Miley Cyrus’ discography now comprises seven records and over 100 tracks. But for some reason, all she wants to do is sing other people’s songs.
Leading up to her new album Plastic Hearts (out November 27th), Cyrus is singing her lungs off. Except she’s rarely playing her own music. For her latest era — and looking like a mulleted Joan Jett dressed by Bob Mackie — she’s digging into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to play classics by the likes of Hall & Oates, Pink Floyd and Blondie.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Cyrus’ status as a cover queen goes back over a decade, when she sang “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid on 2007’s Disneymania 5. (Aughts kids know how hard Disneymania went.) Since 2012, she’s released an array of covers on YouTube as part of her Backyard Sessions series.
There’s a realness in Cyrus’ affinity for playing the classics. Covers allow her raspy delivery to shine through in a way that even her best pop songs (“Malibu” and “Wrecking Ball”) don’t. For the years leading up to this moment of authenticity, covers were her secret out from the trappings of a pop star. Cyrus buzzes with joy while singing the Replacements’ “Androgynous” in a 2015 video alongside Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace and Joan Jett herself. It’s infectious and deeply queer when you realize Cyrus came out as gender fluid just a few months later. There’s nothing saccharine about her giddiness to stand alongside her subversive musical idols and yell background vocals while they do their thing.
Still, asking to be judged against music’s greatest rockers is tricky for a pop star whose dissenters have long accused her of being every identity but her own. (That’s basically the Hannah Montana logline.)
This critique of lacking originality? No one knows it better than tribute acts. So I asked a few cover bands what they think of Cyrus stepping into their profession.
No, they tell me, Cyrus isn’t stealing hard-rock valor. She’s proving that true authenticity comes from paying respects to the greats who came before you.
“Heart of Glass” by Blondie
When Debbie Harris, aka the Bootleg Blondie, performs, she assumes the airy and melancholy aura of Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry. That’s her job: to give the audience realness. So she dons homemade replicas of Harris’ late-’70s stagewear styled with a bleach-blond shag haircut, dark eyeshadow and jittery dance moves. “The more accurate you are, the more people appreciate the show,” she says.
Miley Cyrus eschewed Debbie Harry drag earlier this month when she performed “Heart of Glass” at the digital iHeart Festival. Wearing just a sheer black bodysuit and pounds of gaudy silver jewelry, Cyrus wails in a lower register. Her smoky voice gives the beloved song a new vibe.
At one moment, she even crouches and looks up in a state of relaxation. Is she thinking about her ex-husband Liam Hemsworth, their Malibu house burned down in the Woosley Fire? Has all this pressure turned her joyful Younger Now heart into glass? Harris thinks so. “She sings it like she means it. A good set of lungs on her lol!!!” Harris says of Cyrus.
The performance was so well received, Cyrus released it as a single after fans would not stop talking about it. (The real) Debbie Harry praised her for making the song “uniquely hers.” Harris agrees, saying, “She’ll turn a whole new generation onto the music of Blondie.”
“Zombie” by the Cranberries
“It is a joy that she wanted to play Zombie,” the Lizberries say. As a Cranberries tribute band, they’re feeling an added pressure not only to live up to the Irish act’s signature sound, but to now respectfully honor the memory of frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan, who died in 2018. “We would just like to thank Miley, who has decided to interpret and enhance a song that should never be forgotten,” they tell me.
“Zombie,” a 1993 IRA protest song, is a feat of a tune, and Cyrus’ voice isn’t perfectly suited for O’Riordan’s high-pitched yodeling. The Lizberries have a few technical critiques: “Except for the yodel, the chorus is really enjoyable, while the verse could have been sung softer.”
Still, they praised Cyrus’ energy, bringing an appropriate urgency and depth to a song about the deadly 1993 IRA bombing in Warrington, England. “She [did] it very well with all the power of her voice. A refrain shouted precisely because it condemns the absurdity of war and the evil that exists in the head of those who want it,” the Lizberries say.
The Cranberries were certainly delighted by Cyrus’ cover. They tweeted her performance, saying, “It’s one of the finest covers of the song that we’ve heard. We think Dolores would be very impressed!”
“Just Breathe” by Pearl Jam
Cyrus hasn’t won over grunge rockers just yet. On Backyard Sessions, she recently covered Pearl Jam’s 2009 slow-tempo ballad “Just Breathe,” and her powerful register loses some of Eddie Vedder’s whispering on the intimate track. “I think she does a fine job. This is a special song to many PJ fans. Not sure they would feel the same way about it,” Rodd Kaczorowski, lead singer of Pearl Jam tribute group the Ten Band, says.
Brian Pardee, the lead guitarist, agrees: “I prefer the original, but Miley is certainly a great artist.”
There’s a common takeaway for fans who listen closely to Cyrus’ covers: She has a decade’s worth of original music, but singing other people’s songs makes her happiest. (Watch her face as she sings “Peace Will Come (According to Plan)” with ’60s folk legend Melanie.) She finds authenticity in music not influenced by Disney, her famous family, her ex-husband or her label. Cyrus has a long history of denouncing her old albums, even saying she’s “over” Forever Now two weeks before it was released.
She, as many tribute acts already know, isn’t looking to replace the greats when performing covers. She’s simply saying thank you to the artists who helped her understand her identity when she didn’t have the words. “There’s nothing wrong in singing songs you like. You learn a lot,” Harris, the Bootleg Blondie, says. “Even the Beatles sang covers.”