Miley Cyrus spent the majority of her teen years donning a blonde wig and moonlighting at Hannah Montana. She’s now spent the entirety of her 20s topping the charts and lighting up the biggest stages in the world under her own name. As the pop star marks her 30th birthday today (Nov. 23), only time will tell what she has in store for us across the next decade.
Videos by American Songwriter
On her journey to becoming the rock-steeped vocalist she is today, Cyrus has gone through a number of evolutions. She has been a Disney star. She’s been a good girl gone wild. She’s even delved into the country realm. Grounding it all though has been her incomparable talent, which has allowed her to pull off each era with ease—it’s hard to discredit stunning vocals and a stellar stage presence.
From “Can’t Be Tamed” to “Heart of Glass,” we’ve compiled a list of the best live performances from Cyrus’ career in celebration of her birthday. Let’s dive in.
1. “Can’t Be Tamed” on Britain’s Got Talent
“Can’t Be Tamed” marked a shift in Cyrus’ career. She was no longer the Disney ingénue/girl-next-door type. Instead, she was maturing at a rapid pace and imbuing themes into her songs that weren’t safe for little ears. Though she performed the song a number of times prior, it was a 2010 performance on Britain’s Got Talent that really got people talking.
Midway through the song, Cyrus grabbed a female backup dancer, dipped her low, and simulated a kiss. Despite their lips not even touching, a large number of people seemed to take offense to what it implied. Cyrus released a statement promising that she didn’t actually kiss the dancer, writing, “It is ridiculous that two entertainers can’t even rock out with each other without the media making it some type of story. I really hope my fans are not disappointed in me because the truth is I did nothing wrong.”
Though it was met with generally disfavorable reviews back then, it was the first inkling of that rebel spirit we know and love from Cyrus today.
2. “When I Look At You” on American Idol
As anyone who has ever watched The Last Song knows: “When I Look At You” will bring a tear to the eye of even the least sentimental individual. It’s in the bones of the song itself. The erupting chorus is filled to the brim with emotion that strikes the listener right in the heart. While the recorded version of the track is surely moving, there is something about Cyrus performing it live that hits even harder.
3. “Lilac Wine” On The Backyard Sessions
To coincide with the formation of her philanthropic organization, the Happy Hippie Foundation, Cyrus released a series of intimate performances titled The Backyard Sessions. Among the series was a cover of “Lilac Wine” by James Shelton.
The cover highlighted Cyrus’ stellar vocal chops. In the early 2010s, Cyrus was still breaking free from her Disney framework and a large portion of the world wasn’t privy to the power of her voice yet. She made easy work of the iconic chorus, belting out the line Lilac wine is sweet and heady, like my love.
Like Nina Simone’s earlier version, Cyrus delivers something truly hypnotic and in return re-introduced herself to the world as an incomparable vocalist.
4. “We Can’t Stop/Blurred Lines”
Cyrus’ appearance alongside Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs remains a controversial performance, but we couldn’t have asked for much more from Cyrus during her Bangerz-era. Though the hip-hop steeped album made many a Cyrus fan, it also garnered her a fair amount of naysayers—both reactions she wore proudly.
The VMA performance solidified the pop maven’s image at the time: a latex-wearing twerker with her tongue stuck permanently out of her mouth. It is an iconic moment in pop culture and one of the most memorable performances on the MTV stage to boot.
5. “Wrecking Ball” On SNL
While many of the songs on Bangerz were geared towards amping up the party, the album also features one of Cyrus’ best ballads: “Wrecking Ball.” To promote the album, Cyrus appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2013 and sang through the slow-building track. You can feel the emotion behind every note while watching this performance. It’s a true showcase of the star power Cyrus holds.
6. Tom Petty Tribute on The Tonight Show with Billy Ray
Moving away from the hedonism of Bangerz (and the similarly experimental Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz), her sixth studio album, Younger Now, saw Cyrus return to her country roots. Around the same time, Tom Petty passed away and Cyrus used her appearance on The Tonight Show to fete the late icon.
Cyrus joined her dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, for a cover of the Petty classic “Wildflowers.” With little to distract from her golden vocals, the world was reminded of what Cyrus was underneath all that latex and circumstance.
7. “Nothing Else Matters” at Glastonbury 2019
After playing into her country side for a bit, Cyrus took a sharp turn into rock in 2019 with SHE IS COMING. Her set at Glastonbury in the same year saw her play through some of the EP’s top tracks to great appeal, but the real star of the show was a cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.”
Time and time again, Cyrus proves that she could hold her own as a certified rock star if she wanted to. And though we got a taste of what it would sound like if she did get that hankering with Plastic Hearts, we have yet to receive the gift that would be a thoroughbred hard-rock effort from Cyrus. However, we have this stellar cover of “Nothing Else Matters” to hold us on over in the meantime.
8. “The Climb” on The Tonight Show
Taking things back to the same appearance on the Tonight Show at the Petty cover, Cyrus excited fans the world over when she performed her Hannah Montana movie hit “The Climb.” The performance marked the first time she had brought the 2009 hit out in six years. The anthem about perseverance was dedicated to the victims of the Las Vegas shooting.
For years it seemed (or at the very least it was assumed) that Cyrus was running away from her Disney beginnings. However, during this performance, it felt like Cyrus had accepted that part of her story. We were watching a full-circle moment come to fruition.
9. Tiny Desk
A miniature teenage dream of a bedroom, a cowboy hat, and a Mazzy Star cover – what more could you want? While NPR’s lauded Tiny Desk series was still operating on a remote basis, Cyrus took on a suite of songs with vocals that struggled to be contained in such small confines.
Cyrus played a couple of songs from Plastic Hearts – “Golden G String” and “Prisoner” – but, blew the roof off the place with her rendition of “Fade Into You.” Hope Sandoval uses her inside voice on the original version of the song, keeping things to a low whisper. While that was just the ticket for the ’90s shoegaze crowd, Cyrus belts out the line I think it’s strange you never knew with a fervor that brings “Fade Into You” crashing into the 2021 pop scene. If you haven’t watched it already, it’s well worth the time.
10. “Heart of Glass” Cover at iHeart Festival
If you had Tik Tok downloaded in 2020, it’s a safe bet to assume you heard Cyrus’ cover of “Heart of Glass.” Like the Mazzy Star cover, she gives the Blondie hit a facelift, effectively making it her own. In contrast to the soft, lulling vocals of Debbie Harry, Cyrus punches through the bridge singing, If I fear I’m losing you. it’s just no good / You teasing like you do.
It made such an impact on pop culture that it eventually earned a spot on Plastic Hearts. On top of being a standout on the record, the performance is a testament to what Cyrus can do when she’s given free rein in a song.
Miley Cyrus (Photo: RCA Records)