Seems like a good day to republish this. Back in the summer of 2011, Joe Coscarelli profiled the morphing career of Miley Cyrus and explained why her cover of Nirvana's ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was more appropriate than she was given credit for.
Originally Appears in Issue 7: The Pop Issue
Of all the post-shotgun blast bastardisation guaranteed to be disrupting the stillness of Kurt Cobain’s eternal slumber – if we were to categorise such on something of a sell-out Richter scale – Miley Cyrus covering ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ live in concert should not even register.
In fact, she killed it – but in the good way.
The nineties anthem, released when Cyrus was minus-thirteen-and-a-half months old, made its way into the teen star’s setlist during her Gypsy Heart Tour through much of Latin America, Australia and the Philippines. Though Cyrus has three studio albums, she also led her backing band through karaoke classics like the Poison power ballad ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’, and a Joan Jett medley of ‘Bad Reputation’, ‘Cherry Bomb’ and ‘I Love Rock ’n’ Roll’, the latter of which is not even known to most of Cyrus’s audience as the soundtrack to Britney Spears straddling a motorcycle, but rather as a ‘Smash Hit’ in Guitar Hero.
‘Teen Spirit’ is the most inspired in selection and performance, but also the most reviled, as evidenced online, where the most-viewed video version of the cover on YouTube has gathered only 598 ‘likes’ to a caustic 4,788 ‘dislikes’, summed up in top-rated comments like, “OMG my ears are bleeding! Kurt I feel fucking sorry for you! Please dont [sic] listen! And if you heard it, I hope you can still Rest in Peace!”
Though she only plays air guitar during her version, Miley does justice to the song musically through her too-deep and too-sexy whiskey-and-cigarettes rasp, as puzzling when she speaks as when she sings and adding as much to her age-inappropriateness as any stiletto boots she’s ever donned. And yet, as she crouches in studded leather and bellows, it is – if you allow it to be – an enjoyable spin on the fragility of Cobain’s own dead cat cries.
And then there’s the ‘fuck you’ aspect of a pre-packaged would-be pop playmate belting the words of a man who killed himself rather than keep singing to people he hated.
In the liner notes for Incesticide, Cobain wrote, “Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song ‘Polly’. I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience.” This was a sentiment he carried into his suicide note while turning the blame inward: “The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.” He continued, “On our last 3 tours, I’ve had a much better appreciation for all the people I’ve known personally, and as fans of our music, but I still can’t get over the frustration, the guilt and empathy I have for everyone.”
Yet enter Miley, who was put on stage before cognisance to fool everyone into fooling their parents into spending money, and who, as she ages in public, probably understands Cobain’s frustrations better than most disciples of the Nirvana songbook. Perhaps her choice of covers are a nod to the parents or chaperones in the audience, the very ones she’s been made to dupe. Even if – and it’s totally plausible, even likely – her setlists have been dictated by her management, or by her father Billy Ray, Miley’s song selection need not be a complete function of her own agency to be punk in its own way. It’s still a propped-up princess mimicking a fallen countercultural idol and thus raising complicated questions, both for her audience – made broader by the clip’s proliferation online, even if it’s being spread by hate – and likely within herself. These are the songs she grew up on, she would still doubtlessly tell anyone who asked, and she probably wouldn’t be lying, but she’s likely developed a whole new appreciation for Cobain’s words. Even if through control or brainwashing, it’s part of what makes the performance subversive – plus educational for the tweens in attendance – with the source material taking on additional subtext because of its flawed messenger.
Here we are now, entertain us.
Born Destiny Hope Cyrus, the daughter of the man who showed the world his ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ found fame first on the Disney Channel as both Miley Stewart and the show’s eponymous Hannah Montana, the Clark Kent and Superman, respectively, of a show about a teenage pop star. Her real-life father co-starred as her Disney Channel father, and Billy Ray’s role, partnered with his daughter’s marketability, served as a lifejacket in the waters of one-hit-wonder-domand led to something of a career renaissance for him, culminating in a (losing) turn on the reality show Dancing With the Stars.
Meanwhile, Hannah Montana ended and Miley’s parents skittered toward (and then retreated from) a divorce as their now 18-year-old daughter scored more notice for underage drinking, tattoos and a TMZ-published video of her smoking a legal hallucinatory herb from a bong than for her music or acting. A rift predictably grew between father and the daughter he reared and also rode upward. And so, like any good stage parent, Billy Ray furthers his own attention by using the press to express worries for his now-estranged little girl’s future, lest she turn out like Anna Nicole Smith, Lindsay Lohan or Michael Jackson.
Another figure Billy Ray namedrops in a recent GQ profile is that of – who else – Kurt Cobain, whose premature death likely allows the elder Cyrus to engage in a bit of revisionist history, painting the two singers as “unlikely friends” at their early-nineties peaks. Misunderstood, the pair of ’em. Cobain’s death “really had an impact” on Cyrus, he says, plus, the Nirvana singer’s daughter Frances Bean was born just three months before Miley. Billy Ray even wrote a poem about Cobain’s death, which hangs on the wall of his home and ends thusly: “But after all was said and done/And the big top now came down/No one could ever doubt the fact/The circus came to town.”
The sins of her father – a lack of self-awareness chief among them – are both Miley’s burden and her ammunition as an aspiring radical or, at least, wild child. Last summer, she was photographed wearing a $70 dress from Topshop emblazoned with a photograph of Cobain on stage; Daddy taught her well, or at least he taught her. Miley was making a gesture, if an over-determined one.
While her own music has suffered as a result of the system that owns her – oscillating wildly between the Disney-backed formula of ‘See You Again’, the playfully boy-crazy pop punk of ‘Seven Things’ and the MOR-overdose of ‘The Climb’, to the sloppy rebellion of the Spearsified ‘Can’t Be Tamed’ and Dr. Luke perfection of ‘Party in the U.S.A.’ – the only constant has been a lack of identity. Put less cynically, it’s a search for one.
The artsy piano prodigy misfit she plays in the 2010 coming-of-age film The Last Song, as adapted from the book by schmaltz king Nicholas Sparks, showcases nothing so much as her failure as a leading lady, or even as a ‘lady’ at all. Long before she can buy a beer in America, Cyrus has been dubbed “sexy” by men’s magazines like Maxim and FHM, but appears equally ungraceful in awards show dresses and overstated leather get-ups. Her goofy laugh, oversized teeth and cheeks giving away her constantly pecked-at youthfulness.
But Cyrus shined in the rambunctious rap video she composed the first time she deleted her Twitter account, as she does in her ‘Teen Spirit’ version – almost un-self-conscious, if only for a moment. She’s still hyper-aware she’s being watched, but like a teenager, ever insecure, not a celebrity.
It’s the same peek of personality she gives in the giddy bong video, yapping almost incomprehensibly about boys and bumbling Nicki Minaj lyrics amid a swirl of peer pressure. Of course it’s complicated by the fact that she’s being videotaped, perhaps not quite surreptitiously, but by a friend who seems overeager to watch the starlet break the rules. In some ways, it’s a microcosm of her life so far. Whether or not this registers with Cyrus on a conscious level as she gets high, she behaves with naturalness she can’t contain as well as an undercurrent of uneasiness: getting older, breaking rules, looking over her shoulder.
Thankfully for her future as someone famous, Miley lacks the darkness of fellow Disney teen star Demi Lovato, whose rehab stints for cutting and eating disorders make Cyrus look like Taylor Swift. Rebellion is subtler, and so far less dangerous, for Cyrus, who is testing waters not just at the behest of her business team – by posing in bedsheets, showing more thigh and dancing in cages – but also in more traditional baby steps: tiny tattoos, legal drugs, and listening to Nirvana.
And those who still wonder, ‘How dare she?’ Nevermind.