Miley’s Mysterious Stage Presence– ACL 2021
Beams of color struck the fog— rainbow mist fell over the sweaty, roaring crowd. Miley Cyrus took the stage at ACL in a ruby red bodysuit, her aura glistened, sparkles surrounded her luminously. Everyone looked up to their idol, each of them seeing a refracted version of the same person. From Hannah Montana, to the rebellious punk who contributed to the popularization of twerking, to the mature 28-year-old woman who stood before us that day– Miley has undergone quite the character arc. Throughout the show, her stage persona underwent multiple costume changes. The audience left singing her praises. But as I walked away, my ears ringing from the bass of former pop hits, I wondered: Who is Miley actually?
Miley is someone who has been under the public’s microscope for half of her lifetime. She has accumulated many fans over the different eras of her life. Amongst her audience that night were the little girls who performed 7 Things (2008) on their karaoke machines, the reckless teens who partied to We Can’t Stop (2013), and perhaps their parents who appreciated the cover of Blondie’s Heart of Glass (1978). Miley had to appease them all, and she managed to do so relatively well. But there must have also been some viewers like myself who found her persona to be inauthentic. Her philosophical interludes were vague enough to resonate with everyone. Miley was dead on when she foretold the audience that: “The only thing constant is change.”
The inconsistent personality Miley performed that night seemed to be a live negotiation between the contrasting ways that the audience saw her. For the most part, she came across as very serious, but in brief moments her tongue-in-cheek self came through. Right when things would get preachy, she would pull up her body suit in the back to show the audience her ass. Clearly, she was doing this to get the attention of the fans who had come to know her during her crazy phase that had zoned out during her speech. Even though I believe that aspects of identity can conflict with one another and do change moment to moment— everything Miley said sounded scripted, like it was clearly intended to manipulate the audience’s perception of her. The Miley that fans met that night is a curated image who was constructed to please the masses. Unable to be her true self, Miley must abide by a script to please her diverse demographic. In other words, she has had to set a boundary between who she truly is and her public persona to avoid backlash. In the past, her PR team has orchestrated quite the reputation clean-up. Now they must work to secure Miley’s lasting status as an icon. This is much different than younger performers like Billie Eilish who are much more carefree throughout their performances.
The audience at ACL swooned over Billie Eilish’s quirky yet adorable preoccupation with the grasshopper that found its way onstage. They laughed as she candidly swung a fan’s bra over her shoulder. She was natural, conversational, and as fans, we felt connected to her. These little moments are cherished by the audience because they emulate what it might be like to have a conversation with Billie. She can be her true self in front of her fans because she hasn’t received nearly as much hate. Miley, on the other hand, has had many scandals over the years. She is someone who has pushed society’s ideological boundaries to the max. Miley has sought public redemption in the past, and I’d imagine she has been fairly traumatized by this experience. I believe Miley’s inauthentic stage persona is a direct result of the public scrutiny she has undergone. As someone who values authenticity, I feel sympathy for her; Miley can’t let loose and truly be herself in the public eye.