Since time immemorial, pop music’s biggest players have boosted their profiles with the help of a little provocation. A few swings of the hip saw Elvis enthral 50s America, both aroused and appalled at the sight of gestures timid by today’s standards. Madonna’s dalliance with a Black saint in the “Like A Prayer” video garnered a personal telling off from Pope John Paul II, and the abrupt axing of a lucrative Pepsi deal.
Whether it’s a dirrty Christina writhing around on a boxing gym floor, or a blacked-out Britney taking jabs at a classless media, pop stars have always known how to leverage controversy in order to court attention. So when a 20-year-old ex-Disney kid chopped her locks and climbed atop a wrecking ball in 2013, it seemed like the typical pop star fare. But if the last decade of pop music has shown us anything, it’s that Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz just may have been the last, truly problematic era of pop superstardom.
Upon its release ten years ago, Bangerz generated a slew of headlines, drawing controversy mainly for cultural appropriation, as well as some choice collaborations with Robin Thicke and Terry Richardson. The video for “We Can’t Stop” dropped in June 2013, which saw a snarling Cyrus decked out in gold grills and acrylic nails, slicing off an electronic ankle monitor and getting “turnt up” with her “home girls”. While Cyrus’s performance of a nascent sexuality – in stark opposition to her squeaky-clean Hannah Montana image – was what riled up some, it was her seemingly newfound association with Black culture that leaves a lasting memory from that period. One of the main signifiers of Cyrus’s credentials was her love of twerking, as evidenced by the group of Black dancers surrounding her in the “We Can’t Stop” video. Popularised in the 1990s New Orleans bounce music scene, Cyrus’s adoption of the dance move was a way for her to raze the tween-pop reputation, emerging as a new woman with a brand new – if borrowed – attitude.
While the “We Can’t Stop” video introduced Cyrus’ new image, it was one infamous night at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards that truly twerked the world off its axis. By now, the performance is etched into legend: wearing a teddy bear leotard, Cyrus performed next to four plus-size Black dancers, flanking the singer as they all slapped their thighs in unison. Chants of “it’s we who ‘bout that life” ironically punctuated the pageantry, with Cyrus eventually pulling off her bear costume to reveal a flesh-toned latex two-piece underneath, before putting on a giant foam finger. A 36-year-old Robin Thicke, also known for being a frequent tourist of Black culture, then slinked onto the stage, Cyrus rubbing her foamy protrusion into Thicke’s crotch and periodically twerking against him. Every sassy finger wag and exaggerated neck roll, gestures conspicuously absent from Cyrus’ current repertoire, extended the performance into something both unreal and far too obvious. It was the literal performance of Cyrus’s crude idea of Blackness, played out on live television for millions to see. Shots of audience reactions in the broadcast are nearly as memorable as the performance itself; namely an immobile Rihanna, cooly attempting to disguise her confusion.
“Miley Cyrus twerks, stuns VMAs crowd,” said CNN in response. “Note to Miley Cyrus: Please stop,” begged The Hollywood Reporter. The reaction from the press was swift, but that didn’t really matter. The performance had already inspired 306,100 tweets per minute, and the exposure from the night allowed Cyrus to sell over 90,000 copies of her next single, a pop ballad called “Wrecking Ball”.
A music video for the new song was released two weeks after the VMA performance, the Richardson-directed clip that saw Cyrus dive head-first into her clunky metaphor, swinging naked on the titular building demolition tool. By then, Richardson already been accused of sexual assault by models he’d worked with, so his spearheading of Cyrus’s new sexually explicit image felt particularly insensitive. After “Wrecking Ball” followed “23”, a Mike Will Made It track of which Cyrus utilised her guest spot to rap-sing about being “in the club, high on purp, with some shades on”. The lyrical content, along with Cyrus’s adopted dirty south cadence, further exemplified the singer’s need to reassert herself as good-girl-gone-bad by way of Black culture. Bangerz landed on September 30, and although it was primarily a pop record, she continued to promote the album via the same associations: a gig hosting the MTV Europe Music Awards in November saw the singer smoke a spliff on stage, while on another guest feature, the will.i.am song “Feelin’ Myself”, Cyrus reminded us that she “get[s] on the floor just to make that booty twerk.”
For those who remember this time, the reaction to Cyrus’s antics was one of shock, but mostly at her wayward, contra-Disney image – any genuine accusations of appropriation were drowned out by the sound of pearl-clutching. But what makes the Bangerz era particularly memorable, is that the cultural conditions needed for the same thing to happen, in exactly the same way today, have changed forever. Bangerz was the last of its kind, a watershed moment in the problematic pop pantheon. Today, pop artists like Kim Petras flirt with the aesthetics of controversy, without fully committing to pop life unhinged. While it’s true that Lil Nas X generates controversy with videos like “Call Me By Your Name (Montero)”, where he rides a stripper pole to hell, the backlash is homophobic in nature – it’s not Nas that’s problematic, it’s the disapproving audience themselves. (The same goes for Sam Smith’s recent endeavours, too.)
In his Rolling Stone review of Bangerz, the journalist Jon Dolan opened by addressing Cyrus directly. “Way to kill it, Milez,” he writes. “Your VMA performance put the internet in traction, enraging liberals with its dicey racial burlesque and scandalising conservatives with its twerking-toward-Bethlehem decadence.” Today, the era wouldn’t be described in such a forgiving tone. Over the decade since Bangerz was released, the very idea of cultural appropriation has moved on to such a degree that Cyrus would be loading up a Notes app apology within minutes of leaving the stage. The Google trend chart for the phrase only began to climb in July 2013, and reached its peak in May 2018. With the onset of the Black Lives Matter movement following the Ferguson riots in 2014, the truth is that we live in a markedly different world in 2023 than we did in 2013, and this shift would exclude Bangerz from even existing.
In 2017, Cyrus caused fresh upset by claiming in a Billboard interview that she’d been “pushed out” of the hip-hop scene. “I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ – I am so not that.” Considerable backlash ensued, with many pointing out the irony of Cyrus dipping in and out of a scene that wasn’t hers to begin with. Even then, just four years after the MTV performance, the tide was beginning to turn against the displays that happened in 2013.
Cyrus herself even seemed to take heed. In 2019, she gave what turned out to be the first apology of the Bangerz era, albeit in the comment section of a YouTube video called “Miley Cyrus Is My Problematic Fave… Sorry”. “I want to start with saying I am sorry,” she wrote. “I own the fact that saying ‘this pushed me out of the hip hop scene a little’ was insensitive… I cannot change what I said at that time, but I can say I am deeply sorry for the disconnect my words caused. Simply said; I fucked up and I sincerely apologise.” The fact that the fallout from that era continued to follow Cyrus so many years later was further evidence that a cultural shift had taken place, and the conditions that allowed Bangerz to flourish were not really possible anymore.
@savvannhxx the light skin era was a slay and ahead of it's time #mileycyrus #lightskinera #disney #nostalgia ♬ original sound - wHerES.wA11y
What’s interesting, however, is that since the Bangerz era has been held to account over the past decade, it has since undergone a second, backwards reappraisal of sorts, by way of young people on TikTok. At the beginning of this year, a trend generally referred to as ‘Lightskin Miley era’ fondly looked back on the time, using lyrics from Cyrus’s verse on “Feelin’ Myself” as a soundtrack. “May be problematic but lightskin Miley ate every time I need her to return,” said one video. “Justice for melaniley she slayed,” said another. There are countless more videos, and almost every caption is some variation on the phrase “she cultural appropriATE!!” A comment by user ‘pragmagix’ on another video captures the sentiment of the trend perfectly: “Was it problematic? Yes. Does she still need to apologise? Of course. Were they bangers? Absolutely.”
The ‘Lightskin Miley’ trend reveals the uncomfortable truth within these discussions, in that sometimes the songs can be pretty undeniable. And despite their sheen of unseriousness, the videos contain within them a kernel of truth: some people really do want the ‘Lightskin Miley’ back, and would ignore accusations of cultural appropriation if the songs really were that good. Cultures move in cycles, and if the political values of a society tell an entire generation the music they enjoyed as children is appropriative and problematic, then there’s a chance those values might lurch rightward, and they begin to care less about things like cultural appropriation and the performance of Blackness. For now at least, those values hold strong, but who knows – the next Bangerz could be right around the corner.