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Harry Styles and Miley Cyrus are reinventing their pop personas, but only one is pulling it off

Miley Cyrus, left, and Harry Styles, right Left: Ethan Miller / Getty. Right:  Emma McIntyre / Stringer
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Two of the most famous former child stars in the world have spent the past few months reinventing themselves, with mixed results.

Miley Cyrus is getting back to her roots: She’s growing out her hair. Her new single, “Malibu,” features a country-inflected twang, and in its accompanying video she’s frolicking innocently on the beach in a white dress. She’s back together with her ex-fiancé Liam Hemsworth. It’s all very Old Miley, very Just Post-Hannah Montana Miley, and with it comes a great deal of bonus disdain directed at the most recent Miley, the Twerking With a Giant Foam Finger Miley. It’s not a change that has been wildly well received.

Meanwhile, Harry Styles of One Direction is reinventing himself as a serious rock star, one who appreciates his old fan base but is also beginning to transcend it. He’s riding a wave of enviable publicity; people are comparing him to Frank Sinatra and calling him the savior of rock.

Why is Styles succeeding in doing what Miley is struggling to do? Why is his transition so smooth, so rapturously received, while hers is plagued with dark murmurs about betrayal and cultural appropriation and selling out?

Undoubtedly there are multiple factors at work here; for instance, the artistic merit of Styles’s “Sign of the Times” versus that of Cyrus’s “Malibu,” and our culture’s general willingness to grant good-looking young white boys more leniency than we grant to young women (or most other people). There is also the fact that Miley has already made this transition once before, while Styles is doing it for the first time, and the fact that things didn’t go too smoothly for Miley the last time she did it either.

But what’s been driving coverage of both Cyrus and Styles lately is their current relationship to their old personas. Cyrus is rejecting hers, but Styles is embracing his, and that changes the discussion.

Harry Styles is at the point in his career where most male stars get embarrassed by their teen girl fan bases. Instead, he’s embraced his.

Styles built his fame on his appeal to teenage girls, one of the most mocked and derided demographics in popular culture. Traditionally, male stars who appeal to this demographic find themselves coded as feminine and unserious, and if they want to have a career with longevity, they have to dump the fan base and disown their old personas. It’s what Leonardo DiCaprio did, and it’s what Styles’s One Direction bandmate Zayn Malik did. But Styles earned a slew of positive attention when he mounted a passionate defense of his teen girl fans in Rolling Stone this April.

"Who's to say that young girls who like pop music — short for popular, right? — have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy?” he demanded. “Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they're not serious? … Teenage-girl fans — they don't lie. If they like you, they're there. They don't act 'too cool.' They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick."

The implication is that Styles is moving on from his boy band roots but respects the fans and the musical culture that made him famous. He doesn’t despise his old persona, and he doesn’t despise that persona’s many fans. It’s a woke bae move that neatly positions him as a serious musician (girls liked the Beatles and girls like Harry Styles, so if you think about it, isn’t Harry Styles like the Beatles?) without alienating anyone.

Miley Cyrus has spent the past few years performing black culture. Now she’s turning her back on it.

Cyrus, in contrast to Styles, long ago shook off her past as a Disney Channel starlet beloved of teen girls: She smashed it when she swung naked from a wrecking ball and started talking about pot in every interview. And her core fan base was not impressed. They wrote articles like Virginia Van de Wall’s 2013 piece for the “teen celeb mag” J-14 “10 Things We Seriously Miss About Miley Cyrus,” which featured a GIF of a long-haired, glammed-up Cyrus tracing a heart in the air on a red carpet and the caption, “Forget sticking out her tongue, she was all about smiling and sharing the love on the red carpet.” Van de Wall was uninterested in what was then the New Miley. “We want the old Miley back! Waahhh,” she concluded.

For her part, Cyrus was ruthlessly opposed to such nostalgia. She posted a picture of her long-haired self on Instagram with the mocking caption, “I miss the old Miley lol lol lol lol lol,” and added, “When haters say they miss the old me (ps some of y'all r f--kinnnn cray cray! I look like cousin it f--ked a clementine! ) #imisstheoldmiley."

But as Cyrus debuts “Malibu,” she’s been eager to distance herself from her most recent persona as the pothead twerking next to Robin Thicke.

She’s growing out her hair to Hannah Montana lengths, and letting the natural roots show against the bleached blonde ends. She’s not naked in “Malibu,” or sticking out her tongue; she’s dressed in white and carrying balloons. She dances a funny jig and peeks out shyly at the camera from behind her windswept hair. Instead of coding herself as sexy or provocative, she’s coding herself as virginal, even childlike.

“Malibu” is, in fact, a very pointedly white video. It’s a bowl of vanilla ice cream with whipped cream. It’s an Instagram post of a sunset over the ocean with the caption “#blessed.” It’s a Nicholas Sparks movie where no one even has the decency to die at the end to add some drama.

And in interviews, Cyrus has made it clear that she won’t be returning to her previous persona; specifically, the persona that she built on hip-hop and black culture in what she now refers to as a “phase.”

“I love [Kendrick Lamar’s new song, ‘Humble’] because it’s not ‘Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock,’” she told Billboard. “I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ — I am so not that.”

Cultural commenters were so not into that quote.

“Miley borrowed blackness, appropriated black culture, and is now sh-t talking the very culture, the vibe, that she leveraged to transition her career,” wrote Lainey of Lainey Gossip. At the Daily Beast, Stereo Williams discussed the history of the white pop star who performs blackness in a play for shock value and street cred, “who gets to build a brand from just being a white woman trading on superficial approximation of blackness,” while “black artists don’t have the cultural leeway to milk and parody white art in a way that distorts, diminishes and obscures.”

Cyrus’s latest reinvention is part of a pattern of minimizing and mocking her old personas and, by extension, their fans: As she tells it, Old Old Miley “looked like cousin it f--ked a clementine,” and New Old Miley was sending a misogynistic and needlessly aggressive message. It rubs her fans the wrong way — and since her last persona borrowed so heavily from black culture, politically, it is not a good look.

Cyrus built her post-Disney career on borrowing black culture, and now she’s disowning it. She looks ungrateful, like she’s biting the hand that fed her. She put on blackness in order to acquire a sheen of cultural authenticity without actually experiencing anti-black prejudice, and now she’s bored and taking it off again.

So where Styles is using his career transition to mount a defense of his old fan base, Cyrus is using hers to suggest that for her, the past few years have been a rather crass bit of racial tourism. Styles’s choice has bought him loyalty from his old base even as he courts a new one: It creates a narrative in which he sees his old fans as human beings worthy of his respect.

We don’t know Miley Cyrus and we don’t know how she really feels, but the narrative she’s been creating is not one that suggests respect or a deep understanding of the humanity of black artists. Instead, it’s a narrative in which she uses black culture as a prop when it is convenient to her, and when it’s not, she throws it away. That’s not a narrative she can win.

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