If you were a child in the late 2000s, there’s a good chance you watched Miley Cyrus in her breakout role on Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana. She acted in that role for five years and was known to have a much stronger voice than most of her Disney peers (excluding Demi Lovato). But it was sometimes hard to tell over all the electric guitars, synths, bells, and whistles that characterized the show’s music. As she matured on the series, so did the music, culminating in the series’ final number, “I’ll Always Remember You”—an emotional ballad about moving on and growing up. The song is ingrained in every Disney kid’s brain because it marked the end of Cyrus’ childhood and, alongside it, many of their own. Once the show ended, Cyrus set out to prove herself as a bonafide singer with excellent songwriting skills (see: “7 Things”) that would put a spotlight on her stunning vocals in ways Hannah Montana had not.
In 2010, as she geared up for the final season of Hannah Montana, she released her album “Can’t Be Tamed.” The title track charted high on the Billboard 200, but it wasn’t until December 2012 that Cyrus found the perfect venue to showcase her raw vocal ability: her popular YouTube series, “The Backyard Sessions,” in which Cyrus sings stripped-down covers (and later originals) in a casual outdoor setting. On Christmas Eve that year, she uploaded a cover of her godmother Dolly Parton’s seminal 1974 country banger, “Jolene.” It was one of the first times that Cyrus’ signature country twang, which lent itself well to the heartbreaking song, was on full display. The video went viral on the basis of Cyrus’ unadorned vocals, and the cover has raked up over 388 million views since it was released 11 years ago. Every subsequent release since has not received fewer than a million views, many of them in the tens of millions.
Cyrus has since revived the popular web series: most recently, today, returning to her former TV home Disney (in this case Disney+) for a 42-minute performance special featuring songs off her new album, Endless Summer Vacation, and before that to promote her 2020 album Plastic Hearts.
With the release of the performance series on the streaming platform, let’s look back at Cyrus’ most memorable performances from “The Backyard Sessions” on YouTube.
5. MTV Unplugged Presents “Gimme More” (Britney Spears cover), 2020
Cyrus is no stranger to making a statement. The entirety of her Bangerz era (circa 2013) was an attempt to announce a new phase in her career, separate from her image as a Disney Channel star. Undoubtedly, there are parallels between how the media treated Cyrus in her early days of fame and how they treated her pop elder, Britney Spears. She’s also not afraid to take an already incredible song and twist it to make it her own. In the lead-up to the release of her seventh studio album, Plastic Hearts, the former child star slowed down Spears’ “Gimme More” and used her gruff vocals to add a rock edge to one of the pop star’s most notable hits.
4. MTV Unplugged Presents “Sweet Jane” (Cover of Cowboy Junkies’ cover of The Velvet Underground), 2020
The YouTube series took a five-year hiatus, and the first video released when it returned in 2020 was this sinuous cover of a cover: Cyrus is singing the hit Velvet Underground song “Sweet Jane,” but her version is modeled after the hit 1988 cover by New Zealand’s Cowboy Junkies. It’s well-known among her fans that Cyrus loves to show off her extensive rock music knowledge. From a duet with Joan Jett on Plastic Hearts to covering songs like Janis Joplin’s “Maybe” and “Zombie” by the Cranberries, she’s shown she can handle the genre without breaking a sweat. She also knows when to push her vocal range to its absolute limit, as she does during her “Zombie” performance, and when to scale back, as she does on “Sweet Jane.” Cyrus adds her rock-star sheen to the music, and her voice glides across the melody easily. The video also demonstrates the breadth of the audience she has reached with this video series, with one YouTube commenter writing, “I’m over 60. This kid has a cross-generational appeal that’s indisputable. What an incredible talent!!”
3. MTV Unplugged Presents “I Got So High That I Saw Jesus” (Noah Cyrus cover and duet), 2020
Noah Cyrus grew up in the shadow of her older sister, which can’t have been easy. But the youngest Cyrus has been able to grab listeners’ attention with her own distinctive voice and honest lyrics, like in her song “I Got So High That I Saw Jesus.” Noah and her older sister sang a beautiful duet on the Backyard Sessions that displayed their vocal abilities without either vocalist overpowering the other. They share the spotlight and work off each other well to deliver a marvelous performance.
2. Happy Hippie Presents “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (Crowded House cover, duet with Ariana Grande), 2015
Cyrus teaming up with Ariana Grande, who is known to have strong pipes, is a duet many people didn’t think they needed but are nonetheless glad they got. Donning cute animal onesies as they lounged on an inflatable green couch, they effortlessly sang a cover of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” The video has so much personality, with Cyrus flirting with Grande, causing her to miss her cue to sing the third verse, then apologizing for messing her up because of said flirting. Grande smoothly jumps back into the song, and they both have a moment to shine on the last chorus, harmonizing elegantly.
1 . The Backyard Sessions “Jolene” (Dolly Parton cover), 2012
It would be a crime not to put this cover at the top spot because it’s the one that started it all. At this juncture in her career, Cyrus knew she had something to prove and was doing everything she could to detach herself from the Disney persona still attached to her from her formative years. The cover was uploaded two years into her tumultuous relationship with her now ex-husband, Liam Hemsworth, an alleged inspiration for many of her popular songs (including the Endless Summer Vacation hit “Flowers”), and a relationship that would have more ups and downs to come. Releasing this cover of “Jolene” by her godmother, country music legend Dolly Parton, marked the moment that Cryus took control of her narrative. She expertly displayed her unique singing voice and employed techniques from her Disney days to create an extraordinary cover.
It was a pivotal moment in her career: with a single cover, she aimed to show that she had the range to do more than what people expected of her, that she had grown up, and that she had a voice and she was going to use it. And she delivered.