Miley Cyrus, Marketing Genius

The headline-grabbing singer does it again—and it's starting to feel like it's all part of a plan

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Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty Images

Miley Cyrus arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards Aug. 25, 2013, at the Barclays Center in New York.

Today brings another announcement in the long news cycle seemingly dominated by Miley Cyrus—don’t pretend you’re surprised.

It’s been about three weeks since her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards earned her equal parts attention and scorn. It’s been two and a half since a mother’s letter to her daughter, encouraging her not to be like Miley, went viral. It’s been ten days since she was announced as a host and guest on the upcoming season of Saturday Night Live. It’s been nine since her video for “Wrecking Ball,” in which she appears pretty much naked (except for shoes), rocked the Internet again and broke viewership records on VEVO.

Within the last four days, she’s called off her engagement to Liam Hemsworth, was chastised by Cher and scored her first-ever Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit, for the “Wrecking Ball” single.

All this and her new album, Bangerz, doesn’t come out till Oct. 8.

Now there’s more: MTV released a new trailer this morning for the Cyrus-centric documentary, Miley: The Movement, that premieres Oct. 2 at 10 PM Eastern:

The intimate, 60-minute documentary film will capture the full essence and evolution of Cyrus as she gears up for the release of her debut RCA Records album, “Bangerz” on Tuesday, October 8.  The special will chronicle her triumphs and struggles at home, in the studio and on the road, as well as the planning, rehearsals, performance and media frenzy surrounding her 2013 “MTV Video Music Awards” medley withRobin Thicke.

But, while it may not be surprising that MTV and Cyrus are capitalizing on the hubbub with a documentary—and the decision to devote the entire music programming block on the morning of Oct. 2 to Cyrus’ work—one thing from the press release jumps out: “For the last four months, MTV has been granted unmatched access to Cyrus, who will unabashedly take viewers on her whirlwind journey from tween television sensation to one of pop music’s most magnetic and unapologetically controversial artists.”  [Emphasis added]

Since MTV has been planning this documentary for four whole months—four times the period during which we’ve all been non-stop talking about Miley—and has her full cooperation with the project, it’s hard not to wonder whether the world has been, as MTV might put it, punk’d.

Part of the narrative about that VMA performance and all the ado about “Wrecking Ball” is that, despite what may have been hinted at by that racy Vanity Fair photo shoot in 2008, less than a decade ago she was Hannah Montana. We’re all supposed to be surprised that she’s acting in such a blatantly sexual manner. In that version of her story, it feels like she must be breaking from her parents or her handlers or her fans, as she acts out the sexuality that she had been forced to repressed.

In the real world, however, there should be no surprise at all. MTV more quietly announced Miley: The Movement, before it had a title, in July, and must have started filming just about when her summer single “We Can’t Stop” made clear, in June, that Cyrus’ output would at the very least include one hit song with, if nothing else, a soupçon of controversy over whether she’s singing about herself (Miley) or the party drug Molly.

After that July announcement, the documentary got pretty much left out of the Miley news: read about any of the things she’s done in the past month (yes, including stories on this website) and it’s unlikely you’ll be reminded that MTV had that pre-established stake in public interest in the singer. But, when you remember that prior commitment to the Miley story, it’s suddenly a lot more predictable that the network decided to put her onstage with Robin Thicke to sing “Blurred Lines” (the song of the summer and no stranger to its own controversies) and to thus provide the stage for her most newsworthy performance to date.

Even before the documentary, MTV has already had a win, with its signature awards show garnering far more attention than it has in recent years. That mother’s aforementioned open letter to her daughter was predicated on the notion that nobody had said “no” to Miley for far too long, as if the singer just announced that she would be twerking in nude vinyl and none of the network or label suits spoke up about how that would be a bad idea; the writer was likely more right than she knew, since plenty of people had plenty of reason to give Cyrus’ new persona an emphatic “yes”—or, as the cynics among us might believe, to orchestrate the whole thing on her behalf.

To be fair, it’s pretty hard to predict what will go viral and get people to, as Cyrus says in the documentary trailer, talk for two weeks rather than two seconds. But that doesn’t mean that preparation and planning can’t make a difference. Just as “Wrecking Ball” didn’t crush VEVO without some prodding, Cyrus’ sudden prominence, and MTV’s part in it, didn’t happen in a marketing vacuum.

It might be nice to think that musicians are somehow more authentic than the rest of the pop-culture world, that they sing their songs in order to express what’s in their souls, money and fame be damned. In that context it does feel like getting punk’d to acknowledge that Miley Cyrus, while making grand statements about her new identity has an artist, as she does in the trailer above, has been working with a major television network to capitalize on (and quite probably plan out) the controversy she engenders. But, in reality, musicians are also business people—and in that context Cyrus is less a prankster than she is a professional.

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