Still from 'Prisoner'

How Gen Z predicted the rockstar ascent of Miley Cyrus

When Hannah Montana said ‘I might even be a rockstar’ in 2007, that girl meant it. As Miley releases 'Plastic Hearts' we reflect on her evolution.

by Tom George
27 November 2020, 8:30am

Still from 'Prisoner'

In the music video for her 2008 single “Start All Over”, a baby-faced Miley Cyrus with chunky highlights, a rhinestoned waistcoat and hanging suspenders does her best impression of rocking out on stage. She swings around the microphone stand as she belts out her Disney-approved pop-rock anthem; an image that bears a few similarities to the Miley of today, despite it being over a decade old. In between, she’s been known best for making pop and country records, by way of a semi-problematic delve into hip-hop too. Recently though, this new Stevie Nicks-collaborating, Blondie-covering Miley has received plenty of critical acclaim. Congratulating her new rockstar era, critics have noted she wasn’t an artist “that brought to mind serious rock’n’roll pipes” until now. But for many of Miley’s Gen Z fans who grew up watching the star, this sonic rebirth is not really a rebirth at all.

Miley is ingrained in Gen Z culture; something Disney, her famed first employer, made sure of from the moment she broke out. Hannah Montana, the show that threw Miley into the spotlight, was an instant hit with its fanbase, who grew up into what is now considered generation Z. In their late-00s marketing strategy, Disney Channel actively shifted its content away from the classic animations of the past, and replaced them with content geared towards preteen girls that would also make stars of its leading young actresses. It was a movement that began with Hilary Duff and Aly & AJ -- each having Disney-produced albums alongside their TV roles as ordinary All American girls -- before taking off properly with Miley, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato

“Miley was relatable, and when she became Hannah it was magical,” says Tara, a 24-year-old who has been a Hannah Montana superfan since the age of 10. “The show taught me you can do anything you set your mind to.” What hooked those fans to Hannah and Miley was the tangential dream of pop stardom, mixed with relatable everyday teen problems. Today, those fans are known as ‘Smilers’. Meanwhile for LGBTQ+ kids, Miley’s secret-keeping, alongside the glamorous and high-camp lifestyle of Hannah became an expressive outlet. “As a closeted gay kid, watching an ordinary girl put a wig on and be allowed to dress up, sing and dance, and live out this fantasy was especially appealing,” says the 19-year-old Miley stan behind Twitter account @privshow

Both Miley and Hannah are integral to Gen Z’s cultural identity, childhood memories and shared sense of nostalgia. That’s visible in the way Miley has become a major part of contemporary expression, whether it’s the TikTok memes of using Hannah Montana scene transition sounds to articulate a mood, or the #maincharacterchallenge, where teens pull focus in their own story by performing the hell out of Miley’s cover of an Arctic Monkeys song. But this close reading of her career by her fans is also why the rock-leaning sound of Miley’s new album, Plastic Hearts, was predicted by those who followed the minutiae of her creative expression from the beginning, unlike the general public, who saw it as a surprise. “Miley has always been a rockstar,” Carlos, a long-term Smiler, says. “At 16, she was already covering rock songs in her world tours and collaborating with legends like Joan Jett and Billy Idol. She has reached legend status by the age of 28. To me, it’s just not surprising she would now be releasing music heavily inspired by 80s rock.”

In Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Film (2008), you can see the star begin to create a distinction between herself and her blonde-wigged counterpart through punk-rock. When the concert transitions from Hannah into its Miley-led second act, the cheerleading stunts and sequinned dresses are swapped out for a persona whose clothes are darker and more mature; who jumps off stage platforms, throws drumsticks around, sticks her tongue out (an ominous foreshadowing) and flashes the camera a peace sign. It wasn’t just in her stage presence that this duality was visible: in an AllMusic review, Heather Phares noted that on her own songs, Miley’s voice is “lower and throatier, and the arrangements are more organic and rock-oriented”. 

Over the next few years, the pop-rock of 2007’s Meet Miley Cyrus and 2008’s Breakout were redirected into tween-marketable pop with her 2009 EP The Time of Our Lives, and its 2010 full length follow-up, Can’t Be Tamed. All were released by Disney-affiliated Hollywood Records. Miley admitted she was feeling uninspired by this path, which clashed with her own desire to experiment. To her fans, this merely cemented Miley’s rockstar prowess. “There was something super punk-rock about an 18-year-old girl feuding with giant corporations like Disney,” says Archie, who found himself becoming a Smiler around this time. But while some controversies, like being dropped from the Hotel Transylvania cast for licking a penis-shaped cake, were iconic, other rebellious rockstar choices would shake even her most loyal of fans.

2013’s Bangerz didn’t sit well with many Smilers, who understood Miley’s desperate need to rebel but were thrown off by her appropriation of hip-hop culture; a move that felt tailor-made to court controversy. The singer apologised, actively striving to do better. Kornelia -- a Polish 23-year-old who has been a fan of Miley since she was 11 -- has found comfort in her idols’ subsequent outspokenness towards racial inequality, women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, and homelessness as Poland faces an increasing move towards the far-right. “She teaches people to become who you truly desire [to be] and not let anyone walk over you,” Kornelia says. “She’s an advocate for issues that lay close to my heart and I love how vocal she is.”

This level of authenticity and continued political engagement (something many pop icons avoid) plus a ‘fuck the system’ attitude, has meant punk-inclinations have always been in Miley’s artistry -- alongside more literal examples like her covers of Nirvana and The Cranberries, even if she hadn’t been allowed to wholly explore those sounds within her own music. 

This changed in 2019, when the EP She Is Coming saw Miley return to her pop-rock roots, adding in a rebellious queer aesthetic after coming out as pansexual and gender-fluid. To LGBTQ+ fans who lived vicariously through Hannah growing up, this acted as a further affirmation of her desire to champion the other, while embracing her otherness too. “It feels like confirmation that she really is worth stanning, as so many queer kids looked up to her. It’s almost no surprise that she’s one of us,” says 22-year-old Patrick, who’s been a fan since the age of eight. He finds it interesting though, that despite two years of punk-rock Miley, it’s only now she’s getting the recognition: “It’s telling that her legendary covers of songs that are recognised as high art by men, and an appearance on Joe Rogan, has partly led to this acclaim. Her stans have always recognised her incredible vocal ability.”  

As she finally makes her long-awaited foray into rock with Plastic Hearts and an upcoming record of Metallica covers, Miley announced this era in a tweet: ‘Meet Miley Cyrus… again #sheiscoming #forrealthistime’, she wrote, above the music video for that prescient track, “Start All Over”. While this sound seems like a strong artistic choice to the masses — a wise musical decision to be seen as someone new — to her fans it’s a manifestation of her longstanding creative destiny as generation Z’s first great, mainstream rockstar. 

Miley Cyrus