It’s hard to believe that just 12 months ago, Cyrus was yet another Disney star trying to make the bumpy transition from teenybopper to mainstream success story, and Thicke had the biggest hit on the planet. But on Aug. 25, 2013, at the MTV Video Music Awards in Brooklyn, it took just six-and-a-half minutes for their lives – and pop-culture – to change forever.
Their career trajectories intersected that night for the now-infamous performance medley of Cyrus’ first big-girl hit, “We Can’t Stop,” and Thicke’s global smash, “Blurred Lines” (allegedly Thicke’s “Give It 2 U” was also involved). There were dancing teddy bears, an overused foam finger, an unflattering flesh-colored bikini, some very obvious groping and twerking – lots and lots of twerking. For lack of a better term, it was a hot mess.
Yet Cyrus worked the over-the-top spectacle to her advantage, soaking up all the negative reactions and spitting them back out as self-promotional, 140-character social media triumphs. (“Smilers! My VMA performance had 306,000 tweets per minute. That’s more than the blackout or Super Bowl! #fact,” she tweeted the next day.) And the former Hannah Montana star wasted no time working the second single off her then-upcoming Bangerz album. “Wrecking Ball” dropped the same day as the VMAs, and its eye-catching video, in which she swings naked on the song’s namesake, premiered two weeks later, breaking the Vevo record for the most views in 24 hours. The song would quickly climb its way to number 1 (her first) on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. And Cyrus’ star power just skyrocketed from there.
While Cyrus was shooting straight into the stratosphere, Thicke’s career was quickly going south. The same week “Wrecking Ball” set the Internet ablaze, “Blurred Lines” 12-week run atop the Hot 100 came to an end, and scandalous reports (and one pretty damning photo) surfaced suggesting that Thicke had played some serious grab-ass with a woman at a VMAs after-party – a woman who wasn’t his wife, actress Paula Patton. (And it wasn’t the first time such accusations were made.)
As he began to sink in his own excess, Cyrus wallowed in it like a pig in shit – provoking the naysayers while leading the selfie generation to new heights of self-awareness. From twerking and wagging tongues to “Wrecking Ball” parodies and even an uptick in foam finger and leotard sales, her new-found influence could be seen in every facet of pop-culture. Even A-list stars like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé found themselves trying to keep up. Upon its release in October, Bangerz topped the Billboard albums chart, selling 270,000 copies in its first week; she embarked on a high-profile world tour that seemingly courted controversy at every stop (Bill Clinton blow job, anyone?); and by July of this year, she landed at No. 17 on Forbes’ list of most powerful celebrities, besting Gaga, Taylor Swift and Kanye West. Everything she touched turned to gold.
On the flipside, everything Thicke did sunk like a stone: His next two singles, “Give It 2 U” and “Feel Good,” barely made a dent, and Marvin Gaye’s family claimed “Blurred Lines” ripped off Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” (a lawsuit was settled out of court). Soon, Thicke’s crumbling relationship became the only thing people seemed to care about, especially after his attempts to win Patton back went public: TMZ photographed dozens of bouquets of flowers being sent to her on his behalf, and cringe-worthy videos of mid-concert pleas for forgiveness surfaced. Then, in February, after Patton announced she was leaving him, Thicke canceled concerts so he could reportedly jet to her side to beg for forgiveness in person.
(For the record, Cyrus also went through a very public breakup, from actor-fiancé Liam Hemsworth, but was much defter at maneuvering the situation, probably because of newly hired manager Larry Rudolph, who has steered most of Britney Spears’ career.)
Of course, on top of that, Thicke’s Blurred Lines follow-up, Paula, totally tanked. The headlines were downright embarrassing: The album, which was dedicated to Patton in hopes she’d take him back, sold 158 copies in Australia (no, that’s not a typo), 530 in the United Kingdom and 24,000 in the United States upon its release earlier this summer. That’s a far cry from the 177,000 copies his previous album sold in its first week here in the states.
Thicke’s personal life wasn’t his only problem. Pent-up anger over the “rapey” lyrics in “Blurred Lines” came to a head during a Twitter Q&A meant to promote Paula, when he was inundated with questions like: “If a woman says no but ‘you know she wants it,’ how many years in prison would you serve?” “Now that you’ve made it commercially viable to be a creepily insidious, misogynistic sexual predator, what’s next for you?” and, “On a scale of R. Kelly to Phil Spector, how do you intend to ‘Get Her Back’?” one fan asked, referring to the album’s lead single.
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So, where does it go from here for the two stars?
That’s anyone’s guess. But with a failed album and a failed marriage on his hands, the best thing for Thicke to do right now is lay low. Meanwhile, true to form, Cyrus is doing anything but. In fact, she’ll return to the scene of the initial pop-culture crime, attending the 2014 VMAs on Aug. 24 – sans Thicke, of course. Chances are, though, they’ll eventually meet in the middle again. Because when you’re at the top, there’s nowhere to go but down.