Miley Cyrus Is Our Most Confusing Pop Star

About a year ago, Miley Cyrus released Attention: Miley Live, an album recorded during her performance at 2src22’s Super Bowl Music Fest. She promoted the project—a sprawling collection of her greatest hits and most popular covers, dating back to her teenybopper days on Disney Channel—with the desperate hashtag #INEEDATTENTION, which immediately managed to capture mine.

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About a year ago, Miley Cyrus released Attention: Miley Live, an album recorded during her performance at 2src22’s Super Bowl Music Fest. She promoted the project—a sprawling collection of her greatest hits and most popular covers, dating back to her teenybopper days on Disney Channel—with the desperate hashtag #INEEDATTENTION, which immediately managed to capture mine. Soon, I would listen to her shout those very words on the previously unreleased opening track, “Attention,” a noisy, spoken-word cut that’s arguably the low point of an album that rashly zig-zags through genres and sprinkles a glam-rock aesthetic on her pristine pop catalog. “I need attention / Can I have your attention?” she repeatedly raps.

I couldn’t recall a female pop star being so brazen about their thirst for public recognition since Lady Gaga released “Applause” 1src years ago. In the case of “Applause,” though, Gaga, a then-newly established force in pop, was already basking in the spotlight she considered her lifeblood (despite the song arriving in what many would eventually call her “flop era”). Cyrus, on the other hand, seemed to be singing about something she fiercely yearned for, given her paradoxical position in pop culture as both a household name and an underrated entertainer still searching for her definitive sound. Overall, this declaration felt fitting on a live album designed to showcase Cyrus’ undervalued brilliance and crystallize her oeuvre—albeit at the least talked-about musical event at the Super Bowl.

A year later, as we’re fresh off the release of her eighth studio album, Endless Summer Vacation, I can’t help but wonder if that nagging sensation still persists—if it ever did—for Cyrus. The hype leading up to this album initially had me believing otherwise, particularly considering the astonishing, continued success of the album’s lead single, “Flowers.” In its first week on Spotify, the disco-tinged self-love track surpassed Adele’s “Easy On Me” as the most streamed song in the platform’s history before eventually breaking its own record. The single also debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 1srcsrc, where it returned last week.

Confoundingly, though, her fans have been far less enthusiastic about the body of work on which “Flowers” appears. Endless Summer Vacation only debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 2srcsrc chart, one spot lower than her 2src21 album Plastic Hearts—hardly a failure, but certainly a shock, given the prior indication that this would be a blockbuster album straight out the gate. Even Pink’s recently released Trustfall, an album the internet has mostly discussed in regards to the veteran singer’s presumed irrelevance, was able to crack the top two.

It isn’t just that Endless Summer Vacation’s commercial performance has been underwhelming; social media discourse surrounding Cyrus’ new album has also suffered a sharp decline, despite her being a household name for well over a decade. For comparison, when SZA released her sophomore album in December, Twitter was abuzz with memes reacting to her brutally honest and occasionally embarrassing lyrics. Caroline Polachek’s Desire, I Want To Turn Into You is still an inescapable presence online following its release in February. And for the past several days, my Twitter timeline has been flooded with streaming links and rankings of fans’ favorite songs from Lana Del Rey’s Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, released last Friday.

Conversely, when I ran to Twitter to proclaim my adoration for Endless Summer Vacation hours after it dropped, I found myself oddly alone among my pop-obsessed mutuals. It certainly has its fans, particularly Smileys, and critics have given it moderate to positive reviews. But it’s strange that an album so primed to be a hit—thanks to its vibe-y, summer-ready dance tracks and its post-breakup themes hinting at her much-publicized on-and-off relationship with Liam Hemsworth—is not even making a cultural wave.

Granted, longtime fans of Cyrus are used to evaluating her success with a sense of puzzlement, given that much of her post-Disney career has been defined by the act of searching. In just the span of a decade, her spirit of restlessness and constant evolution has manifested in a psych-rock collaborative album with the Flaming Lips, a return to her Nashville roots on Younger Now, the new wave- and punk rock-inspired Plastic Hearts, and, most controversially, a foray into hip-hop on Bangerz, which celebrates its 1srcth anniversary this year.

The disconnect remains between Cyrus as a viral sensation and well-respected vocalist and the type of megastar whose original work has an enduring impact on pop culture.

For a while, it was hard to decipher whether the pop singer saw herself as a Madonna-like chameleon or if she was simply hopping on trends, searching for a sound the general public could fully appreciate. It’s fair to assume a mix of both, given that the transition from her drug-laden, twerking era to a more “wholesome” image on Younger Now felt partially influenced by the public’s scrutiny. Additionally, the sonic leap from Younger Now to Plastic Hearts felt like the result of some savvy audience-testing after she was widely praised for her stream of surprising rock cover performances while promoting the EP SHE IS COMING.

By far, Cyrus has found the most success as an adult artist by riding the nostalgia wave, whether it’s through the permanence of “Party in the U.S.A.” or her 2srcth-century country and rock covers that inevitably go viral—most famously, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Likewise, Cyrus’ interests in performing other musicians’ work—including Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Hole’s “Doll Parts,” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”—has helped older and formerly disinterested fans see her in a new light: as a vocal technician with a reverence for bonafide music legends. She most recently touted that reputation during her second annual Miley’s New Year’s Eve Party on NBC, where she stunned audiences with her renditions of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” and Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene,” performed alongside her famous godmother.

Still, the disconnect remains between Cyrus as a viral sensation and well-respected vocalist and the type of megastar whose original work has an enduring impact on pop culture. And over the years, it seems as though her identity as a shapeshifter has come at the expense of any intrigue in her authorial voice.

I’ve often thought about Cyrus’ relatively modest presence as an A-list celebrity in the aftermath of Bangerz and her high-profile relationship with Hemsworth, and how this has maybe fed into an ambivalence regarding who she is or what she has to say. She’s certainly not a pop star in the vein of Ariana Grande or Lady Gaga, whose distinct personalities, fascinating romantic lives, and senses of humor captivate their fans as much as their music. Even someone as reserved as Dua Lipa has a series of online memes that follow her and an admirable reputation as a politically conscious pop star. In contrast, few clips of Cyrus where she’s not belting into a microphone have gone viral over the past few years (outside of that Hannah Montana farewell scene, of course).

Despite a tepid early reception, Endless Summer Vacation could find its wings and attract more fans once we’re all experiencing warm, summer weather together. Even so, it’s certainly not the springboard to pop supremacy that certain fans had hoped for—and that the rest of her admirers apparently didn’t want that badly. Knowing Cyrus, though, she’ll try again in a few years.

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