Is Miley Cyrus's sudden image makeover a total failure, or evil genius?
It does seem odd that so many people are picking on Cyrus. Sure, Rihanna, Britney Spears and other singers have caught flak as they morphed from teenyboppers to adults. Even old-timey teen idols like David Cassidy struggled to grow up while keeping the young audiences they worked so hard to build.
But none of those folks faced the solid, relentless mockery that followed Cyrus's painfully awkward performance at the MTV Video Music Awards last month. Her whole transition, from baby-faced wig aficionado to a molly enthusiast who makes out naked with construction equipment — it all seems so sudden, so silly, so…clumsy.
"I would have preferred a more gradual transition," says manager Jo-Ann Geffen, who has shepherded the careers of the Commodores, Cassidy, and Joshua Bell. "Clearly, no one is advising her effectively, or she's just not listening."
After the release of Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball" video, The Guardian's Michael Hann put things more harshly: The video, he said, "doesn't demonstrate a woman exploring her sexuality, it depicts a woman exploring the iconography of porn."
So why has Cyrus faced so much backlash?
For one, Cyrus's counterparts fueled their re-branding campaigns with more successful elements. Rihanna's Good Girl Gone Bad — a proclamation, essentially, that things were going to start getting nasty up in here —went double-platinum. She wisely made sure that's album's first single was the gentle, harmless "Umbrella," just in case fans didn't get the memo right away, but by the time the then-21-year-old's next big single, "Shut Up and Drive," emerged, fans were plenty prepared for a record that the Village Voice praised as "sexually daring."
Britney, meanwhile, literally spelled out her intentions with a song called "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman." It appeared on her third studio album, Britney. Some critics were ill-prepared; Entertainment Weekly sneered at Spears's "virginal vamping in an awkward adolescence," but fans disagreed, indicating that they were ready for a new Spears by catapulting the album to a number one debut on the Billboard 200 chart.
Neither Britney nor RiRi got instant sexiness permits from fans. But their transitions got plenty of help through loud, clear messages: megahits.
Cyrus, meanwhile, never got that benefit. The former Disney star has been trying to grow up for years — since 2008, in fact, when she first partnered with Nicholas Sparks to develop an edgier image. The medium: A role as a non-singing shoplifter in the film The Last Song. The movie did fine. But the album that was supposed to cement that intermediate phase, 2010's Can't Be Tamed, never took flight the way her past projects did, despite Cyrus dressing up as a mean, sexy bird in one of her videos. Critics gave the record mixed reviews, and U.S. sales were meh.
By that point, Cyrus was clearly signaling that she was ready for sexy times, posing for plenty of photos in belly shirts and black leather. But if a tween falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear her, does she really make a sound? No wonder a whole planet is clutching pearls at the apparent suddenness of it all.
Cyrus is also suffering because she's chosen a drastic, risky change. Taylor Swift aged expertly from a 14-year old prodigy in sundresses to a megastar in short shorts because she never added overt sex to her image — a move that always risks alienating child fans and their helicopter parents.
If your props never get any racier than brightly colored guitars and matching lipsticks, you don't run the risk of losing your universal appeal. But foam fingers used as sex toys? Not quite so safe.
"It doesn't seem to me that anyone is really kind of walking [Cyrus] through the steps, here," Geffen tells me. "She may have experience under her belt, but you can't appear to move from A to Z without at least being seen as covering part of the alphabet."
(Or you can simply start at Z from the very beginning: That strategy worked for Prince and Madonna, after all. Even Spears incorporated Lolita-esque sex from the get-go, contorting her school uniform top into a belly shirt in her very first music video. Walking around half-naked with a snake singing "I'm a Slave For You?" That's just an amped-up version of Spears's original message.)
Back in the 1970s, Geffen's client Cassidy had a similar road to travel. He distanced himself from his Partridge Family roots through image, but through music, adding edgier songs into his setlists while keeping the pop hits in heavy rotation.
All this said, there's a chance that Cyrus's choices are smarter than any of us are giving her credit for. Her next album, Bangerz, doesn't debut until October, but its first single, "We Can't Stop," already has gone double-platinum, and that video for "Wrecking Ball" logged more than 19 million views within 24 hours of its debut.