The evolution of Miley Cyrus (and why you shouldn’t blame her for last night’s hot mess)

miley cyrus mtv vmas 2015 hosting
Photography by Michael Tran/FilmMagic

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This year’s MTV Video Music Awards seemed positioned for success. MTV deftly marketed last night’s awards show around their selection of Miley Cyrus as a host, a pick that served as a one-two publicity punch: it reminded viewers of the tongue-flapping, gyrating, outspoken celebrity culture the show is famous for showcasing (no one can forget the sight of Cyrus on stage with Robin Thicke in 2013), and it also pulled Cyrus out of the woodwork and positioned her for a comeback—one that was thwarted by the VMAs desperate, cloying attempts to be controversial and relevant.

Cyrus has, after all, been relatively under wraps in the celebrity world, up until her publicity for the VMAs—in her own words she hasn’t really worked for two years while she engages in self-discovery. That self-discovery, perhaps came out of a need to recover from her wild-girl debut of a few years ago, when she shocked everyone by cutting her hair, ditching her fiancé, straddling a wrecking ball and releasing her fourth album, Bangerz.

Perhaps because it’s a move we’ve seen before, the clean, young pop-star girl turning to statement-making, sexualized woman (“I’m a Slave 4 U,” anyone?), this didn’t feel particularly ground-breaking or original, but what does seem significant, is the Cyrus we’d been seeing as of late. While she still sports the same avant-garde, Jeremy Scott clothing, she has spoken calmly and clearly about issues like her pansexuality and her recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel felt fresh and relatively unexpected.

While she engaged in her typical performative garb and behavior on Kimmel (she arrived wearing pasties and discussed her time on nude beaches), she also did a hilarious bit where she disguised herself as an Australian reporter and questioned pedestrians on their opinions of Miley Cyrus. It was a bit that harkened back to her days of being Hannah Montana, and a reminder that Cyrus is, actually, a pretty fun, hilarious performer—a zany, fun-loving character that reminds you of the best friend you had as a kid who was the best at playing pretend, even if she always got you in trouble. Cyrus, it seemed, had come into her own, nip slips and all.

But then, last night’s VMAs happened, and the world experienced Cyrus not as entertaining and glib, but as awkward, over-scripted and boxed in, dragged along for the bleak, drawn-out charade of a tired awards show desperate for viewers.

Cyrus’s monologues and sketches felt insincere: her bit with Snoop Dogg, in which they shared “brownies” and he turned into her pet pig, was so PC it could have been played on Nickelodean, and Cyrus’s final performance of her song. “Doo it!”, felt like a familiar acid trip visited so many times before that it’s lost it’s hallucinogenic spark.

The two moments of press-worthy, genuine tension where Miley could have improvised and hit her stride were weirdly glossed over in a grit your teeth, get-through the show kind of way: her answer to Justin Bieber’s tears was to tell him to call her when he’s legal, and her confrontation with Nicki Minaj was over in a blink of an eye.

The internet and the public, of course, have attacked Miley’s presentation skills the day after the awards ceremony—my friend posted on Facebook about it, calling her “trash” that inspired her to change the channel. But I’m not so sure— I think, given the proper platform, Cyrus could become her own sort of wilder Katy Perry/Lady Gaga, an androgynous, loud-mouthed musician (who still has an incredible voice, by the way) so bizarre and fun that she beats out her competition.

Her shakey performance last night is not her own fault, but that of MTV and the VMAs, who so forcibly tried to make Cyrus act like Cyrus that her essence was lost. Instead of allowing comedic, outrageous moments to occur organically—having Cyrus go into the audience to interact with her peers, for example, or having blocks of minutes allotted for her to go off-script—they poorly exaggerated her familiar character traits until even her signature Jeremy Scott garb grew tired.

What MTV seemed to forget is that the best moments of awards shows—and the reason they’re appealing to watch live—are the mistakes and loose lips, the unscripted performances and speeches of celebrities and musicians who usually only communicate through publicist-dictated sound bites. Now, perhaps, they’ll know better, and Cyrus, freed of the award show shackles, will go on to continue her comeback and just be Miley. After all, she can’t be tamed.

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