October 7, 2013
SOS (Bangerz): The Rebel Yell of Miley Cyrus (Album Review)
The truth is, it’s not very easy to like Miley Cyrus these days.
If it isn’t her corny onstage antics — the twerking, the tongue, the teddy bears, etc. — her newfound #SomethingMoreUrban vocabulary and overuse of words like “homie” in interviews, the everything-but-the-labia barely legal porn shoots with the pervy Terry Richardson, there’s that unsavory fuck-off rebel attitude that’s become sort of, well, ugh.
Sinead O’Connor‘s impassioned open letter to Miley warning her of becoming an industry “prostitute,” albeit slut-shaming, condescending and overly puritanical in thought, came from a good place and underscored some serious realities about the music industry that can only be gleaned by a true industry veteran. Miley’s response on Twitter – putting Sinead’s years-old suicidal tweet rampage on blast by comparing her to Amanda Bynes (a two-for-one mental illness slam!) – proved that Miley is not as enlightened or educated as Pharrell or Miley herself would like you to believe.
But as former BFF Lesley would likely offer (with a slightly more annoyed tone in her voice, probably): She’s just being Miley.
It’s almost comical to look back at the headlines from just a few short years ago when the 20-year-old pop princess began shedding her Disney starlet skin: In 2009, Miley twirled around a pole on top of an ice cream cart during her Teen Choice Awards performance of “Party In The USA,” courting plenty of controversy (much to her delight, no doubt). The next year, she spread her wings in the video for her electro-pop emancipation anthem, “Can’t Be Tamed.” “Too sexy?” HuffPo pondered. Later on, she bared her midriff on the accompanying “racy” album cover.
Today, you’d be lucky to navigate through the Internet for a day without seeing Miley’s nipples.
The transition took a few years before Miley really came in like a wrecking ball: First, there was the haircut seen ’round the world. By now, we’ve all grown accustomed to Miley’s buzzed blonde pixie cut, but at the time, the shearing of those brunette locks might as well have been the formal death knell of Hannah Montana.
At the same time, Miley started hitting the studio with some of hip-hop’s most in-demand innovators, including Pharrell and Mike WiLL Made It, the producer du jour responsible for carving out Kelly Rowland‘s “Kisses Down Low” and Ciara‘s “Body Party” with his signature brand of drowsy, sizzurp-drenched slow motion R&B. It was clear from early on that Miley wasn’t interested in hopping aboard the trendy EDM train, instead focusing on crafting — well, bangerz.
She started ruffling feathers (and turning up the excitement) with her bold new look as the year went on, like her cover story in V Magazine back in May. She began showing more skin. She began smoking weed. Like, a lot.
And then in June, the first single dropped.
“We Can’t Stop” is the ultimate middle finger to the world — her fans, her critics and everyone in between. A far cry from the squeaky-clean power pop of her back catalog, the drunk-pop summer anthem saw Miley whining up against one of Mike WiLL’s drowsiest electro-R&B beats, sending a shout out to big booty ladies and the haters while getting turnt up and getting down on the dance floor with Molly (She’s totally saying Miley! Oh wait, just kidding). It’s jarring and thrillingly divisive — resulting in what would become of the many moments that kept Miley in everyone’s mouths this year.
The raucous “We Can’t Stop” video came quickly afterward, in all of its weirdness and unapologetic irreverence — from the twerking, to the french fry skull, to that awkward kick to the head — which stayed glued to the cultural consciousness. Almost immediately, the world recoiled. The Internet exploded in a loud cacophony of hate leveled at Miley, labeling her a try-hard and a wannabe — and, worse, a racist.
Cue the endless conveyer belt of cultural appropriation thinkpieces around the Internet, condemning the post-Disney princess for accessorizing herself with an array of fashionable black producers and dancers and appropriating elements of black culture, like twerking. (The fact that something like twerking is assigned to a specific skin color is much more problematic than anything Miley’s ever done in my opinion, but that’s for another essay.) She hit back in Rolling Stone, defensively proclaiming that her producers are her “homies.” Blurgh.
In the end, no one won — but everyone had something to say.
Mercifully, in came “Wrecking Ball,” a stunning power ballad that powers through the speakers with all of the fiery energy and raw emotion of an ’80’s Heart arena-rock anthem and delivered Miley her very first #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. But it wasn’t so much because of the song as it was the accompanying video, which saw the former child star swinging naked on top of a wrecking ball (metaphors, y’all) and tearfully belting her brains out in front of a Terry Richardson-manned camera lens.
Once again, she grabbed the world’s attention. The conversation quickly shifted from “What happened to Miley Cyrus?” to “What’s Miley going to do next?” And just like that, Bangerz became the most anticipated pop record of the year.
But is the music as memorable as the spectacle?
Album opener “Adore You” is one of Bangerz‘ most beautiful moments — and also the most misleading. The slow-drifting ballad, complimented by gorgeous soaring strings and a gentle piano melody (which was co-written by Stacy Barthe, who also wrote Britney’s “Blur” and Heidi Montag‘s “I’ll Do It” — fun fact), is as mesmerizing and as lovely as anything she’s ever done. It’s absolutely stunning. That she opted to open the record with a sweetly-sung love song that sounds like a more mature continuation of the ballads on Can’t Be Tamed feels like a ploy to keep unknowing listeners reeled in for what is undoubtedly pop’s bumpiest ride this year.
Unlike her last few albums, features are frequent throughout Bangerz — and exclusively with rappers. Well, apart from one.
The hype around “SMS (Bangerz)” was inevitable from the start, and a great example of why hype can’t be trusted: The title track is a solid example of wasted opportunity — and certainly a waste of Britney Spears. The album’s springy title track, which sort of samples Salt N Pepa‘s “Push It” and plays like a Kidz Bop version of a Peaches classic, is the only female feature of the record, starring the only other “bitch” Miley wanted on the record: The Pop Princess-turned-Queen of Pop, Miss Britney Spears — who she referred to in her documentary, The Movement, as “the Madonna of my generation” — for a quick verse. Is “SMS” their very own “Me Against The Music” torch-passing moment? God, no.
In fact, you can almost hear Britney walk into the studio, plop down her purse, vacantly ramble off a few bars and retreat back into her souped-up SUV with her security detail after 20 minutes. The disconnect feels very Blackout-era — especially considering “Toy Soldier” creator Sean Garrett produced the track. It’s something more urban for sure, carrying a touch of delirious-sounding, spacey Blackout darkness — but clocking in at less than 3 minutes, it’s really more like a briefly disorienting interlude.
Elsewhere, the collaborations stay strange: “My Darlin’,” a drowsy modern R&B duet with Future (that interpolates the classic “Stand By Me”), is mesmerizingly slurry and semi-gloomy, with an occasional Lana Del Rey-like sense of beautiful misery about the production. “We gon’ make a movie, and it’s gon’ be in 3D,” the awkward pairing croon together. The only problem? This song’s been done before. Twice. And the formula is nearly exactly the same: He guested on Rihanna‘s “Loveeeeeeee Song” on 2012’s Unapologetic, followed by Ciara’s Ciara track “Where You Go” earlier this year.
As we’ve learned time and time again in pop history, a break-up provides the best inspiration for music. The end of Miley’s engagement with Hunger Games hunk Liam Hemsworth seems to come into play toward the second half of the record — exactly when things start getting good.
Although the news was announced fairly recently, signs of their separation surfaced much earlier in the year while Miley was still recording the record. The album’s greatest moments are also the most raw — “Wrecking Ball,” of course, is one, as well as “Drive,” which is probably one of the album’s most compelling productions. The dark Mike WiLL-produced power ballad relies on a heavy dub pulse. “You told me that you wanted this / I told you it was all yours / If you’re done with it, then what’d you say forever for?” she angrily roars. The track’s gritty grind works wonders alongside her raspy vocals, adding to the scathing sentiment of the track.
Later on, “Maybe You’re Right” provides some spine-tingling emotion and a scream-along-friendly chorus that sees Miley venturing into country-inflected rock as she waves goodbye. The emotion in her voice is palpable — yet another earnest moment that’ll have you wondering why the foam finger tactics ever needed to happen. “You might think I’m crazy,” she yelps, “that I’m lost and foolish leaving you behind / Maybe you’re right!” It’s big and sad and anthemic, playing like a Coldplay track in moments. Just gorgeous.
The final track, too, a change of pace for the standard Mike WiLL sound — sees Miley belting her guts out above a trap-tinged, throbbing uptempo beat that almost journeys into House territory. The greatest moment comes as the song is sent spiraling into Confessions On A Dance Floor mode, throbbing and dark as Miley begins reciting the affirmation from Corinthians above a throb at an almost panicked pace: “Love is patient, love is kind!” she cries out. If it’s any indication of her mindset at the moment, she’s racing through life — and she might be more scared than we’re being lead to believe.
But it’s hard to keep Miley acting seriously for too long: “FU” with French Montana (who, just to be clear, bares no relation to Hannah Montana) stretches her grief into hysterical insanity, like dinner theater for the Twitter crowd: “I saw a few things in your cell, I even L-O-L-ed / Man, I should have known!” she growls above a dramatic, dub waltz crafted by Rami Afuni that soon spirals into stuttering electro-madness. “I got two letters for you / One of them’s F, and the other’s U. S-M-H!” she later declares. It borders somewhere in between drama class and self-parody.
“We Can’t Stop” worked well enough as a party anthem, but elsewhere, she embarrasses herself — like the will.i.am-produced “Do My Thang.” (will.i.am made something bad? I’ll pause for the shock to settle.) The song brings Miley back into the “We Can’t Stop” mansion, as she dabbles in a touch of trap and overconfidently brags her way through: “I’m a Southern belle / Crazier than hell / Getting wild up in here,” the “Party In The USA” songstress declares. It’s like the worst of Karmin‘s lame rapping, mixed with a second-rate beat build that lifts from Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been.” “You think I’m strange, bitch? It’s bananas like a fucking ‘rangutan, bitch!” she taunts.
For those seeking solace from Mike WiLL’s hazy beats, the year’s most prominent producer Pharrell arrives on the scene with a polished disco strut, fresh off of his still-dominating Robin Thicke collaboration “Blurred Lines,” as well massively successful Daft Punk collaboration, “Get Lucky.” He hasn’t changed much: The funky strut and merry whistling of his future spring/summer jam “#GetItRight” (hashtag-friendly!) is an immediate win, even if it’s no different than anything you heard from Robin and the robots this year. In fact, the beats are no different than what Pharrell served up for Madonna’s underappreciated 2008 effort Hard Candy — which was panned at the time for sounding tired. (Listen to “Give It 2 Me” or “Beat Goes On” now. Sounds like the radio now, doesn’t it?)
“4×4,” Pharrell’s other standard edition offering, is a rollicking, country-licked, banjo-inflecting ride through Miley’s wildest backwoods dreams. She’s having so much fun riding the beat, she can barely contain herself — literally: “Drivin’ so fast, ’bout to piss on myself,” she confidently declares. While it sounds a little too much like Basement Jaxx‘s “Take Me Back To Your House” featuring Dragonette‘s Martina, it’s a pretty solid representation of Miley’s muddy Southern roots coming head-to-head with her hip-hop-hooray future. It also sounds like a cross between one of Ke$ha‘s horny backseat anthems (“Gold Trans Am”) mixed with yee-haw Disney camp — this wouldn’t sound out of place while waiting in line at Big Thunder Mountain.) “A little bit of dirt never hurt nobody / Now I got dirt all over my body / Might as well light a L / His big fog lights is bright as hell,” she declares. Nelly‘s feature feels needless — his voice will always conjure the early ’00’s, right? — but it’s not a detractor, either. The spotlight’s solely on Miley, though. “I’m a female rebel, can’t you tell?” Miley declares on her rollicking Bangerz track, “4X4.” Yeah, Miley. We got it. Loud and clear.
Pharrell’s better contributions to Bangerz — “Rooting For My Baby” and “On My Own” — are saved as understated enticements for the deluxe version of the album. The former, which lazes across a dreamy ’70’s guitar strum (a la his scrapped Blackout track “Sugarfall”), is the kind of chilled-out, listenable pop that would sound amazing if fleshed out as a full album, while the sassy strut of “On My Own” brings the fresh funk of his Leah Labelle single “Lolita” to mind.
At some point in the Bangerz campaign, the shtick grew old. Fast.
Miley’s now infamous VMA performance, in which she rallied around the stage and twerked up against Robin Thicke‘s crotch with all the elegance of a 7-year-old pageant princess hopped up on one too many pixie sticks, worked well enough to steal the night and scandalize the general public. (And yes, Robin’s equally responsible for that mess, lest we mistakenly solely blame Miley.)
That her VMA performance garnered any major attention at all is frankly embarrassing, but not for Miley. We, the public, should be embarrassed for allowing the media to feign any sort of outrage, as if anything that happened on that stage was even interesting enough to spark headlines for the next few months. Lady Gaga performed “Applause” earlier that night in a thong and not much else — nobody could give less of a shit. Why? Because the good girl-gone-twerk-happy story sells better, and that’s exactly what Miley supplied.
But unlike, say, Britney’s jaw-dropping 2000 VMA performance — a culture-shaking moment that saw her own transition from bubblegum pop princess to a full blown superstar thanks to an unbelievably ferocious dance routine, sexual energy and confident swagger that would define her as a live performer during her imperial period — Miley’s performance was dull at best, and relied solely on shock value. Anyone could one-up what she did on that stage next year. She didn’t deliver a powerhouse vocal performance or an iconic dance routine that left every other performer eating her dust — she dressed like an ass and stuck out her tongue, and the entire world pretended to be scandalized for the rest of the year.
When she discussed the VMA’s in her MTV documentary, The Movement, Miley declared the performance “a strategic hot mess.”
And there you have it, really — the big reveal from Miley’s own mouth: The Bangerz campaign is about shock for shock’s sake. That’s not a new concept of course, but it’s also profoundly unimpressive. And it’s exactly because of that “strategic hot mess” (and all of the other ones this year) that the album greatly suffers from a overwhelming sense of smug self-satisfaction and calculated rebellion, deflating the party balloons and effectively killing the buzz in a tidal wave of major label dollars and board meetings.
Bangerz is an above average pop album, and Miley Cyrus is an above average pop star, but the rebelliousness ultimately doesn’t do that much for Miley in the music department. Apart from “We Can’t Stop,” the uptempo moments mostly play like cheap, fleeting party favors, fun for nothing more than a few plays for pre-gaming purposes. The production is often dazzling and her vocals are always on point. It should work — it could work — but it doesn’t. It’s like being gifted a new sweater from your favorite store, only to discover that it really doesn’t look all that good on you.
Even if the album isn’t the best pop record of the year, Bangerz will go down as one of the year’s most adventurous efforts. The songs are slickly produced, and there’s more personality packed into the contents of this record than most any other pop record released this year: It’s bold, irreverent and undeniably messy; the kind of risk-taking that should happen more frequently in pop — just, y’know, with better end results.
Frankly, many of the actual #Bangerz on Bangerz simply aren’t superior to her earlier pop cuts like “Who Owns My Heart?” or “Permanent December” — or even “See You Again.” More interesting? More textured? Sure, but not better.
Instead, it’s the emotional slow-burners like “Adore You,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Drive” and “Maybe You’re Right” that show us how Miley has evolved and how compelling she can be as a vocalist, and ultimately reveal that the album title was — as with everything else in this era — a cheap marketing ploy. Bangerz? More like Balladz.
Then again, that Miley Cyrus is even putting an album out almost feels like an afterthought given the daily headlines about everything but the music. There’s a good chance that Bangerz will be remembered not for the music, but for a foam finger, twerking, #pitchystrippers, Liam Hemsworth, cultural appropriation, Sinead O’Connor, tattoos, teddy bears, barely legal nipples, sledgehammers, Terry Richardson and that tongue.
As Ariana Grande, another 20-year-old pop star on the rise making waves of her own this year, sagely tweeted (and then promptly deleted) upon a mass public freak-out over her semi-creepy scrapped album art for her fantastic debut album, Yours Truly: “But it’s about the music.”
Bangerz is out on October 8. (iTunes)