opinion by SAMUEL TOLZMANN
So I’m listening to this Miley Cyrus album Bangerz and keep thinking about The Sound of Music. No, not “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” though I eagerly/queasily await Miley’s raunchy, tongue-wagging EDM cover of that song (aside: “20 Going on 21” would be a legal-drinking anthem for the ages!) later on her mission to make it clear she Is No Longer A Child™ and therefore must necessarily ruin via sexualization and problematic race relations anything we collectively associate with childhood (R.I.P., the teddy bear). No, this is the first time I’ve thought of The Sound of Music since Gwen Stefani sampled “The Lonely Goatherd” and what’s coming to mind is that song the nuns sing – the one that goes, “How do you solve a problem like Maria”? The nuns kick Maria out of the convent and she becomes a warm, caring governess and (spoiler alert) eventually stepmother to seven Austrian children while the Nazis begin their ascent to power. Nazis aside, would that we could do the same with Miley Cyrus, but since it’d be tough to find parents willing to leave their tots in her charge, we’re back to square one. How do we solve a problem like Miley Cyrus?
This woman, who was once a ubiquitous but tweens-only idol back in the Hannah Montana days, has made it her business to stay relevant and either she or her handlers – presumably not her father Billy Ray – has arrived at the obvious, bulletproof strategy for maintaining cultural power: play dirty. By offending people – through thoughtless racial appropriation, revealing clothing or no clothing at all, sticking out her tongue, oh my! – she’s found an easy way to hog the limelight. The offenses are pitched at those desperate to preserve moral decency in American popular culture, a group that weirdly includes both extremely religious parents and academy-trained critical thinkers – all easily written off as consummate reactionaries and over-analyzers. Meanwhile, everyone else gets to attend Miley’s big Party in the U.S.A. and luxuriate in the thrill of transgressing the boundaries their excluded peers are hell-bent on delineating in a million online thinkpieces, and they get to do this without feeling like they’re really partaking in anything that terrible because, hey, it’s the VMAs, it’s on MTV, how bad could it be, right? So how do we solve a problem like Miley Cyrus? She can’t be ignored because then she’d get racist and naked all over the place, but every time a criticism is publicly leveled at her, she takes it as a sign that she should be doing more to “forget the haters,” as her smash single from this summer sagely suggests. Every outcry boosts her confidence. Poor Sinead O’Connor penned a rather lovely open letter to the young pop star imploring her not to “prostitute” herself for the music industry and Miley…responded by comparing her to Amanda Bynes and mocking her mental health. This is Sinead O’Connor we’re talking about! Come on, have some respect. But no, you just can’t win with Miley! Can’t live with ‘er, can’t live without ‘er, am I right? Heh. Oh, man.
I’m tired, guys. I’m so tired of all this bullshit. I’m tired of seeing GIFs of Miley Cyrus twerking on famous paintings and I’m tired of Amanda Palmer and Jon Caramanica telling us all to “just let her grow up in peace” and I’m tired of Miley talking nonchalantly about Kanye texting her and I’m tired of Terry Richardson photos where Miley’s wearing some sort of vinyl onesie with built-in camel toe. I’m only 21 and I think about how I would talk to my nonexistent daughter about the total pubic wax job those onesies reveal and I’m tired of having to imagine that because I’m still young and I run things, things don’t run me. What I wanted when I sat down to listen to this album was an album that would validate the most exhausting internet buzz cycle I’ve ever lived through. This album needed to live up to its title, and, well, it doesn’t. It’s as tedious as the buzz cycle itself, maybe more so.
It’s not a problem per se that Miley Cyrus is a patently inauthentic pop star, although having 17-year-old New Zealander Lorde top the Billboard Hot 100 this week doesn’t do Miley many favors by suggesting that an authentic pop star is a real possibility. We all know that pop is and has always been performative. But with Miley it’s so painfully obvious; listening to Bangerz, we don’t get caught up in the performance enough to overlook or partake in its artifice. It’s all so calculated. It wasn’t that long ago that Miley was insisting that she’d never heard a Jay-Z song, and now there are reports that in 2012 she straight-up told her main producer Mike Will Made-It that she wanted a “black” sound for this record. She characterizes Bangerz as having a “dirty Southern rap” feel, which is hilarious because dirty Southern rap, this definitely ain’t. She and her producers have namechecked Michael and Janet Jackson, Frank Ocean, and Motown as influences (?). She’s started accessorizing with the bodies of black women and trying to twerk. Personally I think the whole racial-appropriation side to this stuff is bad news, but you needn’t be on the same page to find this album a disaster. Bangerz is the sound of a 20-year-old woman trying so, so hard to attain her idea of capital(ist)-C Cool, so hard that she’s brought in various pop svengalis on six-figure salaries to help her out, and failing outright. Miley Cyrus has a solid singing voice – a little thin but pleasantly husky, like Rihanna on 4 packs of Lucky Strikes a day, and she sure can muster up the breath to belt when she needs to. With the right songwriters and producers, I can see her making an excellent pop album somewhere down the line. However, this isn’t it.
Largely embarrassing, Bangerz is the most fun when it’s so ridiculous that criticism seems futile. “4×4” is a country-rap track with accordion samples and a Nelly guest verse that scans on first listen as an abomination but by the second time through has bloomed into enjoyable kitsch. In a similar vein is the French Montana-featuring “FU,” a jazzy, EDM-jacked cabaret number that would’ve been a welcome addition to the soundtrack for any Baz Luhrmann film. The mixture of elements on these songs is so gaudy and silly that there’s not really any way to sell it straight, which is why both succeed. Now, compare “FU” to another breakup song on the album, “Wrecking Ball,” which with its from-the-gut vocal histrionics and walloping post-Skrillex production wants nothing more than to earn its video’s pilfering of O’Connor’s iconic “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Both “FU” and “Wrecking Ball” are wildly funny, but we’re only laughing with the singer during the former. Bangerz needs more moments like that, but mostly it’s fare that shares a gravely misguided self-seriousness with “Wrecking Ball.” Miley Cyrus is very serious about having fun, and that does her album in; the record is never emotionally convincing, and I’m generously, and perhaps illogically considering “fun” an “emotion” here.
The only track on this album that really deserves recommendation is the one that needs none: the inescapable “We Can’t Stop” is still good, dopey fun that incorporates the hip-hop influence better than anything else on Bangerz and gets all of the record’s most quotable lyrics to boot. But one decent track and two cheesily amusing ones out of thirteen is a deplorable batting average for an album with this much money behind it. Pharrell even rips off his own production on recent super-hit “Blurred Lines” for “#GETITRIGHT,” and it still falls flat. Most of the music here is even worse than these examples, because it’s utterly unremarkable. Time for some brutal honesty: these so-called Bangerz are hookless, poorly written, dully produced songs, and their singer doesn’t have the charisma or talent to see them through. That’s the saddest thing of all about Bangerz: how it was meant to be Miley Cyrus’s big debut as a “mature” pop singer and yet ends up sounding like it could be anybody’s. For all her rebelliousness and defiance, this record does not communicate a strong sense of personality. Obvious predecessor Britney Spears, who appears here on, and fails to redeem, the title track, could adapt to the context of each of the songs in her diverse oeuvre and still sound like Britney Spears, convey the idea of who Britney Spears was supposed to be. Miley doesn’t adapt to her songs, she’s subsumed, and winds up sounding like nobody in particular.
Do I think Miley’s got some race issues to sort out? Do I wish she’d put her tongue back in her mouth? Do I think I looked better with that haircut? Yes, yes, and absolutely, but here’s something more important to consider: single “Wrecking Ball” is, to put it kindly, mediocre pop. It’s not a stretch to claim the song scored its hit-worthy sales mostly because Miley got naked and humped construction equipment in the music video. That she needs to work so hard and, in O’Connor’s phrase, “prostitute” herself for attention bodes ill for this particular pop star’s future. The VMAs and the “We Can’t Stop” video were appalling, but the discussion immediately turned to broader political discourse: Miley was treated as a symptom, a vessel, and an influence on young children in the ensuing melee, but rarely as a person and never as a singer. The now-infamous “Wrecking Ball” parody that superimposes Nicolas Cage’s face over Miley’s is a great comedic meme because it’s Cage’s head atop a naked female body straddling a wrecking ball, not because it’s Miley’s body and certainly not because the song playing is “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus. Meanwhile, Lorde’s claimed the #1 spot on the charts with a catchy, laid-back tune that owes just as much to rap as “We Can’t Stop” does, while scorning the “gold teeth, Grey Goose-sippin’ in the bathroom” lifestyle that is “We Can’t Stop”’s whole reason for existence. Miley knows how to get our attention, but not how to hold it; how to stir up trouble, but not how to manage it; how to sing a song, but not how to sell it. If all it takes is a Photoshop job of Nicolas Cage’s face to distract her audience entirely, that’s a sign that despite the sensationalism, the sour attitude, and the half-assed twerking, Miley Cyrus simply isn’t very interesting. Some dreams, money can’t buy. [D+]
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