Next week, on September 19th, NBC’s The Voice begins its eleventh season with the unlikeliest judge in the show’s history occupying one of its spinning chairs. The same Miley Cyrus who a year ago was covered in glittery goop, chanting about smoking weed and not giving a fuck, teaming with the stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race and indie rock’s eternal futurist hippie Wayne Coyne, and calling for the freeing of the nipple, will now be a key player on the show that became the peacock’s cash cow by aiming itself squarely at culturally conservative middle America. Cyrus will take her seat alongside alpha bros Blake Shelton and Adam Levine and fellow newcomer, the ever-gracious Alicia Keys. “This Changes Everything,” NBC has been breathlessly trumpeting.
And that’s my concern. Not about the show—I don’t care much about the show. But I do very much care about Miley, one of the most essential artists in 21st century pop, and wonder whether this changes anything about her. So I offer this open letter. She probably won’t read it, but as she might say, “So the fuck what?”
How ya doing? Exciting times, I imagine. It’s a big month for you. New chapter and all—definitely a different chapter than the ones you’ve written in the past few years. Anyway, this has been eating away at me since the spring, when you appeared as an advisor on The Voice (and did an excellent job, by the way) and soon thereafter announced you’d be joining the show as a coach. The question is a simple one: why you doing this?
I totally get why they’re doing it. The Voice still kills in the ratings—13.3 million viewers last season. Come to think of it, that’s almost exactly the number of people that voted for Donald Trump in the GOP primaries. But I’m sure that’s just coincidence. Still, heat only lasts so long. Idol overstayed its welcome and The Voice clearly decided it was time to shake things up. In you, they get musical smarts, a mix of warmth and erm, “edge” (aka an increased potential for viral moments). You’re the most exciting presence the show has had in five and a half years. To me that’s all obvious. What I don’t get is what you get out of it.
I should pause to say I absolutely believe everything is political. Bangerz was political. Your Happy Hippie Foundation that advocates for homeless and LGBTQ youth is political. Your gorgeous social feed is political: this summer alone, you’ve celebrated LGBT victories; alerted your followers to the tragedies of the Fort McMurray fire in Canada, and the wrenching, intractable Syrian civil war; welcomed another organization for homeless youth, My Friend’s Place, to The Voice; and in the wake of the carnage of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, you offered a loving message of support while some of your peers were conspicuously silent. That is all political, great, and important. But likewise a move to The Voice is political—and a decidedly rightward move. I don’t get it.
In these days of unsettlingly casual talk about nuclear weapons from Trump and more frequent underground testing by Kim Jong-un, it may be unseemly to joke about nukes, but “nuking” Hannah Montana is exactly what you did, and it became the stuff of pop music legend. When had any young artist so totally blown up a carefully crafted and cannily commercial persona in favor of a new, DGAF self? I’ve witnessed teen-to-adult pop artist “transitions” for many years, and to be honest, the incremental, piss-off-no-one pivot usually fails. So you took the wrecking ball to the old, cut the cord, celebrated molly and weed and let the chips fall. I sat there at Barclays Center at the 2013 VMAs as you performed the twerk seen round the world, bemused but never expecting it to become the stuff of high dudgeon for days on end, from op-ed pages to the disapproving eye of supposed progressive Mika Brzezinski on Morning Joe, who couldn’t let it go. The rest of us cheered.
What followed was a couple of years of some of the most refreshingly unconventional moves in recent pop. The Bangerz tour, with its giant tongue, candy colors, animal costumes and giant hot dog, was exhilarating. You wore your hurt on your sleeve in remembrances of your late dog Floyd, and when you brought homeless Jesse Helt to the 2014 VMAs to shed light on the problem of at-risk youth, it was a “Hell, yeah!” moment. That was the Miley I believed in and thought was so crucial—precisely the kind of young woman we ought to have at the top of the pop music pack; one that was less interested in flawlessness and “squad goals” than in compassion, activism, and bold individuality. I just don’t see how that Miley squares with The Voice.
Although the show’s supposed purpose—a celebration of the singing instrument—has in fact given way over time to rivalries and banter between star judges, the show works for its audience: one that prefers its entertainment familiar, non-challenging, and certainly not freaky or lefty-political. It may not be a “basket of deplorables” tuning in, but it certainly skews more Duck Dynasty than Daily Show. You’ve clearly been brought on to provide some rebellious spark, but we both know that will be kept well in check. #FreeTheNipple’s most famous advocate? I’m curious what guidelines they’ve given you in terms of what you can wear… or say? I imagine they’re considerable. Season 11 also coincides with a massively consequential presidential election with a stark choice in candidates. Will you be allowed to comment on it? And if not, how can you agree to that?
Oh, and not for nothing, Miley, but two seats away from you is good ol’ boy Blake Shelton, whose true colors were revealed just weeks ago in a series of old tweets that surfaced. Boneheaded is one way to describe them. Misogynistic and homophobic—one seeming to promote anti-gay violence—is another. Oh, and he’s a Trump supporter to boot. Miley, next to Gaga you are the single most proactive LGBTQ ally in mainstream pop. So how’s that work out, you working with Shelton?
I’m told it’s possible to be a progressive and a fan of The Voice. My friend Lyndsey Parker of Yahoo Music is a self-described liberal who loves the show and is a maven, having covered The Voice from day one. You can count Parker as one of those who is excited to see you on the show full-time. “Unlike some people, who thought she would cheapen the show or treat it as a stunt,” she told me, “I really respect Miley’s music. She takes it seriously and doesn’t make it all about her. I think she is well qualified to do the show.” And yet, not everyone was convinced early on. Some of the Voice’s red state faithful sniped that you weren’t “a real singer”—nonsense of course, and commentary that gave Parker some déjà vu. “It reminded me of when they brought Nicki Minaj on American Idol, in part to try and court a younger audience,” she said. “They hoped all these kids would start watching Idol, which we know didn’t happen. But they did manage to drive away their existing audience, which was older and more conservative.” The sort of conservative that, you know, might not take well to an outspoken woman of color.
Still, Parker predicts success for you on the show this season. I’m just still at a loss figuring out what the upside is for you. But maybe I’m overthinking it? Another friend, a music manager, suggested to me that it might be as simple as that big paycheck. It’s not like you made money off Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, your sprawling, charmingly shambolic and underrated lo-fi adventure with The Flaming Lips, which was released for free on SoundCloud. Christina Aguilera reportedly pulled $12 million a season toward the end of her Voice run. I know you’re reportedly worth ten times that, but that kind of coin can do a lot of good for Happy Hippie, or maybe even go a long way toward funding that sixth album—whatever happened to that, by the way? It’s as though someone slammed on the brakes at the end of last year, and this experimental arc you were on gave way to a shiny sound stage presided over by Carson Daly. It makes me wonder: which is the real Miley?
I’d love to talk to you about your reasons for doing the show, but for now I’m left to wonder, still comforted by the fact that for years—even before Bangerz—you’ve been preaching the Gospel of Be Yourself. Your 2010 step into adult music was called Can’t Be Tamed. In 2013 you told SNL, “No matter what happens, I promise I’ll always be true to Miley Cyrus.” And in the current promo for The Voice’s new season, you declare, “Everything in my life has to be real. It has to be genuine. Helping people make music, producing, it’s what I would do everyday.”
Even if that last bit is true, “real” and “genuine” are probably not the go-to adjectives one associates with The Voice. But I will only close by saying: good luck with the season, I am sure you’ll kill it as a judge, I hope you stay fearless and nonconformist, and I hope you change The Voice more than it changes you. One of the many rad projects you’ve undertaken in recent years was the 2015 “Backyard Sessions” series to launch Happy Hippie, and among those affecting performances was your duet with Woodstock vet Melanie Safka—Melanie, FFS!!—on her 1970 ode to compromised art, “Look What They’ve Done To My Song.” Here’s the final verse, which I’m sure you know very well:
Look what they’ve done to my soul, MaLook what they’ve done to my soulYeah, they tied it in a plastic bagAnd they shook me upside down, MaLook what they’ve done to my song