There are certain cultural moments that transcend time to be burned into the annals of pop history forever. Picture: a 20-year-old Miley Cyrus in a nude, latex bikini set, tongue out, foam finger on one hand, bent over in front of Robin Thicke on the VMA stage. How much ink has been spilled about that moment? How many (white) people learned about twerking for the first time because of it?
Even for a young woman whose career had already seen its fair share of controversies, the 2013 VMAs was a seismic event. “Not only was culture changed, but my life and career were changed forever,” Cyrus told Wonderland (via E! News) in 2018, noting that all the attention on her inspired her to use her platform for activism. (Cyrus began the Happy Hippie Foundation, which focuses on homelessness amongst LGBTQ+ youth, in 2014.) But not all of the repercussions of the performance were so positive. “It became something that was expected of me. I didn’t want to show up to photo shoots and be the girl who would get my tits out and stick out my tongue,” she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2017. “In the beginning, it was kind of like saying, ‘Fuck you. Girls should be able to have this freedom or whatever.’ But it got to a point where I did feel sexualized.”
Stuck in the shadow of the twerk heard ‘round the world, Cyrus rebranded, then re-rebranded, then re-re-re… well, you get the picture. Like many great pop stars, she mastered the art of reinvention, creating new eras for herself before artist “eras” became the term du jour. She would never be the precocious Disney kid again, but she’d be lots of other things. “People get told that it’s a bad thing to change,” she said in that Harper’s Bazaar interview. “Like, people will say, ‘You’ve changed.’ And that’s supposed to be derogatory. But you are supposed to change all the time.”
Maybe what truly sets Cyrus apart from other major stars who underwent multiple reinventions (Madonna, for example) is how young Cyrus was when she was radically shifting through pop personalities. “Even though it’s not who I am/I’m not afraid of who I used to be,” she sang on the title track of her album Younger Now, just four years after the VMAs uproar. Fresh-faced, fully clothed, and with a bit of country twang, she optimistically sang, “Change is a thing you can count on/I feel so much younger now.” At the time, she was only 25 years old.
Now 30, Cyrus is still forgiving of her younger self, though her reflection on those days is perhaps tinged with a bit more melancholy. On the tenth anniversary of that iconic and infamous VMA performance, she released “Used To Be Young,” something of a bonus track to the album Endless Summer Vacation, released earlier this year. “These lyrics were written almost 2 years ago at the beginning of my ESV. It was at a time I felt misunderstood,” she wrote on Instagram. “I have spent the last 18 months painting a sonic picture of my perspective to share with you. The time has arrived to release a song that I could perfect forever. Although my work is done, this song will continue to write itself everyday. The fact it remains unfinished is a part of its beauty. That is my life at this moment ….. unfinished yet complete.”
“Used To Be Young” sounds something like the tired older sister of “Younger Now.” “Me and who you say I was yesterday/Have gone our separate ways,” she sings. In the music video, Cyrus wears a Mickey Mouse t-shirt as a nod to those Disney days and tears up as she delivers the chorus: “I know I used to be crazy/I know I used to be fun/You say I used to be wild/I say I used to be young.”
It’s not necessarily the most original message—in fact, Cyrus said it herself, differently, on “Younger Now” a few years ago. Having to repeat it anew on “Used To Be Young” speaks to the frustration of continually being pegged to her past. In Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana documentary, she notes that celebrities tend to become “frozen at the age they get famous.” Well, Miley Cyrus was just 13 years old when she became world famous, and only 20 when she became infamous. As much as our culture is becoming cognizant of the damage we do to child stars, it’s easy to forget just how youthful she was gracing the VMA stage, and how young she’s been in all those major moments and mistakes lived out in the public eye.
The most marked difference between “Younger Now” and “Used To Be Young” is right there in the titles. Though she’s still a young woman, Cyrus apparently no longer feels “Younger Now” than she did before. Instead, “Used To Be Young” has a bit more distance and perspective, and evokes a certain world-weary quality. To be sure, she’s probably lived more lives in the last decade than some do in a lifetime. And though it’s hard to imagine Cyrus hanging up her mic any time soon, it does serve as another gentle reminder that certain chapters in her life have closed. “You tell me time has done changed me/That’s fine, I’ve had a good run,” she sings. “I know I used to be crazy/That’s cause I used to be young.”