| Arts & Culture
Music The Evolution of Miley Cyrus Taught Me to Embrace Imperfection
“Plastic Hearts” was the album I needed to hear, articulating what no one else would tell me: My plastic was no longer serving me.
I grew up on a Saturday-morning diet of Hannah Montana .
My younger sister and I watched the Disney sitcom with such ravenous frequency that we could recite the dialogue of entire episodes from memory. Through our tweenage years in Midwestern suburbia, Hannah Montana was our icon—awkward enough to be relatable, always landing herself “in a jam” she had to wriggle out of, yet impossibly glamorous perched in her Malibu Barbie Pop Star Double Life On The Beach. Her songs were catchy; we memorized them effortlessly and found ourselves singing them in the shower without realizing it. She had a budding musical career, supportive friends, strong relationships with her brother and dad, and Dolly Parton as her godmother (never mind if her fictional mother was dead!). It was everything a girl could want.
Both on screen and off, she was endearing, reflexively apologetic, and parent approved. The show was sanitized of swearing—Miley’s choice words of frustration were “sweet niblets”—and though she had a few male suitors, sex was completely elided. The messages of Hannah Montana were wholesome: Her songs “Nobody’s Perfect” and “I’ve Got Nerve” were full of self-compassion and empowerment, but she never pushed the envelope too far. She always fit neatly into an idealized, slender shape of white femininity. She followed the rules established by society and by the adults in her life. If she ever broke them, she “learned from her mistakes.”
But of course, Miley Cyrus couldn’t exist in the restrictive confines of this Hannah Montana identity forever. My sister and I had listened to CD upon CD of Hannah, but we lost interest in the music as she shed the blonde wig and became Miley. She grew out of her narrow TV persona and into a complex, experimental, sexual adult, then received excessive attention on her appearance rather than her music. I felt that, just as I had been supposed to like her when she was Hannah Montana, I was not supposed to like her in this provocative incarnation. The new Miley was sexy, rule-breaking, and boundary-pushing, everything I thought I was not supposed to be as a Good Girl.
When “Wrecking Ball” came out in 2013, my high school English class spent an hour and a half discussing whether she could be a feminist clad in white panties and a sheer crop top, or salaciously licking a sledgehammer and straddling a wrecking ball full-on naked. The song climbed to number one not because the country appreciated Miley Cyrus’s musical talent, but because this prurient nation is obsessed with her body and exactly what she does with it.
As I grew older, I also participated in this preoccupation with how she looked rather than how she sounded, dressing up with my college friends one Halloween as “the stages of Miley Cyrus.” Sandwiched between “Party in the USA” Miley and “We Can’t Stop” Miley, I posed, seductively, for a photo as “Can’t Be Tamed” Miley, wearing dark, heavy eye makeup, tight black clothes, a choker, and feathers adhered to my unbrushed mane and body. We focused on the superficial, the plastic. We critiqued her hair. Her clothes. Her tongue. Her breasts. Her ass. Her twerk. We heard the music, but we weren’t listening. It was all about the packaging.
I have always felt pressure to look a certain way: thin thighs, flat stomach, prominent cheekbones—the lean, ectomorph body of a runner, the product of restraint and self-discipline. This pressure only intensified during the pandemic. As I self-isolated in my apartment through those early months of 2020, I became both more disconnected from the rest of the world and more controlled by my own thoughts. I slipped into a long-embodied, deeply buried eating disorder; I rationed food, limited my trips to the grocery store, and heeded the restrictions my illness demanded on what and when I could eat. With the onset of stay-at-home orders, everything in the world I thought was mine—job, friends, running, choices, body—was yanked out from under me, and I found myself grasping desperately for some sense of control. To my own destruction, I found it with food.
We heard the music, but we weren’t listening. It was all about the packaging.
If I ever had to refer to my eating disorder, I spoke of it only in the past, never naming it as the disease it is, never acknowledging it as the hyperpresent companion it had become. It was something that had happened A Long Time Ago, I said. And even as I gave breath to those words, I felt myself slowly being wrapped in the cellophane of my illness. One layer at a time, so that at first it wasn’t noticeable—just a shiny film before my eyes, a gossamer of plastic. The layers accumulated, warped and unrelenting. They distorted my perception of myself and obscured my perception of the world, so that I couldn’t see who I was outside of the impossible image I felt compelled to pursue. I became cocooned, packaged into what I thought was the right shape, squeezing my body into thin enough.
One afternoon in the midst of my worst days, I found myself on a run, tearing down Commonwealth Avenue in the heart of Boston as winter wind pulled salty streaks from my eyes, and I choked an exclamation into the vacant air: “Stop trying to make me eat.” The words tasted acrid and foreign in my mouth, unintentional and wrong, as if someone else had formed them, my body just the vessel articulating them into sound. I did not recognize who was speaking.
I felt trapped in my limbs, by the illness that encased me. When I ran my hands along my torso, I felt some approximation of my body, a shape that couldn’t be me. My skin felt numbed and artificial. Plastic.
And as suffocating and binding as my eating disorder was, it also served me. It was my protection: a flimsy barrier between myself and the rest of the world. It made me feel safe, and my denial that anything was wrong kept my anorexia, my depression, my every painful, volatile feeling hidden and tamed by a glossy sheen of I Am Okay.
In the midst of my anguish, Miley Cyrus released Plastic Hearts . Before this seventh studio album dropped on November 27, 2020, Miley’s music had largely fallen off my radar. I’d been aware of the arrivals of “Slide Away” and “Malibu” before it, each depicting a different painful stage of her failed marriage, but I had not listened closely to Miley Cyrus for years.
I listened to the album uninterrupted as my boyfriend and I drove from Boston into western Massachusetts, two days after spending our first Thanksgivings apart from our families. I’d been faced with the reality of being unable to travel home to Indiana during the pandemic, along with a reality I was less able to openly admit: I was unable to face my family for this holiday of eating and gratitude when I was clinically depressed and still raw from the initial stages of recovering from my eating disorder. So, I stayed put in Boston, desperate to escape myself or, when that proved impossible, at least my apartment.
We drove into the foothills of the Berkshires on an overcast morning, and, from start to finish, I surrendered to Plastic Hearts , immersed. Listening to Miley felt like a return to center, her voice matured and deeper, yet ringing with the unmistakable, familiar tone of Hannah Montana I’d known in my early teens. Listening was a nostalgic comfort and, at the same time, an invitation to jettison an identity that was hurting me, as Miley had done with her blonde wig. Through the album, Miley tells us a story. We have heard bits and pieces of it before, just as I have told bits and pieces of my own, but we have never heard it unfold in this way. It’s a fifty-minute rock ballad dripping with her gravel-flecked voice, her gravel-scarred life.
Plastic Hearts was the album I needed to hear, articulating what no one else would tell me: My plastic was no longer serving me. I felt the first layer of cellophane lift from my skin, peeling back all I had wrapped up.
Miley begins the album in the tornado of fame. The rage of “WTF Do I Know” gives way to the title track “Plastic Hearts,” which pulses with the pain she’s tried to numb: “I just wanna feel / I just wanna feel something / But I keep feeling nothing all night long,” echoing the emptiness that rattled around in the hollow case of my own self. For so long, I had not let food fill me, had not let feeling fill me. Yet as I listened, I felt powerful emotion trickle in with the admission that I was in pain. I grew porous to the world as I heard “Angels Like You,” its melody crooning and dark, reminding us of people we loved that were never right for us. She sings honestly, as she does on “High,” quavering without resolution, “And I don’t miss you, but I think of you and don’t know why.”
In “Never Be Me” and “Golden G String,” she is her own in every way, someone who will never be what the world wants, the body they want, the image they want. Authentic and self-possessed, Miley knows who she is, and that vibrates through this album in a way it doesn’t in her earlier music. I listened, hungry for this authenticity at the very moment when I felt like I was losing myself.
And Miley is all of herself on this album. She is freed from the confines of who she was expected to be, having stepped out of the restrictive shape she’d tried to fit into for so long. She is country and rock and pop, at once. She is throaty and raspy. She is belting but she is also quiet, forcing us to crook our necks and lean close. Sometimes she is Elvis Presley and Britney Spears and Dolly Parton. Sometimes she is Stevie Nicks and Joan Jett and Billy Idol. But she is always Miley Cyrus. Famous, in love, heartbroken. Too high, too drunk, exposed and unpolished, figuring it out as she goes. Her music brims with Cyrus: “Can’t Be Tamed” Miley, “We Can’t Stop” Miley, “I’ve Got Nerve” Miley, “Midnight Sky” Miley. She unwrapped herself for fifty raucous minutes and gave that time to us in a defiant pandemic anthem.
My plastic was no longer serving me.
Starving, I devoured it.
It is too easy to slip into a sheath of plastic in this interminable pandemic, each of us in our own protective coating, each of us resorting to our own tired mechanisms of defending our overburdened bodies and minds from feeling too much, too deeply. We are surrounded by pain and loss, yet our own isolation offers some flimsy protection. There is some solace in shielding our vulnerabilities from the world, grieving privately within the confines of ourselves. I have lived many years this way—hiding behind a delusion that I was okay, so long as I looked this way, followed these rules, let no one in. And finally, humanly, I realize it is not enough.
This is not the story of a recovered person, though I hope it will become that story. Today, I’m just peeling off a single cellophane layer. I’m remembering how to feel. How to hear my own thoughts rather than the thoughts produced by my illness, which I mistook for mine for over a decade. I’m unlearning and relearning and learning for the first time. I’m in it now, this body made not of plastic, but of muscle and song.
This is my pandemic anthem, and it’s not about plastic hearts or plastic skin. It is not about saving face, but shedding face. It’s about the agonizing, euphoric work of being fully alive. Stripping down. Owning the rough and the silken. I am all of it, in this one radiant life.
I listened to Miley’s “Hate Me” on my walk home from work a few days ago. The streets were piled with heavy gray snow, and the wind tore, sharp across my face. Walking alongside a concrete building in an already-bleak landscape, I slipped into the music’s magenta wave. Miley imagines, in deep, vibrant pink, how the world might react if she died after a lifetime of enduring criticism for her every action, lyric, body part: “Maybe that day, you won’t hate me,” she sings.
I imagined how I might live my days if I did not have the incessant criticism of my illness knocking around in my head, gripping my wrists, snaking around my ribs. It is a “maybe that day” thought, a distant-feeling scenario, but my hunger for healing is deep, and my craving for feeling vast. I am breaking my own rules around food and running. I am freeing and feeling my colorful self. I am listening to Miley sound like Miley, and I am listening to my voice sound more like my voice.