Dancing with Miley
by ALICE BOLIN
Driving into Hollywood this August, I listened to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” on repeat, the perfect soundtrack for a girl moving to Los Angeles with “a dream and her cardigan.” “Look to my left and I see the Hollywood Sign,” Cyrus sang, and I looked to my left, and there it was. Everything was shiny and exciting, fancy cars raced by on the freeway, and there were palm trees.
If I tell you how less than two months later I would be listening to Cyrus’ new album Bangerz on a packed LA city bus at six in the morning, clutching my backpack and trying not to fall asleep on the hour-long trip to my food service job, implicitly making a connection between the reality of my move to Los Angeles and the debaucherous turn Cyrus’ music has taken, well, that parallel would be an oversimplification.
For one thing, we’ve got to remember that after “Party in the USA” became her biggest hit, Cyrus commented that she had nothing to do with writing the song and hadn’t wanted to release it as a single, and furthermore, despite what the song’s chorus said, that she had never heard a Jay-Z song. In an interview promoting her film The Last Song, seventeen-year-old Cyrus said that she hadn’t finished the novel The Last Song was based on and that her favorite book was The Catcher in the Rye. I should mention that The Last Song’s author, Nicholas Sparks, was present at the interview. And are we forgetting the time when Cyrus had The Smiths lyrics as her twitter bio (“I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does,” of course)? Because I’ll never forget.
Cyrus has always had not only a rebellious but a trollish streak. So we’re all so surprised when the video for her song “Wrecking Ball” makes use of the most literal possible image, a wrecking ball, and is as overtly, humorously sexual as possible, with Cyrus, directed by famous perv Terry Richardson, swinging around naked on the wrecking ball and sensually licking construction equipment? Without its outrage-baiting video, “Wrecking Ball” is just another of the generic power ballads that Dr. Luke probably produces in his sleep. Cyrus’ singing on the track mimics Britney Spears and Rihanna’s robotic vocals, which are so abrasive that their ballads can be physically painful to listen to. I mean, no offense.
The extent that Cyrus has modeled her career on Spears’ cannot be overstated. Both were child actors on the Disney Channel who had “America’s Sweetheart” personas to get out from under. It doesn’t take a genius to free associate on the phrase “shocking VMAs performance”; thanks to Spears and Madonna, simulating masturbation on the VMAs stage is a time-honored way to shake a virginal public image. And Spears and Cyrus are both from the dirty south — in Vanessa Grigoriadis’ 2008 Rolling Stone cover story, “The Tragedy of Britney Spears,” chronicling what she calls “the most public downfall of any star in history,” she reports that Spears’ drink of choice was “the Southern rap scene’s ‘Purple Monster,’” a mix of “vodka, Red Bull, and NyQuil.” On “SMS (Bangerz),” a song on which Spears makes a guest appearance, Cyrus sings, “Must be the purple/Got up in my brain.”
Maybe this is why much of Bangerz is synth pop that is, to my ears, “so 2010.” Cyrus set out to make an album of explicitly sexy club bangers similar to those on Spears’ albums post-Blackout. Some of the songs on Bangerz sound like they could have been written for Spears, especially “Do My Thang,” a house anthem with a heavy 808 beat featuring Cyrus rapping about being a Southern belle. But the only song on Bangerz that is actually about sex is the fun “#GETITRIGHT,” a creative and playful track in which Cyrus sings, “I’ve been laying in this bed all night long/Don’t you think it’s time to get it on.” I assume “#GETITRIGHT” will be a single because of that bullshit hashtag, and it will probably be a hit.
But the real problem with the Bangerz concept is not that it’s derivative. It’s that Cyrus’ heart isn’t in it. You would expect an album of club music to be jubilant, but other than “#GETITRIGHT” and the album’s lead single “We Can’t Stop,” Bangerz is pretty depressing. The actual bangers on Bangerz feel rote, with their obligatory lame guest verses from rappers like Big Sean and Nelly — it is like Cyrus’ mind is elsewhere. And in the album’s angsty ballads you get a sense of what’s distracting her. In September 2013 Cyrus broke off her engagement to Australian actor Liam Hemsworth, and Bangerz ends up telling the story of the rise and fall of their relationship. Cyrus set out to make a party album and made a breakup album.
Bangerz begins with “Adore You,” an extremely mushy ode to Cyrus and Hemsworth’s love, on which Cyrus auto-tunes, “You and me were meant to be in holy matrimony.” A twenty-year-old former child superstar in a high profile celebrity engagement — what could go wrong? Cue: “We Can’t Stop,” a truly awesome party song about “dancing with molly” and “trying to get a line in the bathroom,” all of that post-adolescent experimentation and wild-oat-sowing that can sound the death knell for teenage love.
On the rest of the album Cyrus tries to hold on to a relationship that’s failing. “Don’t you ever say/I just walked away/I will always want you,” she sings on “Wrecking Ball.” On “Drive,” a great, Rihanna-esque track, she sings with real heartbreak, “You said you wanted this,/I told you it was all yours./If you were done with it/Then what’d you say forever for?” These raw moments are some of the highlights of the album — they recall Robyn, our cultural poster girl for acceptable pop, and her sad dance jams. But ultimately, the opposition of the album’s provocative dance pop packaging and its sad, vulnerable content leaves Bangerz feeling all over the place.
Some of the best parts of the album are its bonus tracks, where Cyrus is less in banger-mode — its hidden triumph is the bonus “Rooting for my Baby,” a 90s acoustic dream-pop track, like some kind of Cardigans shit. Songs like this make me certain that Cyrus will not just be a scandalous footnote in the history of pop music. She can hit the notes without auto-tune, which she very intentionally demonstrated in her acoustic performance of “We Can’t Stop” on Saturday Night Live. On Bangerz it seems like she was too married to her initial Spears-pop idea, but she is an artist who has ideas and influences and is not afraid to make big, ostentatious mistakes. And she can’t stop. And she won’t stop.
Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She last wrote in these pages about Lorde. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find her twitter here and her tumblr here.
"Now Navigate!" - Kevin Devine (mp3)
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Kevin Devine's double album Bubblegum/Bulldozer was released yesterday. You can find information about Kevin's fall tour here.