'I'm Not Afraid Of Who I Used To Be': Miley Cyrus On 'Younger Now'

Sep 24, 2017
Originally published on September 29, 2017 9:00 am

Chances are, you have an opinion about Miley Cyrus. The 24-year-old pop singer got her start as a kid on the Disney Channel series Hannah Montana in 2006. She released her triple-platinum debut album, Meet Miley Cyrus, in 2007 — and has rarely been out of the headlines since, for everything from drug use to sexualizing her image to charges of racial appropriation.

Over the years, she's adopted and incorporated many musical styles into her hits. And with her sixth album — called Younger Now, out Sept. 29 — Cyrus has changed her look and sound yet again, trading in the hip-hop influences of 2013's Bangerz and strange psychedelia of 2015's Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz for a more stripped-down, country sound.

Cyrus spoke to NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about embracing all versions of herself, confronting controversy and drawing inspiration from her family — including her godmother, Dolly Parton. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Your new album is called Younger Now — and that's apparently a reference to a conversation you had with your mom? Tell me the story.

Miley Cyrus: Well, it was during Christmas time. I was dressed as a reindeer, and I had blinking earrings, and I had the antlers on, and my sweater was blinking and all that — and my mom was like, "When did you become an eight-year-old?" And I said, "I feel younger now." ... I feel less like I have anything to prove.

I think when you are a teenager, young adult, you're trying so hard to be cool or to prove something or to be something away from who you've been as a kid. And I guess as I've gotten older — what Younger Now says is, even though it's not who I am, I'm not afraid of who I used to be.

You've been in the public eye since you were a child, and you've always had this poise and awareness of yourself as a public figure. Are you now reclaiming your childhood? I'm seeing all these references to Hannah Montana, and all the promotional materials [for Younger Now] has these adorable kid pictures of you in it. Who is that Miley?

Everyone that I've been — whether you are thinking about Hannah Montana or the music I made in the past — all of it has always been the truth. So I think people are saying "the new Miley" or "the more honest Miley" — I've always been that. But I've been honest for who that person was then.

At one point, it was fun for me as a little girl to get dressed up as a pop star, because I wasn't one. It was fun for me to write about relationships in this innocent way, because I was young and innocent and discovering love and what that meant. And so now, I write about it in a more evolved way, or a way that feels happy or more confident. But that's because as [I] grow up, I understand who I am in a different way. I'm happy to be who I am rather than running from it — but running from who you are is a total normal part of growing up, too, because you're just trying to figure out what parts of yourself you like and what parts of yourself you want to work on.

What kind artist do you want to be? You are only 24 — Madonna constantly reinvented herself; other artists drill down to their essence. Where do you see yourself on that spectrum?

I think I'm a person that evolves really quickly, and I change. And I think for me, I don't change with the times or with fashion; I change by being active politically or philanthropically. I think that really changes the way that I reflect myself as well, and project who I am. Also, I think I'm very inspired by the surroundings of the real world more than the fashion on the street, or what the music is sounding like on the radio, or what I see on TV. I think that's why people relate to my music; because in today, I'm experiencing humanity with all the other listeners.

Let's talk about a track on Younger Now: "Inspired."

I wrote that song for Hillary Clinton; I'd gone campaigning for her. And I was sitting in this line of really crazy traffic, and then I realized that I was in the middle of a funeral line. And I was behind a hearse, and all these people — I was looking into their cars, they just looked so devastated and so sad. And because I was sitting, I could really see them in their faces, and it just started making me think about life, made me think about my dad, and made me think about my mom, and all the things that really matter. And thinking about how much I have always loved nature; [the song] talks about the bees, and how there might be a day where we won't have bees or blue skies or clear water or fish in the sea because of the way we abuse the planet.

We've got some questions from our listeners. Cassidy Hooper wants to know: What was the hardest song to record off your album?

I think "Miss You So Much." Because I actually wrote that for one of my really close friends whose boyfriend surprisingly OD'ed. I wrote that song about how ... once someone's gone, they're not really gone; if you love them, they're here.

You know, my grandma's in her 80s, and I had been hanging out with her the day I was going to record that song. And it made me kind of think about her, the more I started singing it. I started thinking about, "How can I miss you already?" Hopefully no time in my near future, but there's going to be probably a time in my life where I'm not gonna have her. And [she's] been someone that I really, really lean on. She's my biggest — she literally runs my fan club. I mean that literally; she writes back to all my fans — she does all my fan mail. So it made me think about how you can miss someone when they're still here, but you start thinking about a time when they might not be.

Jessy Briton Hamilton wants to know this: Your dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, came from humble roots in Appalachia. How do you see your heritage as part of your life?

I think my dad went kind of to this overnight — he would kill me for saying "overnight success," because I know he had to work so hard. He literally lived in his car. But I mean, overnight success in [that] one day he was sleeping in his car and the next day he had one of the biggest songs in history. So I just think that's really affected me, too. Know that everything can change, that you've got the control and the power to keep moving and to never give up. That's his mantra: never give up.

You've gotten a lot of criticism for how you incorporated black music into your work, on the Bangerz album in particular. There is a lot of anger in the African-American community; The Root just wrote that your music has exploited black people for profit. Do you understand that anger? Do you accept it?

I respect that, and I can't tell you that that's my intentions. So I always feel, you know, apologetic and sympathetic to those who feel a way. But that's not my intentions so I can't say that I agree.

Are you still interested in that kind of music? You've sort of moved away from that in this album.

Yeah, but I think that that's labeling. It's like: that kind of music — like, what does that mean? I love music; I love all styles of music. I love Mike WiLL's music; I love Wayne Coyne's music. I love country music; I love Dolly [Parton]'s music. I love Leonard Cohen's music. I may be the only person that has Wiz Khalifa and Leonard Cohen on the same iPod. I don't ever label music.

You are very vocal as a self-declared feminist. But you have also gotten a lot of flack for your performance with Robin Thicke at the Video Music Awards in 2013 of a song that some view as promoting rape culture. You know, it's been a couple of years —

That's so ridiculous, I'm sorry. Again, I empathize with people's feelings, because opinions are a natural response in human beings. ... But besides that, that's so hurtful actually to take something that is good-intentioned — and what's the difference of anyone else doing what they do in pop music? What's the difference with Britney Spears coming oiled up with a snake, I mean, it's like the same thing? It's any pop singer. Look at Kathleen Hanna — that's punk!

Your art makes people uncomfortable sometimes!

That's what punk is all about. If you don't piss somebody off, then that's not punk rock, I guess. But I wish people wouldn't be pissed off. There are so many real, true, problems in the world. If people would take their angst and their opinions and actually do something besides worry about what I'm doing. I'm a pop star. I'm good: I have a house, I have a roof over my head, I have food to eat. There are people without those things. Go and use your time and your opinion wisely, and get mad and call your senators about the things that matter.

I'm doing what I need to do. I'm working in my community. I'm changing the way people view sexuality. I'm working with suicide prevention programs. I'm feeding people that don't have food to eat. I'm doing my part as a human. You better go do your part if you're gonna even have one little opinion about what I do. You better be doing some great things for your community.

I'd like to ask about your godmother, the great Dolly Parton. What advice has she given you about navigating interviews like this one, or how to keep your career going for so long?

The best thing that she does is she's not afraid to laugh at herself. And she pushed the boundaries for country music, by looking the way that she does, and saying the things that she says, and being sexual in that way. I mean, there's no one that's been able to make country music sexual more than Dolly! But she would say, "Well, that's not why I'm doing this!" — I mean, she does it because she likes it. If you want to be pushing the boundaries, you have to like it. And to remember that you want to make music for the people that love your music for your honesty, and for your fans. Otherwise, just have fun and make the music that you love.

Web intern Steffanee Wang and web editor Marissa Lorusso contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Most people definitely have an opinion about our next guest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS THE LIFE")

MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) This is the life. Hold on tight. And this is the dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Fourteen-year-old sensation Hannah Montana.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Miley Cyrus has been famous ever since she was a kid starring in Disney's "Hannah Montana" series. In 2007, she made a breakout album that went triple platinum. And she has rarely been out of the headlines since. Over the years, she's adopted and incorporated lots of different musical styles from country to hip-hop to psychedelic. Her new album is called "Younger Now." And Cyrus has changed her sound and her look like again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNGER NOW")

CYRUS: (Singing) Feels like I just woke up. Like all this time, I've been asleep.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Miley Cyrus joins us from Los Angeles. Welcome to the program.

CYRUS: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lulu this album is called "Younger Now." And that's apparently a reference to something your mom told you. Tell me the story.

CYRUS: Well, you know I was at - it was during Christmastime. And I was dressed as a reindeer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

CYRUS: And I had, like, blinking earrings. And I had the antlers on. And, you know, my sweater was blinking and all that. And my mom was like...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sounds awesome.

CYRUS: ...When did you - yeah, she was like, when did you become, like, an 8-year-old? And I said, you know, I feel younger now. And she kind of said it in this way, too, where it was, like, I couldn't tell if it was a compliment or not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

CYRUS: You know, and I was like, well, I just feel younger now. I feel, like, less like I have anything to prove. And I guess as I've gotten older, you know, what "Younger Now" says is even though it's not who I am, I'm not afraid of who I used to be. So embracing rather than running away from who you've been in the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNGER NOW")

CYRUS: (Singing) Even though it's not who I am, I'm not afraid of who I used to be. No one stays the same.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've been in the public eye since you were a child. And you always had this incredible poise and awareness of yourself as a public figure. Are you now sort of reclaiming that childhood? I'm seeing all these references to "Hannah Montana" in the stuff that you're putting out. You're seeing all this promotional material with these adorable kids pictures of you in it. Who is that Miley?

CYRUS: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, the way that I see myself now - everyone that I've been, whether you are thinking about Hannah Montana or the music I've made in the past, all of it's always been the truth. And so I think when people are saying the new Miley, the more honest Miley, it's - I've always been that. But I've been honest for who that person was then. You know, like, how "Younger Now" says change is a thing you can count on.

You know, for me, I don't change with the times or with fashion. I change by being active politically or by philanthropically. I think that really changes the way that I project who I am. I'm more, like, inspired. And the fire is put and lit in me by, like, my surroundings of the real world. And I think that's why people relate to my music - because in the day, I'm experiencing humanity with all the other listeners.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INSPIRED")

CYRUS: (Singing) I'm writing down my dreams, all I'd like to see, starting with the bees, or else they're going to die. There won't be no trees or air for us to breathe. I start feeling mad, but then I feel inspired.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about that song.

CYRUS: I wrote that song for Hillary Clinton. And that was - I had gone campaigning for her. And I was sitting in this line of really crazy traffic. And then I realized that I was in the middle of a funeral line. And I was behind a hearse. And all these people that I was looking at into their cars - they just looked so devastated. And it just made me start thinking about life and all the things that really, you know, matter and thinking about how much I always have loved nature. You know, it talks about the bees and saying that there might be a day where we won't, you know, have bees or blue skies or clear water or fish in the sea because of the way that we abuse the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INSPIRED")

CYRUS: (Singing) We are meant for more. You're the handle on the door that opens up to change. I know it sounds so strange.

You know, that song was really about being inspired to be active. You know, there's don't get mad, get glad. I mean, I feel like that's what it is, you know? I would be a good Glad spokesperson. But it's bad 'cause it's plastic, so that's not good for the environment. Maybe we can make reusable Saran Wrap out of hemp.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

CYRUS: We can make it out of hemp.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INSPIRED")

CYRUS: (Singing) How can we escape all the fear and all the hate? Is anyone watching us down here?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've gotten a lot of blowback for how you have incorporated black music into your work, on the "Bangerz" album in particular. There's a lot of anger in the African-American community. The Root just wrote about you and said that your music has exploited black people for profit. Do you understand that anger? Do you accept it?

CYRUS: I respect that. And I can't tell you that that's my intention. So I always feel, you know, apologetic and sympathetic, you know, and - to those who feel a way. But, you know, that's not my intention, so I can't say that I agree.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you still interested in that kind of music? You sort of moved away from it in this album.

CYRUS: Yeah, but I think that that's labeling. You know, it's like that kind of music. What does that mean? It's - I love music. I love all styles of music. I love, you know, Mike Will's music. I love Wayne Coyne's music. I love, you know, country music. I love Dolly's music. I love Leonard Cohen's music. I don't ever label music. I love it. It should be like sexuality. It should be like race. It should be like religion. I don't think about it when I think of something I like. I just like it, or I don't.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to ask you about another controversy. And I'm curious about this one. You know, you are very vocal as a self-declared feminist. But you have gotten, also, a lot of flak for your performance with Robin Thicke at the Video Music Awards in 2013 of a song that some view as promoting rape culture. You know, it's been a couple years.

CYRUS: That's so ridiculous. That's just the - I'm sorry. I empathize with people's feelings because, you know, opinions are a natural response in human beings. We all form opinions as we intake information. We judge it because that's the way we know not to cross the street when a car is [expletive] coming towards us. But besides that, that's so hurtful, actually, to take something that is good intention and not - like, that would make me a very, very sick [expletive] human - not just a woman but human.

And what's the difference of anyone else doing what they do in pop music? I mean, what's the difference of Britney Spears coming up, oiled up with a snake. I mean, it's like the same thing. It's any pop singer. I mean, I wish people - there's so many real, true problems in the world. If people would take their angst and their opinions and actually do something besides worry about what I'm doing - go and take your time. And instead of writing on a blog about what I'm doing, go and feed someone in your community and get mad and call your senators about the things that matter.

I'm, like, working in my community. I'm changing the way that people view sexuality. I'm working with suicide prevention programs. I'm feeding people that don't have food to eat. I'm doing my part as a human. You better go do your part if you're going to, like, even have one little opinion about what I do. You better be doing some great things for your community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to end this with a song featuring your godmother, the very great Dolly Parton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINBOWLAND")

MILEY CYRUS AND DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Living in a rainbowland, where everything goes as planned, and I smile 'cause I know if we tried, we could really make a difference in this world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What advice has she given you about navigating, I guess - I don't know - interviews like this one or how you keep your career going so long, about longevity?

CYRUS: I think she - the best thing that she does is she's not afraid to laugh at herself. You know, you take seriously what matters. But Dolly - part of her entertainment is by - in a way, she pushed the boundaries for country music by looking the way that she does and saying the things that she says and being sexual in that way. I mean, there's no one that's been able to make country music sexual, you know, more than Dolly.

But she would say, well, that's not why I'm doing it. That's not why I wear my hair like this. That's not why my boobs are this big. I mean, she does it because she likes it. And I think that's what she got to do. If you want to be in that way, pushing the boundaries, you have to like it - and to remember that, you know, you want to make music for the people that love your music for what - for your honesty and your fans. And, otherwise, just have fun and make the music that you love.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Miley Cyrus - her new album is "Younger Now." Thank you very, very much for joining us.

CYRUS: Thank you so much for chatting with me. I liked it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINBOWLAND")

CYRUS AND PARTON: (Singing) Living in a rainbowland, where you and I go hand in hand together. Let's do it together. (Unintelligible) forever. I know there's not a (unintelligible). We are in this, me and you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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