Why Miley Cyrus’s Newest Era Might Be Her Most Authentic Yet

Photo: James Devaney/GC Images, Kevin Mazur/WireImage, Frazer Harrison/Getty Images. Design: Allison Kahler/STYLECASTER.

The name Miley Cyrus means something different to everyone. To some, she is and will always be Hannah Montana: the pre-teen ingenue who scored the role of Disney’s Channel’s latest It-girl. To others, she’s the long-haired beauty who declared she “couldn’t be tamed” while wearing crop tops and short shorts. Then, of course, there are those who will never unsee her controversial twerking moment with Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs. And let’s not forget about her recent stripped-down version, singing about her country roots and life in Malibu.

The other week, I was scrolling through Instagram when I came across the music video for Cyrus’s new song, “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart.” I thought to myself: “Which Miley is this now?” I’m 24, so I’ve been following Cyrus through every phase of her career, but I realized that there was something about the song, its lyrics and this Miley that was unfamiliar.

With lyrics like “This world can hurt you/It cuts you deep and leaves a scar/Things fall apart, but nothing breaks like a heart,” I realized that Cyrus is different. She’s no longer a teenybopper in a Disney machine. She’s not skirting cultural appropriation controversies with hip-hop producers. And she’s not rebelling with over-the-top antics. She’s cool, politically aware and showing the world her vulnerability in a way she never has before. She isn’t trying to shock her fans. She doesn’t have anything left to prove. She’s not trying to be someone she’s not. She’s simply being Miley, and that’s why I think this could be her most successful era yet.

Cyrus and I are only two years apart, but that’s easy to forget when it feels like she’s lived like an adult since she hopped on the scene. She was cast in Hannah Montana at 14 years old and then began promoting her music and Hannah’s music simultaneously. That’d be confusing for an adult to reconcile, let alone a child. As illustrated in songs like “The Other Side of Me,” Hannah Montana followed a teenage girl who’s living a double life as a pop star. (“So many times I forget/Who’s on stage, who’s in the mirror,” Cyrus sings as Hannah in the song.) But I can’t help but wonder if Cyrus was also living a double life at the time. Was the person the world grew to love the real Miley or just the Miley we—and Disney—wanted her to be?

Was the person the world grew to love the real Miley or just the Miley we wanted her to be?

In 2008, Cyrus came out with her first solo album, Breakout. No Hannah. Just Miley, “In my last record, I had to introduce myself, and now that people already know who I am and know a little bit about me, this is just, you know, getting to know me personally,” Cyrus said of her music at the time.

She declared her 2010 album—Can’t Be Tamed—her last pop album before creating new music for RCA Records following her split with the Disney-owned Hollywood Records. It was 2010, a year before Hannah Montana ended, and Cyrus was daring the world to take issue with her new choices. She appeared on her album cover in a crop top with low-riding pants and a leather jacket. All black. Dark makeup. Sultry. She even broke out of a literal cage in her music video for “Can’t Be Tamed.” This was clearly a new, older, sexier Cyrus. “I’m a completely different person,” she told MTV at the time. “I was going through a lot when I was younger. I didn’t really know myself, and there are so many people telling you who you should and shouldn’t be. That’s what Tamed is about. It’s about being who you are to the full and now I know who that is.”

Cyrus isn’t trying to shock her fans. She doesn’t have anything left to prove. She’s not trying to be someone she’s not.

Cyrus was an 18-year-old declaring that she knew who she was. (She didn’t before, but she does now! Promise!) But people should have seen the writing on the wall. It wasn’t that long ago when the world watched Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan rebel against the box that came with being a child star. In fact, in a 2008 Vanity Fair article, Cyrus even came to Spears and Lohan’s defense. “I think most 21- to 25-year-olds go through this kind of thing,” Cyrus said. “Basically, they’re being normal 21-year-olds… I guess that’s why I’m so adamant about the Britneys and Lindsays and whatever, because I know those people, and I know they have good hearts and they’re struggling.”

So was that it? Was Cyrus just a girl with a good heart who struggled? That’s one explanation for what happened at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. To this day, that performance, which involved her twerking against Robin Thicke in a bear leotard, is one of the most controversial moments in the singer’s history. She put herself in the pop-culture canon right up there with Spears shaving her head and kissing Madonna. The then-20-year-old defended her performance in a 2013 interview with MTV: “I don’t pay attention to the negative because I’ve seen this play out so many times. Madonna’s done it. Britney’s done it. Every VMA performance, that’s what you’re looking for; you’re wanting to make history.”

And make history she did. Her career took a 180 after that performance, and it wasn’t long until she became music’s hot new thing. Her 2013 album Bangerz became a success, with the help of producer Mike Will Made It, and Cyrus released two of her highest-charting songs to date, “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball.” Hell, even Britney Spears provided guest vocals for Cyrus’s album. Talk about coming full circle.

For Cyrus, there was one mission: Erase her past. “Right now, when people go to iTunes and listen to my old music, it’s so irritating to me because I can’t just erase that stuff and start over,” she told Billboard at the time.  “My last record I feel so disconnected from—I was 16 or 17 when I made it. When you’re in your 20s, you just don’t really know that person anymore.”

She continued, “A lot of people wanted to try to make me the white Nicki Minaj. That’s not what I’m trying to do. I love ‘hood’ music, but my talent is as a singer.” Now, I could write an entire dissertation unpacking that comment and Cyrus’s use of black culture to reinvent herself as a new artist (believe me, there’s a lot to say), but for now, I’ll leave it at this: Cyrus was willing to stop at nothing to distance herself from her past. Maybe she really didn’t know who she was at 18 after all.

Fast-forward to present day, and it’s hard for me to reconcile the Cyrus I see in the “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” video with the multiple Cyruses we’ve been confronted with in the past. She’s clearly not trying to lean into her Tennessee roots anymore like she did on her country-tinged album, Younger Now, in 2017. That was a one-off (a not very profitable one-off, I might add). Now, Cyrus seems to be embracing causes close to her heart—like political activism. She is vocal about combating homelessness through her organization, the Happy Hippie Foundation. And she and fiancé Liam Hemsworth also recently donated $500,000 to Malibu fire victims after they lost their home themselves.

Maybe Cyrus is a little broken. Maybe she doesn’t know what’s next for her. Maybe that’s the point.

When I was watching her new music video, it was impossible to ignore the sight of her watching priests receive lap dance in a strip club or driving past a row of kneeling football players on a freeway. What statement is she making now? Which Miley is this now? “This burning house, there’s nothing left/It’s smoking, we both know it,” she sings. “We got all night to fall in love/But just like that we fall apart/We’re broken, we’re broken.”

Maybe Cyrus is a little broken. Maybe we all are. Maybe she doesn’t know what’s next for her. Maybe that’s the point. She recently revealed that she reunited with Mike Will Made It again on her upcoming album. So I guess her hip-hop days aren’t entirely behind her, even though she went on the record criticizing the genre as a whole. She’s 26. She’s controversial. And you know what? She’s not the It-girl she once was. When it comes to female pop stars, it’s a crowded space. But that’s not stopping her.

The other day, when I was telling my coworker how excited I was to listen to Cyrus’s new rendition of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” she didn’t even realize that Cyrus was releasing new music. I told her about the new direction it seems Cyrus is taking, and she responded, “Miley? She’s just doing her thing.” I couldn’t agree more.