In a recent interview, Miley Cyrus sat down with Joe Rogan to talk about relationships, drugs, music, celebrity status and mental health. Miley discusses her changing image, specifically in regards to her 2020 MTV Video Music Awards (VMA) performance. The discussion highlights the sexism that she faced during filming and her efforts to defend her unique artistic vision.
Early on in the interview, Miley talks about the media’s depiction of her romantic relationships and the complexities of relationships in general. She describes this era of her no longer being in a relationship as a “pivotal moment.” For the past five years, she has been in a relationship and now seeks to exude her independence as a single woman.
She expresses her excitement for her upcoming VMA performance, the first one where she does not feel tied down by her relationship status. She elaborates, “I love that this is the first time that I’m going to be on that stage as a single, badass, grown, evolved, secure woman who’s done a lot of work.”
She explains that she is, “breaking out of the role” of “craziness, wildness and being a provocateur.” She finds that her artistic expression has evolved. Moving beyond rebellion and the previous confines of her image, Miley’s new era is one of rawness, vulnerability and inner strength.
She seeks to depict this visually, noting the significance of having a microphone stand in both the music video and live performance of her song “Midnight Sky.” The microphone is a symbol for her music being at the forefront of her career. The microphone also serves as a representation of her identity.
“If you can hold a microphone in your hand and say, ‘This is who I am by the way, I don’t come without this,’ she says.”
Miley proceeds to describe her involvement in production and how she has developed a better understanding of directing. As an artist, knowing exactly what she wants should be appreciated, but the VMA producers hated her decisiveness. At the VMAs, she requested that the key lights be turned off, that there be no beauty lights, which are bright lights that highlight key features of the face and body, and that only the red, blue and white lights be used. She was met with opposition.
“They would never tell Travis Scott or Adam Levine that they couldn’t turn the beauty light off,” she explained, calling out the double standard of how women are depicted compared to men in the entertainment industry.
The lighting choices in the televised performance generated symbolic imagery. Red lighting produced a flat background and floor, which provided a stark contrast with her features. She was cast in shadow; black was the only color visible on her body. That was until she walked up a flight up stairs, representing her overcoming trials and transcending to a new realm. White lights revealed the true colors of her face as she climbed on to her reinvented wrecking ball. It was transformed into a disco ball, reminiscent of the broken fragments of her past pieced together to reflect light. Miley’s return to her established iconography highlights how her prior experiences prompted her reinvention.
The producers eventually complied, but she was met with condescension throughout the remainder of the VMA filming process. She described an incident in which her bracelet continued to get caught on a prop. The director responded by saying, “You know, if you wanted to get treated like a guy and lit like a guy, we wouldn’t be dealing with this if a guy was doing it.”
Miley used this as an opportunity to call out how sex appeal was the motive behind this discrimination. She responded, “Well, a guy wouldn’t be selling your show with sex like I’m going to.” It is undeniable that award shows sexualize women, but the power in her statement comes from the autonomy she seeks over her own image. She celebrates her sexuality while continuing to demand ownership of it, despite the patriarchal gaze.
She felt that these comments set a precedent for the remainder of the time backstage, describing the condescension she faced while getting ready for the show. Miley described the continuous questioning about her hair and makeup process. She highlighted how beauty also plays a role in her performance.
“I did come from the world of Dolly Parton, and I love pop culture for entertainment and escapism,” she said. Through her self-proclaimed “surrealist” image, she seeks to transcend the mundane of the modern atmosphere and provide her audience with a strong and expressive performance.
Miley’s experience is all too common in the entertainment business. Women are often used as successful marketing tools. The commodification of the female body has silenced female expression, as it is seen as a product rather than art. This commodification has created a formula as to what sells, and thus what women should look like and represent in the media, often conveying them as sensationalized and hyper-sexualized.
This depiction rarely correlates with women who, in this field, are visionaries seeking to create art. It could be said that their art, too, is a product, and while that is technically true, it should be up to the creator as to how their vision is depicted within their art. Additionally, they must also fight for how they themselves are portrayed, as they are working within an industry that seeks to undermine them for financial gain. Women within the industry are often put at a disadvantage in comparison to their male cohorts, and must work twice as hard for their ideas to be considered valuable.
Miley embodies the strength that women in the music industry are forced to uphold. Her headstrong pursuit of her vision is admirable and encourages us all to fight for our own self-expression. She does not seek validation from anyone but herself. This is reflected in Midnight Sky: “I don’t belong to anyone/Oh no/I don’t need to be loved by you.”
Her experience with the VMAs is both a testament to the undermining of female artistic expression and the musical genius of Miley Cyrus.