In October 2013, I went on a first date that ended with me arguing about Miley Cyrus with someone I would never see again. Although it was already two months after Cyrus’s infamous set at the 2013 VMAs, the performance was still very much on my mind, as I was four months into my M.A. in performance studies at NYU—and was relishing in the first (and only) experience in my life of being enmeshed in a department of fellow queerdos who wanted to deeply analyze and dissect sound, performance, and visuality as much as I wanted to. Originally, I had felt very excited about the date. “She’s a teacher and she likes tea,” my friend had said of the person their partner at the time (who would later go on to become the touring drummer for one of our favorite bands) had set me up with. And so I met up with this person on a beautiful autumn evening in downtown Brooklyn for some wood oven pizza and, I hoped, good conversation. “So you identify as ‘queer’?” she asked after we had ordered pizza. “That’s trendy.” “Except I’ve been identifying as ‘queer’ for six years now,” I replied, feeling the date already go in a direction that suggested we would probably not be meeting up again. For whatever reason, I agreed to get a drink with my date after dinner at the bar next door, where I ordered whatever cup of Celestial Seasonings tea they had available while she had an alcoholic beverage. Somehow, we started talking about the Miley Cyrus VMAs performance. “I think it was super appropriative,” I remember saying. “I think she is young—and didn’t know better.” And that’s when the date was done. Later, my friend would say that my date had described me as “biking very quickly into the distance, never looking back.” When I teach Cyrus’s 2013 VMAs performance in my Race, Gender, and Pop Music class, I often tell students this story, in an attempt to paint my experience of this moment in pop—and queer—culture for them.
All of this will be relevant as I move through this piece.
Plastic Hearts is admittedly the first album cycle during which I’ve closely kept up with what Cyrus is doing. While I often teach about Cyrus in the Bangerz era, I have never felt any kind of close personal connection with her or her music. At 33, I am a few years too old to have grown up with Hannah Montana, who my sister, at four years younger than me, had as an entry point into Cyrus’s career as a whole. As with Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die (which my sister would play for me for the first time in December 2013, as I was grieving the sudden death of one of my professors at NYU), I would be late to the party for Plastic Hearts, somehow missing just how much “Midnight Sky” sounds like Stevie Nicks’s “Edge of Seventeen.” In fact, it wasn’t until Cyrus did a cover of “Zombie” by the Cranberries on October 18th that I would suddenly find myself extremely interested in what Cyrus would be doing next.
The recording begins by framing Cyrus, who appears on stage with a blonde mullet, dark eye makeup, and black fur (that looks like something Prince would have worn). During the song’s musical opening, Cyrus performs a simultaneous rock ‘n’ roll sway and swagger, moving back and forth—and from side to side—with an authority that says “I have arrived.” With a quick smile, she then walks the mic back up to the mic stand, which she then leans into—and continues to sway with—as she thrashes her head. As someone who grew up watching/listening to this song on MTV (when MTV still primarily showed music videos), Cyrus’s vocal performance here is uncanny. Music critic Linday Zoladz notes Cyrus’s “quaking, near-note-perfect performance… which expresses such a reverent understanding of the song’s melodic leaps and emotional pull that one doesn’t even question what the former Hannah Montana is doing singing a ’90s alternative-rock classic about post-traumatic stress and decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.” As with everything on Plastic Hearts, Cyrus makes the song her own. At 2:25, she looks right into the camera as she sings the line “We must be mistaken.” It is a highly performative yet vulnerable moment, with Cyrus craftily suggesting between the lines that we are the ones who might have been mistaken about her. When the song soon moves to the instrumental bridge, Cyrus hops around as if she’s in a mosh pit, a reminder for all of us of this branch of sociality we lost access to back in March.
“‘Zombie’ is one of my favorite songs from my childhood, so that would have been a deal breaker if she would have ruined it,” I wrote to one of my mentees after watching the performance. Since her first of three classes with me, this mentee has continuously tried to get me to take Miley Cyrus more seriously, which has resulted in an ongoing rapport about whatever the artist is doing. When I teach Race, Gender, and Pop Music, there is a conspicuous gap in the chronology of the course, one where I suddenly jump from late 90s hip hop to Beyoncé in the early 2010s. As I sometimes tell students (usually those who move onto more coursework with me), the gap in the course occurs because from 2001-2011, I pretty much only listened to rock music. While attending a remarkably diverse high school in the early 00s, I fell in with a group of white women friends—and we listened to Linkin Park and then graduated to garage and indie rock. [As I’ve written about in some other pieces that have yet to see the light of day, there was definitely something going on there with gravitating towards rock at this age and starting to grapple with my own whiteness.] After some synthpop started to enter the mix via Metric and the Knife while I was in college, I set myself up to move with the blurred lines between indie and pop (and hip hop) that would really take off in the early to mid-2010s. And so I left rock behind, in a similar yet different way as Cyrus herself has been accused of taking hip hop on and off and on again. So what does it mean for Cyrus, who has arguably never been a rock artist (but who, nonetheless, has always hovered around rock with her choice of covers) to release a rock album at the end of 2020, after the year we’ve all had?
In the 2010s during which Cyrus was attempting to leave her Hannah Montana past behind, it often felt like rock music had been lost. In my experience, the synthpop train arrived in late 2011 in the form of an Austra and Grimes concert at the First Unitarian Church basement in Philly—and I never looked back from there, only holding onto the rock-ish artists (Holly Miranda, Land of Talk, Anna Calvi, Torres, Wild Beasts) of whom I was already an ardent fan. Cyrus was on her own version of that train too, as her 2013 release Bangerz melded pop and hip hop together in a way that was both of its moment and anticipated what was still yet to come. That Cyrus is reaching back towards rock as we are collectively grasping for a moment before our entire world turned upside down seems either deeply astute and/or extremely cunning (in Cyrus’s case, it’s likely both). But the move was also deeply personal. After losing everything (including her songwriting notebooks and new musical work) when her home with now ex-husband Liam Hemsworth burned down in a California wildfire in late 2018, Cyrus scrapped the rest of her return to her hip hop aesthetics-informed project She Is Coming and instead began to conceptualize what would become Plastic Hearts. In our 2020 COVID America, there might not be a more apt metaphor than watching everything you know and love go up in (literal and/or metaphorical) flames—and reaching for what you might become instead. For many of us, this has included listening to the music that reminds us of a simpler and/or similarly destructive time, as my dear friend and writing buddy Dan DiPiero so beautifully wrote about in his piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books back in the spring. And, alongside that, it has often included returning to the people—and sounds—who were first muses and mentors for us.
When I decided to go home to the New York City area for the holiday known as Thanksgiving this year, it was the first time I had been home at that time of year since 2013, when I was still living in Brooklyn. At that point, I had not gone home (for a substantial amount of time) for 15 months, a much larger gap than my usual 3-6 months away. Given COVID and people moving out of the city, I spent most of my social time with my biological family and our friends. I also had a lot more free time than usual on one of these trips, so I spent much of it walking through the East Village to see how much had changed in just 15 months. Some of the changes had long been in place: on Saint Mark’s, the Mondo Kim’s was still a Barcade and the Sounds storefront still remained empty, as the Iggy Pop and the Stooges-inspired Search and Destroy somehow held on. Other changes were more startling, such as walking by Bowery Ballroom and seeing it boarded up, as it remained closed as live music felt light years away. Beginning in freshman year of high school, I began to run into the East Village with friends or by myself. In my senior year of high school, Bowery Ballroom became my portal to both indie rock and queerness in the form of a Tegan & Sara concert. To see all of these markers of old/new rock NYC closed simultaneously was yet another nail in the coffin of this year. The next night, I met up with my high school track coach turned friend at a posh pizza bar in downtown Jersey City. Mentally contrasting the ongoing gentrification of my hometown with the boarded up buildings in the East Village was hard. Yet one way that he and I have kept in touch over the years is for me to text him about a rock song that we heard on the van of some track trip and for him to respond with some quip about it. Even as rock fades, it never completely goes up in flames.
In high school, I learned my first lessons about giving and receiving mentorship, lessons for which rock music was the soundtrack. In addition to the songs heard in the track van, I used to trade burned CDs of rock albums with a handful of teachers with whom I felt close, making rock music the first music that gave me any sense of collective belonging. While I was in high school, it sometimes felt like these teachers and coaches were the only consistent people that I had, as my home situation felt tenuous at best and my school situation felt unstable due to me constantly moving between friend groups. And it was not until I was flying back to New Orleans on Monday night that I realized how much my own approach to teaching and mentoring students that was informed by my coach and (queer) teachers. During this past semester, I did the emotionally difficult yet fulfilling thing of offering an upper level queer and affect theory seminar during a time of high emotional crisis and precarity. This class was never going to be easy, but it turned out to be my favorite one that I’ve taught so far. Stacked with all of my mentees and another handful of my favorite students, the class went even more to the next level when they all invited their friends to join the course. With ample one-on-one meeting time built into the course plus additional mentoring time with the three students with whom I work the most closely, I got to know (or, know better) these students fairly well this semester, particularly my mentees. Sitting in the park with them with cookies or a big bowl of pasta, I was brought back to being at track practice in the park while in high school. As I often tell them, I love working with them not only because they are exceptional students but because I also think they are exceptional people. Not that long ago, I was still the exceptional student. And now the baton had been passed to me—and I had reached out to grab it, in this chaotic semester.
I’ve taken this tangential trip down memory lane to write of the emotional power of reaching back, both towards the sounds and feelings of our past—and of the people who were such a big part of those affective experiences. I’m thinking a lot about this this week, as, in a “normal” semester, I would have taught José Muñoz’s The Sense of Brown to commemorate the seventh anniversary of his passing. For those of us who were lovingly taught and/or mentored in high school, college, or grad school, our mentors stay with us; they quite literally become a part of us as we step up to our turn of guiding—and, sometimes, befriending—our students. So it is from this emotional place that I am interested in listening to Cyrus’s Plastic Hearts as a practice in excavation work that calls on (Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks, Billy Idol) and channels (Dolores O’Riordan, Debbie Harry, Courtney Love) her muses as she herself steps up to the plate. As someone who was a child star, Cyrus has long been in the public eye as a role model for people (particularly girls) her age or younger. When a female artist comes into the public eye at such a young age, we can be quick to dismiss that she has any say or creative control over her image or output, since, “The old boys hold all the cards and they ain’t playing gin,” as Cyrus astutely sings on album closer “Golden G String.” The featured artists and covers included on Plastic Hearts demonstrate how much Cyrus is—and has been—in control of what she’s doing, from the highs to the lows. And, as Zoladz sharply observes, “After years of restless reinventions, it sounds like Cyrus has found a fitting context, and as a bonus, rock music has found its most earnest and high-profile millennial ambassador. Maybe rock’s not dead — it’s just in the capable hands of Miley Cyrus.” Perhaps she too is ready to mentor; perhaps we are both stepping into this moment simultaneously, on different yet related journeys.
As an album, Plastic Hearts is a tribute to 70s and 80s rock (particularly punk and synth-y rock), a channeling of 90s albums at the edge of rock and pop (Hole’s Celebrity Skin, anyone?), and the late 2010s Millennial and Generation Z penchant for musically mashing together… everything (I can’t find the review where someone actually writes this). When multiple students in the first rendition of Race, Gender, and Pop Music in Fall 2019 tried to sell me on Billie Eilish using the latter argument, I couldn’t quite get behind it. But with Cyrus going through intimately familiar territory (to me) of 80s synthpop and 90s alternative, this range stands out of one of the album’s core strengths. Side A of the album is virtually flawless, moving from the late 00s pop punk riffs of “WTF Do I Know” to the Rolling Stones-inspired “Plastic Hearts” to the country pop of “Angels Like You” to the 2054 synthpop of “Prisoner” (ft. Dua Lipa) to the warped take on Brittney Spears’s “Toxic” that is “Gimme What I Want” to the 80s new wave/synthpop revival “Night Crawling” (ft. Billy Idol). On these songs, Cyrus and her creative team mash together a bunch of musical genres that shouldn’t work together—but do, phenomenally. After standout single “Midnight Sky” kicks off side B, the album sometimes gets a bit too ballad-y for my taste—but, as many others have noted, the lyrics on album closers “Never Be Me” and “Golden G String” are some of the best on the album. Additionally, what is sonically remarkable about these closers is how seamlessly Cyrus melds the genres that have worked the best for her as an artist: pop, country, and rock. Ending with these songs has the added bonus of reinforcing Cyrus’s power as a lyricist on this album.
Of all the songs, “Midnight Sky” is the most fascinating—and most emotionally visceral—for me. The song oozes with the queerness of both disco and Cyrus’s pansexuality, bringing in 80s rock and pop via a direct invocation of Stevie Nicks’s “Edge of Seventeen.” With a bassline straight out of Nicks’s canonical song, Cyrus and company put their own twist on it by syntifying—and discofying—it, as the neon sign of “DISCO” in the music video reaffirms for anyone who might have missed it. In addition to channeling the queerness (and Blackness) of disco, the song’s lyrics layer the narrative of Cyrus navigating breakups with romantic partners of different genders into the mix. With the lines “See my lips on her mouth/ Everybody’s talking now” and “See his hands on my waist/ Thought you’d never be replaced,” the song is the ultimate pansexual post-breakup anthem, with a nuanced reflection of the media’s obsession with Cyrus’s dating life interwoven into the mix. At six months removed—and moving on—from what I can now say was the worst breakup of my entire life, there has been something cathartic for me about singing (screaming) along to this song, confirming that said breakup was not only about breaking up with a particular person but also with a dating pattern that is simply not healthy for me. Listening to this song within the context of this album for the first time while I was walking around the East Village, the lines “See my lips on her mouth/ Everybody’s talking now” also brought me back to the glee of kissing a girl for the first time and stepping into queerness in a new way, offering a needed reminder of how joyous dating can be when you’re not dating someone who’s absolutely fucking toxic.
Although my queer desire tends to be oriented around cis women and nonbinary people, I wonder what it would have been like for me to hear this album at age 20, especially as I now teach 20-year-olds myself. At 33, I am around the same age that my high school teachers were when they taught me—and offered me my first concrete examples of how to organize life away from heteronormativity. Even if I did not end up identifying as queer (and, in high school as a whole, I didn’t really sexually identify as anything), their queerness would have still changed me forever. As someone who has readily stepped into the role of the young politicized queer professor from the very beginning of my short teaching career, my queerness at times feels as much on display as Cyrus’s in “Midnight Sky.” I not only teach but enact queerness for my students, in the hopes that they will then engage with it in a way that prompts growth. In the spirit of showing students where this has come from, I have often put that queerness alongside that of my mentors, i.e. through having my queer/affect theory mentor visit class or teaching my deceased queer theory teacher in the last week of class. Queerness, like citation, is an excavation, one that we pass along to students—and leave it to them to take up in whichever forms they find most useful. We offer queerness to students so that they might remix it and reconfigure it for themselves, for whatever their sexual identities might end up being at different points in their lives. In this way, Cyrus’s Plastic Hearts is also very much a queer album, in the sense of its intimacy with her muses and mentors. And although this is not at all the conclusion I expected to reach in this piece, it makes sense after my winding journey.
This semester was a somewhat intentional semester without music for me. While designing two new courses, Intro to Gender & Sexuality Studies and Sensational Theories of Bodies & Media (the aforementioned queer and affect theory seminar), I made the conscious decision to minimize my use of music in either course. Having already designed three courses built entirely around music, I wanted to prove to myself that I could teach without it. The move turned out to be a metaphor for the semester, as the combination of teaching three courses (with two new preps) for the first time while being on the job market again and applying to writing fellowships to get time to actually focus on my book project meant that I had little time to keep up with new music during the semester. But then I got to DC to visit my sister (and teach the last week of class remotely from there) and things started to open up. I sent the students in my seminar a list of my favorite albums from the year and a bunch of them wrote me back with theirs. I started to remember how wanting to write about music is what first pushed me into gender & sexuality studies—and that, even as I was trying to rebrand as a queer, affect, and critical race studies scholar who does sound studies (vs. a pop music studies scholar who also does high theory), I should not throw away my deeply personal connection with music. So after listening to Plastic Hearts once a day for the past week, I knew that I had to get writing about it. And while none of this will change how I teach Bangerz-era Cyrus next semester, it does make me think that I’ll also throw Plastic Hearts in there too, to make space for the growth—and to offer students a more familiar model for their own self-reflection.