By Hilary George-Parkin
Updated Dec 13, 2018 @ 1:47 pm
Michael Tran/Getty Images

In her new video for "Nothing Breaks Like a Heart," a country-disco collaboration with producer Mark Ronson, Miley Cyrus speeds away from cop cars and helicopters through a fractured America, hair pulled tight in a bobbled side pony, wearing a silver mini dress that looks like something Joan Collins would have worn on Dynasty (or, for a more contemporary small-screen reference, like something Gugu Mbatha-Raw would have worn in the "San Junipero" episode of Black Mirror, a show Cyrus is rumored to be appearing in next season).

The sound is a fitting evolution for the Tennessee native, whose musical oeuvre has, in the past five years, swung from bawdy hip-hop to psychedelic pop to stripped-down acoustic to classic country, including covering her godmother Dolly Parton's quintessential "Jolene." But really, what many of us have been waiting with bated breath to see since Cyrus wiped her Instagram account clean this summer, is what she'd look like when she finally returned.

mileycyrus/Instagram

At 26, Cyrus has already proven herself to be one of the most malleable stars on the planet, and a master at using style to usher in new chapters in her life. The most glaring example — the giant teddy bear in the room when you talk about Cyrus' past — was the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, in which the singer, still just a handful of years out of filming Hannah Montana for the Disney Channel, appeared onstage in a flesh-colored latex bikini with her hair in bantu knots, working the more phallic aspects of a foam finger and grinding on Robin Thicke.

Though she'd debuted the platinum pixie cut a year earlier and had been choosing gradually darker, more outré outfits to complement it, the performance was a cultural lightning rod, and suddenly, everyone had something to say about Cyrus.

The more hysterical-sounding detractors were certain the pop star was heading in a downward spiral à la Britney Spears circa 2007, pointing mostly to her lyrics celebrating weed, sex, and Molly. Unlike her paparazzi-plagued predecessor, she actually seemed to be having fun.

RELATED: Miley Cyrus' "Nothing Breaks Like a Heart" Fashion is Super...Naked

Far more valid were the criticisms around race: many viewers were frustrated (if not exactly surprised), that Cyrus, a wealthy white woman, was "trying on" and profiting from — and, it would turn out, later discarding — the aesthetics of marginalized black communities (grills, gang signs, twerking, that hair) without ever seeming to deeply engage with the people within them. (To quote Nicki Minaj, "Miley, what's good?") Indeed, this practice has been well-honed by the star's forerunners, including Madonna with her excavation of the voguing community, a group made up largely of queer and trans people of color, and Gwen Stefani with her mute Harajuku Girls. Cyrus has never really addressed these issues herself, either, other than to say in a 2014 interview that she's "not Disney, where they have, like, an Asian girl, a black girl, and a white girl, to be politically correct," and also that she doesn't "give a shit."

"I don't give a [insert expletive of choice]" is something of a mantra for Cyrus, deployed toward anyone who doesn't approve of her actions, outfits, or dance moves. After being pushed into making several very public apologies as a teen (most memorably for posing topless wrapped in a bedsheet for a Vanity Fair photoshoot), she's repudiated the practice and with it the child-star industrial complex in which she came of age. (Disney Channel Worldwide's president of entertainment was quoted at the time as saying, "For Miley Cyrus to be a ‘good girl’ is now a business decision for her. Parents have invested in her a godliness. If she violates that trust, she won’t get it back.")

Getty Images

So far, all of Cyrus' reinventions (or "transitions," as she called them last year) have been the product of rebellion, whether or not she's articulated that at the time. Her initial leap from Hannah Montana, her spunky on-screen alter ego and the face of a billion-dollar Disney franchise, to teen pop-rocker Miley Cyrus required her to rethink some of the rules she'd learned on set.

"From the time I was 11, it was, 'You're a pop star! That means you have to be blonde, and you have to have long hair, and you have to put on some glittery tight thing,'" she told Marie Claire in 2015. "Meanwhile, I'm this fragile little girl playing a 16-year-old in a wig and a ton of makeup. It was like Toddlers & Tiaras."

While filming the show's final season in 2010, she told Parade that the monotonous, kid-friendly costumes had become unbearable. "When they’re putting me in sparkles and in pink this final season, I have to grit my teeth," she said. "I can’t breathe looking like that anymore. A friend came by the set one day and said, ‘You don’t look very happy.’ I said, ‘I’m feeling claustrophobic in all these frills.’”

Sure enough, her first album out of the gate post-Hannah Montana was Can't Be Tamed, the cover of which features Cyrus in head-to-toe leather, her spray-tanned abs front and center. In the title song's video, she plays a caged bird in a black bodysuit, heavy eye makeup, and giant wings — a legible, if not exactly original, declaration of sexuality and independence for a pop star on the brink of adulthood. If anything, this was her Britney moment.

Getty Images

Her Bangerz-era reinvention was something different: too weird to be sexy, exactly, on the industry's usual terms, despite the abundance of crotch slapping, thong leotards, and lingerie-as-red-carpet-wear. If it was a provocation, it was more "fuck you" than "fuck me." Cyrus cited punk-rock idols like Joan Jett and Blondie as inspirations at the time — like her, both broke the rules of what a woman was supposed to wear, and pissed off some moms in the process —  and encouraged fans to own their sexuality, often while appearing mostly naked herself.

The nudity was also an unexpected catalyst for her next evolution. If the whole world was going to be looking at her and what she was doing, she explained to Wonderland this spring, "then what I am doing should be impactful and it should be great." To that end, Cyrus founded the Happy Hippie Foundation to support LGBTQ+ and homeless youth in 2014, and brought a young homeless man to the VMAs that year to deliver a speech in her place.

RELATED VIDEO: Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth's Cutest Couple Moments

RELATED: Miley Cyrus' Cryptic Return to Social Media After Months of Silence

Next, her style took a turn for the psychedelic, an early preview of her collaboration with Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips. On top of their meandering free album, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, and hallucinatory tour, which included such costumes as prosthetic genitalia and a giant stick-of-butter suit, Cyrus took to accessorizing with bunny ears, face stickers, white-girl dreadlocks, and nipple pasties. (Of the latter, she later explained, "I felt it was part of my political movement.") She came out as pansexual and gender fluid, went vegan, and got involved first in Bernie Sanders', and then Hillary Clinton's presidential campaigns.

Getty Images

Thus firmly established as one of the most boundary-pushing figures in contemporary pop music, Cyrus did something surprising: she went back to her roots, growing out her hair and stripping off the candy-colored latex and go-go boots in favor of turtleneck sweaters and white dresses. Eventually, she said of her token NSFW look, "It got to a point where I did feel sexualized.” She also had a job on prime time TV as a coach for The Voice and a quieter life in Malibu, neither of which lent themselves well to nipple pasties.

Even in returning to familiar territory, though, she managed to piss off people by denouncing the rap world that helped catapult her to superstardom for the second time, saying she eventually got turned off by the scene because, "It was too much 'Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock' — I am so not that." By contrast, her video for "Malibu," a folky tune about reuniting with fiancé Liam Hemsworth, shows her frolicking around the California coast dressed in virginal white, the racial implications of which did not go unnoticed.

Getty Images

Cyrus often insists in interviews that her moves are calculated and strategic; that, despite how it may sometimes appear to onlookers, she has it all figured out, career-wise. "I just want people to see that this is who I am right now," she told Harper's Bazaar last July, "I’m not saying I’ve never been myself… It’s just myself has been a lot of different people because I change a lot.”

Having already raged against the Disney machine, the tyranny of prudishness, and the idea of conformity, though, what does Cyrus have left to rebel against? So far, "Nothing Breaks Like a Heart" provides a hint, but not much more.

What at first seemed like a breakup song (in the year of our lord Ariana Grande?! Who would dare?) is instead a broader sendup of hypocrisy and heartbreak on a national level, including gun violence, police brutality, and tabloid culture. Cyrus has made only a handful of public appearances since dropping the video on Nov. 29, but in those we have seen a new, more sophisticated look — one populated with Gucci belts, opaque black tights, over-the-knee stiletto boots (think Stella McCartney, not Pleaser), freshly blown-out hair, and, at last count, half a dozen black turtlenecks. The transformation calls to mind Lady Gaga's Old Hollywood era, or maybe the Olsen twins when they first got into capital-f fashion, but with a political spin: on Monday, Cyrus paired an oversized plaid Stella McCartney suit and floppy, fuzzy hat with a cutoff "Protect Kids Not Guns" tee by the sustainable brand CHNGE, and all the "leather" and "fur" she's worn so far has been strictly faux.

Getty Images

The videos she shared on Instagram last week from outside her hotel in London, her first stop in promoting the single before New York City, where she's currently preparing to perform on Saturday Night Live on December 15, were all in black and white, showing the singer signing autographs for fans amid a barrage of flashing paparazzi cameras, looking every bit the traditional celebrity, a role she's resisted for the better part of a decade. Only the third black-and-white post hints at the old Miley: tongue out and nipples on display (under a turtleneck, but still).

Inevitably, this new aesthetic will be palatable to the fashion crowd (did I mention she's wearing a lot of black?) but what about the fans that embraced — and saw themselves represented in — her refusal to conform to the norm? Will they feel alienated by an agreeable, high-fashion version of their favorite renegade pop star (even if everything she's wearing is vegan)? If so, they seem to be in the minority. Smilers — Cyrus's die-hard fans — have been fawning over the video since it went up, and most of the comments on her Instagram posts are some variation of "slay, queen!" or "iconic."

And anyway, if we've learned anything from Cyrus, it's that she  doesn't give a fuck either way — she's going to do exactly what she wants.