Miley new queen of button-pushers

Cyrus follows line including Madonna, Britney, Lady Gaga

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MINNEAPOLIS — What's your favorite Miley moment?

When she twerked on MTV's Video Music Awards? When she appeared nude in the strategically staged "Wrecking Ball" video? When she smoked a bong on YouTube?

Or, conversely, which has been your most disgusting Miley moment?

Miley Cyrus is pop's most polarizing star. She's gone from Disney darling Hannah Montana to a big-voiced, chart-topping wild child. The 21-year-old is pushing people's buttons like the second coming of Madonna.

As with Madonna, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and other pop tarts before her, Cyrus is the kind of controversial star that many young women embrace and some moms can't tolerate.

"One of my daughters — she's 16 now — used to be a 'Hannah Montana' fan," said Laura Hlavac of St. Paul, Minn. "With this more provocative style, it seems like Miley's trying to follow the Madonna syndrome. She's lost her appeal around our house. That whole image change is a cheap trick. It's like a publicity stunt."

Fan Brandie Nguyen, 18, of Brooklyn Park, Minn., doesn't see it that way.

"She's going through a big phase and trying to find herself," she said. "I know what she's doing is wrong in a lot of ways. But it's who she is. I like her for her music and how she looks."

From 2006 to '11, Cyrus, the daughter of 1990s "Achy Breaky Heart" country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, starred on the Disney Channel as goody-goody Hannah Montana, a teen who was ordinary schoolgirl Miley by day, and the pop star Hannah at night.

After selling out arenas and scoring two No. 1 albums in real life, Cyrus tried to leave her bubblegum past behind with the more straightforward 2009 hit "Party in the U.S.A." Then last year, her long brown hair trimmed into a blonde Beatles bowl cut, Cyrus came out roaring, with the big, bold pop smashes "We Can't Stop" and "Wrecking Ball," a power ballad that went to No. 1. MTV named Cyrus its artist of the year for 2013 even though her "Bangerz" album didn't come out until October.

"She's becoming a musician and a true artist," said Tamar Anitai, managing editor of MTV's Buzzworthy blog. "She's really masterful at being provocative digitally and on social media. She's really calling the shots. She is in control of her image. A lot of it is tongue-in-cheek.

"Cyrus is brilliant because she blurs the line between the private and public, and she's done a really, really good job of convincing us that's who she is — a girl who's out there celebrating herself, her fans, her sexuality and her music. She isn't apologetic — nor should she be — about doing the things that kids her age do."

Well, judging from concerts so far on the Bangerz Tour, they might see Cyrus riding a human-sized hot dog or simulating sex in front of a guy who looks like former President Bill Clinton.

"People think all I do is come out and shock people," Cyrus said in a teleconference with journalists before the Bangerz Tour started. "I'm about freedom. Everything I do is not to be different to prove a point. It's just because we are different. And be proud of that. And own that. Be true to who you are."

As Cyrus indicated in her recent "MTV Unplugged," she learned from the master: Madonna, who sang with her on that show.

Remember, Madonna rolled around in a wedding dress singing "Like a Virgin" on MTV's very first Video Music Awards in 1984. She showed bondage and same-sex kissing in her banned-by-MTV video for "Justify My Love" in 1990. She posed in the nude for the photo book "Sex" in 1992.

Some of her moves were calculated; others weren't, said Liz Rosenberg, who has been Madonna's publicist since forever.

"She had a message also," said Rosenberg. "From Day 1, Madonna was not afraid of people saying bad things about her. She's fearless."

Madonna set the precedent of using the Video Music Awards to create an indelible moment. Sort of a Super Bowl of the music business without network-TV restrictions, the VMAs are where Britney Spears kissed a girl (Madonna) and liked it, Michael Jackson kissed Lisa Marie Presley, Prince wore pants exposing his butt, Lady Gaga wore a dress made of raw meat and Kanye West grabbed the mic from Taylor Swift.

It's where, as Anitai put it, stars "come to become legendary."

So at last September's VMAs, when Cyrus twerked with a giant foam finger while duetting with Robin ("Blurred Lines") Thicke, it became a tipping point in her career — and a never-ending talking point.