it’s some guy telling me to suck his dick?” she asked. I was delighted by how few people cheered, and how many people seemed to genuinely squirm. New Miley doesn’t fucking care if you like it; new Miley is on some Amy Poehler shit.
Or maybe she has been for a while—we just didn’t know how to talk about it. After the VMAs, the media was quick to trot out the old-fashioned female pop-star arc—the Britney narrative—to chastise Miley for her supposed fall from grace. But as time goes by, Miley is proving herself to be something more empowered: an active agent of her own sexuality, presenting pleasure not as something to be granted to those who look upon her, but something she allows herself to feel. I don’t trust Miley to be an exemplary progressive role model at every turn—part of the fun is that she is, unabashedly, a little too sloppy for that—but it’s been nothing short of fascinating to watch her figure all of this out in public. The peace-tongue is starting to talk back, and I for one am curious to hear whatever it has to say next.