This week, Miley Cyrus released a new song—well, okay, actually Snoop Lion released a song and Miley Cyrus sung the hook, but no one cares about Snoop releasing a song anymore. It’s called “Ashtrays and Heartbreaks,” and it is good, or at least Miley’s parts are, since Snoop stopped trying sometime in 1997. It’s also surprising, given that she caused some controversy in 2010 by doing bong rips shortly after her 18th birthday. But having her first pop song since a long hiatus emerge in the context of a reggae album makes a whole lot of sense given the way she’s been reinventing herself over the past three years. Watching that evolution, it looks like Miley has more than a decent shot to come out of this difficult process as someone we might embrace as one of our own.
After the monstrous and wonderful “Party in the USA” in 2009, Cyrus released Can’t Be Tamed in 2010. It was okay, but not great (there is a cover of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” for instance), which was not surprising given that she was clearly trying to change direction, and it did significantly worse than her previous efforts. Miley then did a smart thing: she took some damn time off. In the meantime, it was clear she was doing what 18 year olds generally do, which is change their personalities entirely. The salvia thing was the kick-off, but over the next three years she got a rad new haircut, hung around with Kelly Osbourne, and got a Bob Marley cake for her 19th birthday. “You know you’re a stoner when your friends make you a Bob Marley cake,” she said, which is just a lovely mix of self-deprecation and non-fuck-giving.
Aside from these style changes, though, she kept playing around with her music in a low-stakes way. She released an excellent cover of Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” and a steady stream of live covers cropped up on YouTube, most notably one of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This pissed many people off, and was all the better for it. (She also did a fairly pointed cover of Melanie Safka’s “What Have They Done to My Song Ma.”) She also produced a tribute video to Occupy Wall Street, and when you take this together (weed, Nirvana covers, political activism) it sure sounds like the kind of post-teen whose musical tastes are going in a very promising direction.
We often discount how important taste is to musicians, since music is held to be some sort of innate talent, divinely given and immaculately received. But knowing what you want your stuff to sound like is the only way it’s going to sound different. Letting your taste evolve and develop is something many younger artists miss out on, since they’re thrown directly into the center of commercial music and so don’t have those identity-building experiences of deliberately seeking out lesser-known music. Cyrus’ hiatus gave her the space to develop her palate and her perspective — and her persona, too. Her scattered, excitable self-presentation (memorably parodied by Vanessa Bayer on SNL) may be grating in a teen — as all things are, in teens — but in the context of a chill stoner, it’s welcome enthusiasm. Pop stars act more as managers than auteurs when it comes to their music, and so developing that sense of good and bad is key. The last three years show that Cyrus is heading in a very encouraging direction. “Ashtrays and Heartbreaks” isn’t great, but as a symbolic first salvo, it’s a promising sign.