Miley Cyrus is having a different kind of viral moment than she has in the past. Thanks to the series of covers she’s done on The Tonight Show, iHeartRadio Festival, BBC Radio 1 lounge, and every other remote program she’s appeared on over the last couple of months, Cyrus has repeatedly garnered attention in the best way possible. Ranging from Blondie to Billie Eilish, the covers Cyrus has performed prove a point we’ve long known: She’s a powerhouse vocalist, dominating a lonely class outside of anything her peers are doing.
The last time Cyrus impressed fans — and especially skeptics — with her raspy-voiced take on classic songs was back in 2012 and again in 2015 for her Backyard Sessions. Both series were in benefit of her Happy Hippie Foundation and featured a slew of guests ranging from Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace to Ariana Grande. Backyard Sessions is back again, this time presented by MTV’s long-running Unplugged program, Cyrus’ second time performing on the series. It’s perfect for these quarantined times, taking place beneath California palm trees, Cyrus backed by her masked band the Social Distancers.
In line with the glam rock liberation of her new single “Midnight Sky,” Cyrus gives the full glitz for the stripped-down production: platinum mullet, red lipstick, and campy animal prints. She kicks off the show with a rootsy take on Britney Spears’ “Gimme More,” a spin on the electro-pop classic that would feel gimmicky and disingenuous from anyone who wasn’t Cyrus, a noted Spears stan. The rest of her 30-minute set pays homage to her heroes outside of pop, with this particular music history scholar opting for deep cuts along the way. For her Pearl Jam pick, she goes for a more recent hit from the band, the dreamy and slow “Just Breathe,” which she injects with more life than even Eddie Vedder does on the original. She channels Lou Reed via Cowboy Junkies on the cosmically mellow “Sweet Jane,” deftly channeling the acute coolness of both versions. Her take on the Cardigans’ dreamy 2003 tune “Communication” makes a strong case for it to stage a comeback as a slow-dance staple.
The end of show shifts back to 2020: She’s joined by her younger sister Noah Cyrus to sing Noah’s country-tinged ballad “I Got So High That I Saw Jesus.” The sisters harmonize as the eldest Cyrus looks on proudly. The show appropriately wraps with “Midnight Sky,” the Stevie Nicks-sampling single that’s the very reason why Cyrus has entered this covers-heavy promotional cycle. The only unpleasant part of the show is that she leaves us hanging after that, hungry for more of what she’s been cooking up for her current era. Lucky for her, that is the best possible outcome of a cycle built around singing other people’s songs.
While every selection shows off just how brand-new Cyrus can make a song of any age sound, the choices feel solely connected by some of the deeper reflections she’s shared in recent interviews: Musings on the heavily publicized dissolution of her marriage to her teenage sweetheart and having spent the majority of her life in the spotlight. When she sings “Communication” — which begins with “For 27 years I’ve been trying/To believe and confide in/Different people I’ve found” — it’s hard not to connect the sentiment to the nearly 28-year-old pop star.
The most humbling — and impressive — cover is also the oldest: the Nico version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days.” Cyrus sounds just as world-wearied as both Nico and Browne sounded in 1967, but her smirk while singing “I won’t do too much scheming these days” indicates much less sadness than one would expect. These days, it seems, she’s found a way to make that rebellious nature of hers work for and not against her — and it’s paying off in spades.
MTV Unplugged Presents Miley Cyrus’ Backyard Sessions Setlist
“Gimme More” (Britney Spears cover)
“These Days” (Nico cover)
“Sweet Jane” (Velvet Underground cover)
“Just Breathe” (Pearl Jam cover)
“Communication” (The Cardigans cover)
“I Got So High That I Saw Jesus” featuring Noah Cyrus (Noah Cyrus cover)