When a cover is just a cover

On Miley Cyrus’ evolving aesthetics

(after Jessa Crispin’s Feminism in Lockdown)

1. A Shift in Aesthetics is Inevitable. Eight months into quarantine Miley Cyrus released a series of songs. Rather, covers of songs, performed against the backdrop of masked musicians and donned in a sequined dress made to look like snakeskin. She sports a blonde mullet, green eyeshadow and orange-red lipstick. She looks good, she melancholically stares off into the distance, she sways to the sound of her own voice.

When these cover songs first hit the internet, I spent hours listening to Miley do Cowboy Junkies’ ‘Sweet Jane,’ Pearl Jam’s ‘Just Breathe,’ and The Cardigans’ ‘Communication.’ Each she sang in her own way, adding and adjusting songs that weren’t in need of addition or adjustment, but reflected an emotional familiarity with the lyrics that I found intriguing, as if she had written them herself. From the 2020 Backyard Sessions I jumped to Miley’s version of The Cranberries ‘Zombie’ and then to Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass.’

I’d say that the starting point of Miley’s aestheticization started in 2012, with the first round of cover songs. This was the transition period from a Miley Cyrus (not as Hannah Montana) to a Miley Cyrus as the vocalist behind ‘Bangerz.’ In the Backyard Sessions (as they would come to be known) the 19-year-old Miley wears a Black maxi skirt, beige tank top, and her hair is tied up in a bun. She’s casual and unaestheticized. Her teeth are becoming straight, her arms still washed of their tattoos.

She performs ‘Jolene,’ the song her godmother, Dolly Parton, wrote and performed for the first time in 1974. There’s also Melanie Safka’s ‘Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma’ and Nina Simone’s ‘Lilac Wine.’ For that last one, Miley clutches a notepad in her lap, which she periodically looks toward when it seems like the words of Simone’s 1966 song might evade her. It is clumsy and definite, this trying on other’s songs to see if they fit. This aestheticization works because she’s white, and because, as Pharrell and Ariana Grande have both noted, Miley’s voice is singular. A cover, also known as another person’s song, becomes Miley’s when Miley sings it.

Three years later there’s another round of Backyard Sessions that hits Youtube, this time billed as “Happy Hippie Presents” in honor of her recently formed nonprofit organization that aims to reduce youth — and particularly LGBTQ+ youth — homelessness. This is the era of a queer-er Miley, both in the sense that her aesthetics have shifted further out and away from the norm and in the sense that she offered public statements of her non-cis gender and non-heterosexual sexuality. She wears jeans and a yellow leotard painted with an eponymous happy face. This time, the songs are hopeful, less about feeling broken or broken down and more about love, happiness, world peace, things the 22 year old felt she understood enough to sing about. She sings ‘Different’ with Joan Jett and ‘Androgynous’ with Jett and Laura Jane Grace. She welcomes the namesake of ‘Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,’ and she and Safka sing together what one can assume Safka only wrote for herself. There’s an inescapable irony in this, that Miley’s solo rendition of the song received 33.8 million views, while the co-led version three years later netted nine million; is it too obvious to claim that the cover of a song about artistic integrity becoming more famous than the original is both unsurprising and disappointing?

Then, in 2020, Miley appears in the “Social Distancers” aesthetic, marking another turn in the aestheticization of Miley, the throughline being that there is no throughline except for her body and the unspoken claim to trying on and discarding audio aesthetics.

2. The Search for Identity Involves Trying On Others’ Identities. Miley Cyrus is a popular musical artist by some measures of money and chart placements, though critically unacclaimed. In a review of Miley’s follow-up album to ‘Bangerz,’ Pitchfork wrote of ‘Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, “on the whole Dead Petz is a borderline unlistenable slog through dorm-room poncho bullshit and blissfully ignorant acid koans (“Can’t you see, all the clouds are dying?”), delivered earnestly from an ex-child star seemingly unaware of how fundamentally inseparable her own privilege is from her “do whatever the fuck you want all of the time” ethos, and enabled by a 54 year old who should know better.” It’s the album of a young and monied someone attempting to know themselves better — or ungenerously, at all — summed up by what another Pitchfork writer argued was talent without direction, passion without politicization, a daughter of both the famous and the phenomenon of fame itself, where chatter erupts in response to Miley being Miley, and without her having produced any art to tell us who that Miley is.

Doing covers is a kind of planned aesthetic obsolescence in which Miley gets to be whoever she wants for a period of time, shed her outer layers, and begin again. And we’ve seen this before. A Tennessee-born performer raised in Hollywood, Miley tried on multiple musical genres before she arrived at Plastic Hearts, a (I hesitate to say, “signature”) mullet, and ‘fuck everything’ rock attitude that seems highly informed by Jett.

Bangerz is the best example of this, possibly because it’s the most egregious. The album, largely produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, shepherded by Pharrell, and featuring songs written by Future and Big Sean, is how Miley tried on a Blackcent for an album, sold one million records, and departed. With ‘Bangerz’ Miley aestheticized Blackness so that she could return to her own whiteness with a renewed sense of what it meant to be herself, that is, not Black. ‘Bangerz’ didn’t reinterpret songs in the way that Miley’s covers do, but it was a whole album that borrowed (read: stole) from Blackness for the same end result as a cover: to slip into that which is not her own and emerge feeling grown by the experience.

After ‘Bangerz’ came ‘Dead Petz’ and from there a couple other albums that few talk about, reference, or sing to if the songs are not already playing on the radio (which they aren’t). There was a country-ish album called ‘Younger Now,’ which didn’t seem to fit her — her voice too pop, her aesthetic too not-country, her audience too ready for the next version of Miley. Interspersed within the slough of barely resonant albums are the covers, which Miley herself admits play a central role in her own artistic, and perhaps self, discovery. During Miley’s Super Bowl set during which she performed a medley of songs culled from different eras of her career, she explained, “covers have always been a big part of my set and my career and taking these songs and making them my own and I really believe that’s kind of a reflection of my life and my choices.”

The admission of the use of others’ songs as a mirror is telling for two reasons: the first is that it reveals Miley’s own awareness in her aesthetic shifting, and the second is that it seems to be working. The latest album, which features her covers of The Cranberries and Blondie, called ‘Plastic Heart’ (ever so reminiscent of that ‘Heart of Glass’ cover) seems to be the least-strained version of Miley to have arrived on our screens and in our ears. Part of that is due to a slightly deeper and raspier voice, one that can carry the notes of Hole’s ‘Doll Parts’ or Chris Cornell’s ‘Say Hello To Heaven,’ which she told Joe Rogan was a product of vocal cord surgery she required due to overuse. Even her instrument has undergone a redefinition to meet the latest Miley, an adaptation of audiological aesthetics that later informed what we see as well as what we hear.

3. Borrowing is Not Stealing. Though borrowing is still borrowing, and to that I say, to what end? It’s ineffectual to define whether or not these musical covers are better or worse than their originals, but they have surely come to define the body of work Miley is most known for (other than, of course, Wrecking Ball, which has over a billion views on YouTube). Yet some covers are done poorly, the effort behind which or lack of thought to credit the original artist is telling of Miley’s goal, i.e. whether she’s trying on (aesthetics) to self-discover or trying on to self-obscure.

At Miley’s Super Bowl performance this year, ahead of a completely fine rendition of ‘Angels Like You,’ Miley walks off stage briefly in search of a metal four legged stool. Speaking into the microphone she dictates, “The point of this is, is uh you know if someone doesn’t leave a seat for you at their table, just bring one of your own, and it’s even better when you put pictures of yourself all over it, and then you say, I didn’t wanna sit with you anyway.”

Trying on aesthetics without an awareness of the origin point of those aesthetics is less like borrowing and more like theft. The quote that Miley’s reaching for is Shirley Chisholm’s, the former presidential candidate and the first Black woman elected to Congress who once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.”

It’s not a bad sentiment, this idea of choosing to share a proverbial table with folks who really appreciate you, but it’s a watered-down sentiment, a stolen sentiment, and a poorly done cover. Many of the songs Miley covers were originally written by women who were abused, misunderstood, raised by families of their own choosing, and later mutilated by fame. Debbie Harry struggled with addiction in her adult life, Dolores O’Riordan too was addicted to alcohol and drugs. Miley’s covers are compelling because her performances make it seem like she wrote the words to ‘Doll Parts’ and ‘Zombie.’ That is, these performances connote the emotionality of someone who has struggled and someone who continues to struggle in their art and in the act of making oneself. Miley must know that the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus can never be truly self-made, and covering the self-manifestations of others is as close as she may get.

4. Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery. Yet Miley’s interest in stepping into other artists’ work proves that it can be dangerous not to know who you are, especially if figuring out who that person is involves experimenting with the versions of others. Often, these may be people who have done the work to know themselves (Safka), who may be punished for being themselves (Chisholm), who may be victims of anti-LGBTQ industry hate (Jett, Grace), and none of whom cover with abandon in the way Miley does.

Reinvention and recreation demand time, but more so they demand money. Miley’s ability to cover is made possible by her vast resources, and her covers in turn pull in capital needed to attempt further reinvention; to ignite new creative embers, to produce an aggregated facsimile of an aesthetic. But the urge to reinvent and recreate is different than creation itself, or the central dictum to being an artist, which is to create and bring into being those images and sounds in our bodies and minds into the material world.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and while I criticize Miley’s apparent need to cover, I confess that I like the covers. I don’t listen regularly to Safka, Jett, Grace or Cornell, but there’s something about listening to someone who so easily slips between musical worlds that’s giddy and grotesque and makes me want to press play again.

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