For some, it has all the makings of a horror film.
On Wednesday night, Miley Cyrus will perform on MTV Unplugged. It’s a series meant to showcase a performer’s vocal prowess and musicality by stripping away all electronic bells and whistles and having them perform their hits acoustically. It’s a series that gave birth to bonafide music moments, like Eric Clapton’s iconic “Tears in Heaven” and Mariah Carey’s indelible cover of “I’ll Be There.”
Now it will host Miley Cyrus, the 21-year-old pop-culture provocateur known as much for being a twerking tyrant as a serious recording artist. And she’s going to sing live. Unplugged.
Should we be scared?
Surprisingly, the answer is no. In the lead up to the “Wrecking Ball” singer’s big Unplugged moment we called up a host of vocal coaches and voice experts to analyze the singer’s voice, technique, and appeal (or lack there of). Overwhelmingly, they came to the same conclusion, one that I don’t think any of us—at least those of us who read the Internet—ever expected.
According to experts, Miley Cyrus, it turns out, is actually a pretty good singer. Not the best! But still good!
“I think it’s totally unfair,” says Los Angeles-base celebrity vocal coach Micah Plissner about all the criticism Cyrus gets for her talent, or her apparent lack thereof. “She sounds good. I like her! I like her voice.” Even when the praise is a bit more measured, it’s mostly complimentary. “It’s not the worst technique I’ve ever heard in a rock-pop singer,” says Stephen Purdy, voice coach at the New York Vocal Coaching Studio and vocal music faculty at Marymount Manhattan College. “It’s certainly not the best, but when it comes to sheer vocal performance, it’s not the worst technique I’ve ever heard.”
Why is this surprising information? Well, have you heard of this Miley Cyrus person?
Perhaps no pop star today has more critics. Google “Miley Cyrus” and “bad singer,” for example, and see 157 million results come up. A search for “Miley Cyrus sounds like a goat” yields a good 260,000—just edging the “172,000” results for “sounds like a chipmunk.” She’s prominently featured on Crushable’s ranking titled “A List of Bad Singer Celebrities Who Should Never Sing Live.” It’s hardly legitimate, but there’s a rather amusing Ask.com thread titled “How Bad Is Miley Cyrus?” The answer: “off the meter bad.”
When she appeared on The X Factor in November to perform “Wrecking Ball,” several anti-Miley crusaders gleefully pointed out that her vocal performance had an uncanny aural resemblance to a certain goat’s interpretation of her number one hit.
There are problems, sure. “She has a very low back-of-throat tone that not atypical of rock-pop singers,” Purdy says. As anyone who’s watched a live performance of “Wrecking Ball” can attest to, the power that she belts the soaring chorus with can come off as forced at times, which is not a good thing. “That’s caused by not having enough breath,” says New York City vocal coach Bob Marks. “From having a lot of tension in the throat, not being able to expand the rib cage and breathe properly. It can also be caused by singing too high for too long.”
Even if her belting occasionally sounds forced, all of the experts praised the undeniable power Cyrus has when singing. That’s owed to the incredibly smart way she uses her voice. She knows the extent of her instrument, says Marks, and how to maximize it, so even when she’s belting out her more vocally taxing ballads, the biggest notes still fall squarely within her limited range. Her songs are low enough for her to “chest” the entire thing.
“She keeps it reasonable,” Marks says, “as opposed to someone like Adele who really hurt herself by pushing herself a few notes higher than her vocal folds wanted to go. Miley’s voice is powerful. I like that she’s able to deal with volumes and contrast, particularly in ‘Wrecking Ball.’ It’s not ridiculously high. It’s B-flats and Cs—not beyond her range.”
She’s in good company, too, in that regard. “Madonna’s always done the same thing,” Marks says. “She’s always stayed within her vocal range.” Madonna, as it turns out, has already been revealed as one of the guests on Cyrus’s unplugged appearance Wednesday.
And it might seem like a silly thing to gush about when it comes to recording artists who are being paid the equivalent of the GDP for a small nation per album, but Cyrus has a remarkable ability to stay on key.
“No matter what people think about of her voice, she’s not going to go out and hit wrong notes,” says Roger Burnley, vocal coach and creator of the online program Singing Made Simple. “She can hear. She has such musicality … even if she’s not physically getting to it in the correct way or in a way that’s not going to damage her voice, she’s going to hit that note.”
The fact that she’s been touring since the Hannah Montana days and still manages the power is a testament to her vocal skill. “She’s obviously got great technique, if you ask me,” Plissner says. “She wouldn’t be able to do all she does for this long if she didn’t.”
OK, so she may have good, or, at least, decent technique. And she sings on-key, usually. That’s good, too! So what is it about her voice that so many people find so annoying? “There’s a very personal sound to her voice,” Plissner says. “That means there are idiosyncrasies that you either are going to love or hate. She has a gulpy, southern twang to her voice, which can be annoying. But it’s also what makes people like her so much, because it sounds genuine.” The twang’s the thing, Purdy agrees. “There’s a thing that country singers do that’s called scooping and creates a twang,” he says. “They sing from the back of their throats a little bit, and you can hear her do that.”
It also may be too difficult to separate the voice from the personality, leading to baseless critiques. “People who don’t like her voice can never pin it on something technical,” says Plissner. “They always just say she’s annoying. I think they just have a personal problem with her style, and are talking about her delivery and persona.”
Besides being firmly Team Miley, there was something else that united the vocal experts we spoke to: they’re worried about her! “It’s apparent that there are persistent habits present that if they continue will lead to vocal trauma,” Purdy says. As such, we gave each of our vocal experts an opportunity to say what they would work on with Cyrus if they had the opportunity to have her in for a session for a day.
Here’s what they said:
Stephen Purdy: We’d probably work on getting the air moving, getting the airway not constricted. She’s sitting on the back of the tongue and not letting the air flow freely, so we’d work on that. A few things would happen. You’d hear less of the raspiness. You’d hear less of the growl. You’d hear a sound like it was coming out of the mouth more and a lot less stuck in the back of the throat or tongue.
Bob Marks: Mostly I would suggest that she work more on her head voice. She’d have a much better mix if she had more to mix. She’s really all in her chest. I’d like her to use some more lighter tones to use along with the heavier tones, like what Carrie Underwood and Christina Aguilera can do. I would suggest that she do some breathing success and work on her head voice so that she develops it enough to blend it.
Micah Plissner: I would go for more range, for more full voice. She’s got a nice belt, a little lower than Adele. I would take her belt up a bunch of steps so she could really murder it. She’s very straightforward as a singer. Verse, chorus, BOOM. I wouldn’t want to mess with her tone because she’s so successful. Why mess with that? I’m not sure she actually needs help, but if somebody says we need more out of Miley, that’s what I would do. Get her closer to the world of Kelly Clarkson.
Roger Burnley: I would work to stop the straining when she belts. I do this thing where I get them to understand the physiology of their voice and how to start counteracting something that could be a problem. I do this crazy thing where instead of pushing up for higher notes theyre singing down into them. That works dramatically. It’s really amazing how that starts do it. then they’re not having that strain on their voice.
Until then, tune in for Cyrus’s Unplugged performance on Wednesday night to see—and hear—how she fares.