Miley Cyrus vs. Taylor Swift

As far as I know, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift do not hate each other. In fact, they appear to be on rather friendly terms in this YouTube video. At one point, Miley even referred to Taylor as her “best friend.”*

*Although, to be fair, she’s also applied that term to her dad, Nick Jonas, her YouTube talk-show co-host Mandy Jiroux, Liam Henson, the “Leslie” of “See You Again,” and, of course, God. Miley may have more “best friends” than any pop star in history.  

So there is no obvious enmity between the two of them, but I feel like there should be. It seems to me that there should be a Highlanderesque, there-can-only-be-one vibe to their relationship. There can be no peaceful coexistence between these two stars.

From where I sit, these two are completely interchangeable. They’re both young singers who sing bad country-infused pop songs about what kind of shoes they wear. They both sing primarily for a vast audience of girls between the ages of 11 and 19. They both dated a Jonas Brother. They’re both from small towns. They’re both (ostensibly) wholesome. They both play the “gosh-I’m-just-so-overwhelmed-by-all-this-attention-since-I’m-from-a-modest-small-town” card, even though they’ve each spent over 25% of their conscious lives as superfamous sensations.

This seems like it should create a natural rivalry. And yet, even with a music media that loves pitting artists against each other unnecessarily (Britney vs. Christina, *NSYNC vs. Backstreet Boys, The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, Kanye West vs. 50 Cent), not very much has been made of these two as potential rivals. In fact, most people don’t seem to consider them very similar at all.

It’s a hard claim to prove, but it seems obviously true to me that people generally like Swift more than Cyrus. The reason why this is a tricky point to make is that it seems almost irrelevant. For one, they are both very popular. Miley Cyrus’ Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus sold almost 2.5 million copies in 2007, and her first sans Hannah solo record, Breakout, debuted at #1 last year. Taylor Swift sold over four million albums last year alone. Trying to determine which of them is more popular is kind of like trying to figure out if Bill Gates is richer than Warren Buffet, or vice versa: They’re both doing very well.

Another complication to the claim is that, like comparing the fabulously wealthy, at such stratospheric levels of fame, the differences in “popularity” become hard to precisely quantify. Pretty much everyone is aware of both Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. Some are fans of one. Some of the other. Some of both. Some of neither. Some are indifferent. Some people kind of like “Party in the USA” and “See You Again,” but really like “You Belong with Me.” Some people don’t really like Miley, but haven’t heard enough of Taylor’s music to make a judgment. Etc. Suffice to say, comparing their popularity is complicated.

So I guess I’m not trying to make a quantitative claim about popularity; I’m more concerned with their cultural status.

A celebrity’s “cultural status” is the value they have to us—the common folk—as public entities. For example, if I say something like, “Man, I hate my boss. He’s dumber than Lindsay Lohan!” then you know to think, Oh, he thinks his boss is really stupid, because Lindsay Lohan is perceived to be a very dumb celebrity, despite the fact that I myself know little to nothing about Ms. Lohan, and certainly not enough to make a proper assessment of her intelligence. Similarly, if I say, “That guy’s girlfriend is trashier than Paris Hilton,” then you’ll (accurately) conclude that Wow, his girlfriend is VERY trashy. I’m not saying these perceptions are inaccurate, just that their accuracy is secondary to the signals they’re supposed to send.

Somehow, despite all of their similarities, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift send totally different signals. Taylor Swift is generally perceived to be innocent, sincere, sweet, kind, naïve and down-to-Earth. Miley Cyrus, however, is perceived to be a vapid, slutty, shallow, ignorant, oblivious product of the Disney machine, who doesn’t deserve her fame. So, despite the fact that they both have their songs played on the radio at a similar rate, and they both regularly perform on TV, Swift is better-liked than Cyrus; people view her much more favorably. In fact, one website voted Miley the worst celebrity role model of 2009. The worst! She finished ahead of Kanye West, for fuck’s sake!  

I’m not saying that there aren’t reasons for this. If you Google “Miley Cyrus controversy,” you will get results about Miley stripping, pole-dancing, making fun of Asians, making fun of gays, taking inappropriate photographs for magazines, and not dressing her sister appropriately for Halloween (as if that is somehow her responsibility). If you Google “Taylor Swift controversy,” you will pretty much only get stories about Kanye—a controversy in which Swift was the most innocent of victims.

The problem with this logic, however, is that all of Miley’s “controversies” are pretty mild in actual fact. Her “stripping” photos didn’t reveal anything that wouldn’t be revealed in a bathing suit (not that I’ve ever seen them or anything). Contrastively, Vanessa Hudgens had multiple photos leaked of her naked, and her reputation is more or less intact, despite appealing to the same crowd (although she did do “Sneakernight,” for which I would forgive War Crimes). Her “pole-dancing” really stretches the definition of “pole-dancing”—it’s more like “dancing in the vicinity of a pole.” Compare her “pole dance” with this one, for example. The worst thing she did was take some stupid pictures making fun of “Asian eyes,” but it’s not like Taylor Swift hasn’t taken some stupid racially insensitive pictures of her own. They’re young girls; they do stupid things—we can let these things go.

It’s not really true, then, that Miley’s behavior has been so deplorable. People are just more keen, for some reason, to latch onto her peccadilloes than they latch onto Swift’s. This is really an effect of our different perceptions of the two figures, not its cause.

To get at the root of the issue, I decided to turn to the only die-hard Taylor Swift fan I know: my sister. My sister has been right on occasion, and I figured she was closer to the situation, so I asked her why people like Swift more than Cyrus. She said a lot of things, including “Miley’s obvs a skank,” and “I hate her,” but she said at least one thing that seemed relevant: “Taylor just seems very genuine and honest. I just think it’s a quality that she has, where you just want to protect her.”

This seems pretty clearly true: It’s hard to come up with a public figure who is seen as more wholesome and innocent than Taylor Swift. Why? Part of this perception comes from her lyrics. The fact that she writes her own songs—and is often very forthcoming about what (and who) inspired a song—seems to point to a heart-on-her-sleeve vulnerability.

Of course, Miley Cyrus writes most of her own songs as well.* That qualifier of “most,” though, is very important. A few weeks ago, Cyrus gave an interview in which she was asked which Jay-Z song she had in mind in “Party in the USA” (for those unfamiliar with the song, one of the lyrics simply goes: “And a Jay-Z song was on, and a Jay-Z song was on…”). Her response: “I don’t know. I didn’t write the song.” She also went on to say that she had “never heard a Jay-Z song” and that she “doesn’t listen to pop music.”**

*Although I suspect most people don’t buy that her input in the creative process is all that substantive.

**The fact she used “pop music” to describe Jay-Z upset some people, but to me it just signals that she was using “pop” broadly, in a way that would comprise most “popular” acts. But the fact that she was using the broad definition and STILL claimed not to listen to pop music is very intriguing. I like to think that when Miley’s in private, she listens exclusively to experimental jazz and math rock, but she probably just means country music.

Now, a lot of people didn’t like this answer. Some even called it “self-destructive.” At first, even I was unsettled. But really, why? It’s not a secret that she didn’t write the song. For some, this is somehow a sign of dishonesty. But that’s fucking ridiculous. “Party in the USA” is literally a song about partying in the USA. There is no other way to interpret it. That sentiment is so broad and inclusive that no one writer can have domain over it. Accusing someone of being dishonest for singing it without writing it is like accusing someone of dishonesty because they didn’t write the Happy Birthday song. It’s not a song about Miley’s personal taste; Jay-Z and Britney are picked because they are popular acts (who happened to have tours and albums coming up when the song was released) who are likely to be played at parties in the USA.

What I suspect upset people the most is how honest she is in her answer. She doesn’t stammer or stutter or feel trapped by the question; she just tells the truth, because she doesn’t find it embarrassing. People are disturbed by this frank admission of something pop stars aren’t supposed to admit: that their songs are not personal expressions, but embodiments of clichés.

One of the more interesting, if unknown (for good reason, it’s a bad song), Miley Cyrus songs is “East Northumberland High.” The song is basically about a high school sweetheart she has outgrown. The refrain goes, “Just because I liked you back then/Doesn’t mean I like you now.” When this song came out, she was 14. In other words, she was singing a song about someone she had grown apart from after high school before she would have completed her first year of high school. The fact that the song is so obviously not true for the singer matters less than the fact that it expresses some simple sentiment that an audience can relate to.

Even the songs she writes are like this. She was writing songs about guys who fail to notice her and hanging out with her girlfriends while she was a star of one of the most popular shows on TV. This would be like me writing an album of songs about what it’s like to grow up in the African wilderness.

The fact that Cyrus is so obvious about this disconnect—that she doesn’t even try to hide it—must bother some people. It makes them feel like she is disingenuous, or even manipulative. At the very least, it makes them feel like she is a pawn of the Disney company or Hollywood Records, who could easily be replaced by some other pre-teen with a mediocre voice and a fetish for Jesus.

On the other hand, Swift’s songs strike people as much more personal because they seem to actually describe her life. But it’s a little silly to claim that her songs are any less generic than Miley’s. Cyrus has a song about partying in the USA; Swift has one about a boy she likes. Cyrus has a song about a girls’ night out; Swift has one about a really bad breakup. The fact that some of the stories Swift writes about are based on her actual experiences only obscures this fact—just because you were once in love doesn’t make the line “you’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess” any less bland. 

It’s also just as absurd for Swift’s fans to get the impression from her songs that her life is like theirs. It’s true that some of her songs were written prior to her fame, but in the last four years, her life has changed radically. She’s dated a Jonas Brother and someone from “Twilight.” For many of her fans, that probably seems like a perfect fantasy world.

I’m not trying to say that Cyrus and Swift are trying to deceive their fans or pretend that they are something they’re not. They’re only doing what all artists do: trying to make personal expression relatable and compelling to others. They’re just doing it in a very simple and superficial way, as is pop music’s tendency (here pop music being defined narrowly). This generally leads to clichés.

People like Taylor Swift because she seems to live the cliché. She is innocent and wholesome and completely unaware that the sentiment of “You Belong with Me” was trite when it was the plotline of the first season of Dawson’s Creek. Miley Cyrus, though, seems not only aware of this, but okay with it. And people find this manipulative and dishonest, and assume that Miley is a pawn or an act.

I, for one, think it’s more honest. It’s very hard—though not impossible—for me to believe that Taylor Swift is as naïve and enthusiastic as she seems. It’s much easier for me to accept that Miley Cyrus doesn’t like Jay-Z, but is willing to sing about him because other people like him. And what’s wrong with a singer who wants to appeal to our tastes?

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15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jay on November 18, 2009 at 6:17 PM

    “It’s not really true, then, that Miley’s behavior has been so deplorable. People are just more keen, for some reason, to latch onto her peccadilloes than they latch onto Swift’s. This is really an effect of our different perceptions of the two figures, not its cause.”

    It seems obviously to me that the perceived greater backlash against miley cyrus is largely the result of miley’s much greater cultural status. In this way, the two are simply incomparable. Album sales are bit of a red herring when you consider her show, movie(s?), toys, apparel, etc. It really is an empire. Time even named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world last year (I guess Taylor Swift just missed the cut…). I think you’re correct that there seems to be a double standard, but I think the explanation for why there is one probably goes deeper and has more to do with miley’s relative power. To the extent that people think miley represents something undesirable, they are more likely to make that due to her greater ubiquity.

    Reply

  2. Posted by soulmerchant on November 19, 2009 at 12:19 AM

    Hey, fuck this. Write about how Bob’s video for “Must Be Santa” is easily in the top 15 Bob Dylan songs.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Elizabeth Schneider on November 19, 2009 at 1:37 AM

    ok. First of all, I’m pretty sure it’s got to be illegal to just fucking quote somebody without their knowledge or permission. But whatever.

    secondly, get your facts straight. Miley and Taylor have CLEARLY not been good friends for a while. After they performed that song at the Grammys together in february, neither one has so much as mentioned the other (well, at least, taylor hasnt mentioned miley. i dont follow stupid miley’s life). I’m pretty sure that at some point one or both stopped following the other on twitter (this is hard to prove now as Miley The Pawn deleted her account because her boyfriend told her to) and although taylor mentions both selena gomez and demi lovato pretty regularly, she never mentions miley. Now, this may mean nothing to you, but those four were pretty close for a while. my personal theory is that miley started hooking up with nick jonas back in may or june and this pissed Taylor off because of the sheer jackassery of the jonas brothers (they have a song on their most recent album about how “much better” camilla belle is than Taylor). Also, neither member of TaySquared has publicly admitted that they are a couple.

    But i digress. So, in Chuck Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur (and i am so not linking to your review of it) he talks about how “only an adult can feel good about someone else’s failure”, which is why ten year old girls dont “feel good when Britney spears has a nervous breakdown on live TV”. Now, i disagree with him in that this is exclusive to adults. Girls start feeling this way around middle school or high school.
    Having said all this, the difference between miley and taylor is their respective origins. Miley’s dad was famous (i don’t really know how famous, but that is unimportant, the people who this matters to are people of my generation, and we weren’t around when billy ray was popular. the first time. i guess.) and Miley never had the time to have any sort of childhood failures. I believe she auditioned for hannah when she was 10. And she auditioned and got the part. then blew the fuck up. the end.
    On the other hand, as all die-hard taylor fans know, taylor had a lot of trouble in middle school because nobody wanted to be her friend. because she has curly hair. (look, you can complain about miley and taylor’s shoe songs all you want, but this is how teenage girls THINK. The kinds of shoes you wear and the condition of your hair are basically the sum-total of your existence.) Taylor is also originally from Wyomissing, PA, where after seeing a tv special on Faith Hill, pressured her parents to take her to nashville because nashville=stardom. They went to nashville and she personally distributed a demo to every record company she could get into. She then worked for a year and a half under a development deal with sony. they wanted to keep her in development, so she ditched them and signed up to be on a label that was still being created.
    My point? Taylor had to work to become successful, Miley didn’t. Anyone with enough interest to own multiple albums of either of these two knows this.

    Point number two: Taylor may be naive, but it isnt as though she doesnt understand the industry. Her strategy of NEVER being negative in the press is obvs working for her (find me a quote in which she actually insults kanye west. just try.) whereas miley is whiny and constantly complaining about not having enough free time and how twitter takes up too much of what little free time she does have and oh my god SHUT UP. When miley does shit like take risque photos (look, how risque the photos are doesnt matter. its an image thing. miley is not actively trying to promote herself as wholesome, she goes around dressed like a skank all the time. taylor refuses to answer questions about the status of her virginity because she doesnt like the idea of people picturing her naked.) it seems ungrateful. taylor thanks her fans like 20 times a day. she gives interviews talking about how she doesnt want to go out partying because she wants to be a good role model for her young fans. miley has a number one single ABOUT PARTYING IN THE USA.

    anyway. that’s all. miley’s a hoebag.

    Reply

  4. Posted by James Schneider on November 22, 2009 at 1:53 PM

    Ok, so you either really wanted to say that thing about Elizabeth being the only Taylor Swift fan you know, or you don’t really think I like Taylor Swift. Also, defend your claim that “Kanye v. 50 Cent” exists, AND WHY ARE YOU SO DOWN ON KANYE. If you don’t count Lupe Fiasco due to his obscurity, Kanye is the best rapper-role model. Also, East Northumberland High was delightful. I’m dissappointed, for realskies.

    Reply

  5. […] lot has been said about Miley Cyrus at this point—most of it has very little to do with her music. She’s a good role model for kids, she’s a […]

    Reply

  6. […] as clever repackaging of general clichés. In fact, back in November, I praised Miley for being so open and honest about this relationship: The fact that she was so willing to admit that she was singing about listening to Jay-Z not to […]

    Reply

  7. taylor swift was more beautiful than miley cyrus.. thats it!!

    Reply

  8. Posted by Sam on November 22, 2010 at 7:02 PM

    Taylor Swift doesn’t have a lisp…so it doesn’t sound like she needs to swallow a mouth full up spit each time she talks.

    Reply

  9. Posted by MILEY I LOVE on December 26, 2010 at 9:07 PM

    miley!! a sido mi idola a seguir desde los 0 años y ahora tengo 18 años imaginense bss!! bye!

    Reply

  10. taylor swiftt is way better than crack head miley cyrus hahahahhahahahha

    Reply

  11. Posted by ishan on January 2, 2012 at 1:16 PM

    taylor swift is more best than miley cyrus. miley cyrus is very cheap girl .

    Reply

  12. Posted by Anonymous on December 14, 2012 at 1:57 AM

    You know what!!! Miley has 1 boyfriend for 4 years.. And Taylor has 14 boyfriends in 4 years… So who is the fucking play girl now?!?!?!?!?!

    Reply

  13. Posted by Anonymous on December 14, 2012 at 2:01 AM

    Taylor cheated on Harry styles!!! You know?!?!?! If you don’t!! Your a fucking unupdated ***hole!!

    Reply

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