Enough already. Enough with the nose-in-the-air repudiations and the false moral panics. Enough of the finger pointing and the slut shaming. Enough with the using of Miley Cyrus as a punching bag.
Thanks to her loose-tongued performance at the MTV Video Music Awards this summer – which used black female backup dancers, Robin Thicke’s crotch and a helpless foam finger as props – and her decreasingly-clothed music videos, Cyrus has become an easy target, a receptacle for our national racial and sexual anxieties. In throwing off the chains of Disney, Cyrus is flashing cocksureness that has become a threat to established ideas of how young female performers should present themselves.
To some, her success has been seen as confirmation that something else is failing. Appropriation is to be handled in measured fashion, this argument goes, but that is a tired narrative and a false one. The most vibrant culture moves at uncomfortable speeds.
It’s numbingly easy to pick on someone like Cyrus for her creative choices, and the vitriol aimed at her has felt especially hollow, declarations of cultural war from defenders of an innocent past that never was.
That goes for pop as a whole, which always needs flamboyant disruptors to survive, and for Cyrus herself, who’s been famous for half her young life and is astute about fame’s demands.
And so in a remarkably dull moment for pop, with smooth men ruling the roost, Cyrus has sensed the vacuum and is keen to fill it, emerging as a polarizing figure, if not quite a transformative one. Her intrusions have been bold and a little left field. It’s no longer sufficient to shock for shock’s sake – better to show up armed with full agency and also a wink.
“Bangerz” (RCA), which was recently released, is Cyrus’ fourth solo album, though that’s not the most useful metric given the rate with which she’s molted skin in recent years. Simply put, “Bangerz” is the first album of the Grown-Up Miley era – Cyrus is 20 – and the first that’s not a direct inheritance of her days as the Disney idol Hannah Montana.
Cyrus has dived headlong into hip-hop, just as seemingly every other young person in America has. In its lineup and sound, “Bangerz” serves as a catalog of the now, borrowing from several of the latest movements without being beholden to a single idea or crew. There are the decaying digital vocals of Future on “My Darlin’,” a bit of country-rap from Nelly on “4x4,” some mature post-rap funk produced by Pharrell Williams on “#GETITRIGHT.” (And this doesn’t even include the much-teased remix of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” that Cyrus recorded following her performance at the awards show.)
The results are scattershot, but sometimes great, reflecting an artist still making sense of new inputs. She worked largely with the producer Mike WiLL Made-It, a heavy in hip-hop and R&B but not, until now, a true pop force. Even his success here is on unusual terms – the songs he’s created for Cyrus rumble like obstinate weather systems. Their hit “We Can’t Stop” is an ornery, stubborn song, sticking low to the ground, never letting Cyrus soar vocally. But the video, with Cyrus in louche party-comedown mode, was a YouTube star burst. Suddenly, the exhaustion in the song was clear; it was because Cyrus was tuckered out.
Her second single, “Wrecking Ball,” was even more of an Internet phenomenon, largely because the video featured Cyrus – naked but for her Dr. Martens – draped over a wrecking ball. She’s singing well on this song, but the rage and resentment in the lyric are secondary features. It’s a song that speaks to the eyes more than the ears.
Still, Cyrus has been widely lambasted for her sonic choices, as if appropriation of black culture weren’t the default state of white culture, as if it hasn’t been that way for generations. It’s clear the rules she’s breaking belong to an earlier generation, not her own. (That goes for her post-erotic take on sexuality, too.)
There’s plenty of pop precedent: Britney Spears turned to Pharrell and the Neptunes to mature out of her teeny-bop phase, Justin Timberlake turned to Timbaland, and hip-hop producers like Polow da Don have helped give pop stars edge for decades now.
Plus, a tremendous amount of her appeal is visual. She is, quite suddenly, a 360-degree pop star. From her chopped, bleached hair to her white nail polish to her VFiles fashion choices to her Terry Richardson-directed videos, she’s leaped to the front of the pop class in terms of presentation.
The thrill of Miley
Her apparent fearlessness has more to do with the rejection of how Old Miley looked than how she sounded. Those bold choices have helped Cyrus fill the void of a female pop idol. Her closest competition now isn’t Lady Gaga – who appears eager to abandon pop stardom in favor of cheap experimental theater – but probably Katy Perry. No matter how candy-colored Perry’s image is, though, her insides are milk white.
The thrill of Cyrus is that it’s impossible to know what her insides look like. Her shift to high fashion and hip-hop was sudden, and more effective than one could have expected.
Cyrus is closer in spirit to Madonna, of all people, than to Spears – the stadium-size provocations, the image malleability, the willingness to cause a commotion to make a point (or for the commotion to be the point). Madonna had no Madonna of her own to react against. Cyrus is channeling, chewing up and digesting several generations of transgressive pop divas.
Her spectacle isn’t about the size of the shock, but the unexpected twists and turns on the way. It’s sloppy and invigorating and, at its best, interesting. She’s experimenting with the shape of pop stardom – let her live.
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