Former child star Donny Osmond penned a short op-ed piece for Time magazine’s 2008 TIME 100 issue. The focus was Miley Cyrus, a 15-year-old Disney starlet who’d embarked on her artistic—and personal—transition into adolescence:
Within three to five years, Miley will have to face adulthood. Fans grow up, and their youthful interests quickly dissolve. Her challenge will be overcoming the Hannah Montana stereotype. Miley’s fans are not thinking about the fact that she will grow up too. As she does, she’ll want to change her image, and that change will be met with adversity. It’s next to impossible to fight, embrace, use or love your image. Trust me. I’ve seen this all play out before; it’s the same ball game, just different players in a different time.
Now, in case you’ve been living under a rock of late, you’re surely familiar with the furor over Miley Cyrus. Last year she cut her hair short, dyed it blond, and began dressing like a Bay Area girl from the block, à la Kreayshawn. She’s been very open about smoking weed, which is legal in her home of L.A, and is even featured on the first single off Snoop Lion’s Rastafari album earlier this year. There is, just to be clear, nothing wrong with any of this. Her sartorial choices are hers alone, and anyone with the slightest semblance of a social life has smoked a bit of weed in their late teens or early 20s.
So the uproar, it seems, is only over her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. During a rendition Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Cyrus, clad in a revealing latex two-piece and armed with a foam finger, grinded, pelvic-thrusted, and stuck her sizable tongue out quite a bit. It was the most tweeted-about event ever, generating 360,000 tweets per minute—more than Beyoncé at the Super Bowl—and pushed a plethora of pearl-clutching puritans to wag their finger at Cyrus, labeling her everything from “trashy” and “unsexy” to “racist,” because of the apparent cultural appropriation at play. It even inspired Sinead O’Connor, who was big in the ’90s—and whose biggest hit was a cover—to pen an “open letter” to Cyrus criticizing her sexual frankness.
It was all terribly absurd.
It’s the MTV VMAs. A demented event where Madonna kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and where Diana Ross jiggled Lil Kim’s pasty-covered boob (that was in 1999, by the way). Any notion that this was “an event for children” is silly.
The issue, it seems, is that there are still traces of Hannah Montana, the cute little girl a generation of tweens grew up with on Disney, in Cyrus. She has the big ol’ eyes, overbite, cherub face, and goofy voice—but the cute little girl is all grown up. Cyrus’ gyrations forced concerned, buttoned-up parents to face whatever insecurities they have about raising their own children head-on.
This could be my kid. Forget the fact that if your kid is susceptible to the influence of a pop star like Cyrus, well, you’ve done a bang-up job of parenting up to this point. Or that Cyrus has never been arrested or pictured stumbling out of a nightclub—which is a miracle, really, given the current tabloid landscape. She’s dressing provocatively, smoking weed, and shook her ass at the MTV VMAs. She taught bored housewives what the word “twerk” meant. Whoop-dee-freakin’-doo.
Cyrus is completely in control of what she’s doing. She wasn’t sat down in a conference room by a group of label suits and told to strip down and twerk her ass repeatedly. She’s calling the shots. The reality is that Cyrus has been pushing the envelope for quite some time when it comes to her image. With the 24-hour news cycle’s constant barrage, we seem to forget that back in 2008, at just 15, Cyrus posed nearly topless on the cover of Vanity Fair. For her last album, 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed, Cyrus made an appearance on Britain’s Got Talent where she gyrated and thrusted, before grabbing one of her female backup dancers and simulating a kiss. There was, like the VMAs, much controversy. But that album, her third, sold less than 350,000 copies total in the U.S.—her first effort to not receive an RIAA certification. Following the flop, Cyrus decided to focus full-time on acting, which resulted in one modest hit, 2010’s The Last Song, one flop, the coming-of-age dramedy LOL, and one movie that went direct to video, So Undercover.
So, Cyrus returned to music, switching up her sound and image—as all adventurous pop stars do.
Her fourth studio album, Bangerz, is her first for RCA Records, as well as her first under Britney Spears’s manager Larry Rudolph. It’s produced by Mike Will Made It, the man responsible for the strip-club anthems “Bandz a Make Her Dance” by Juicy J and Rihanna’s “Pour It Up.” And, thanks to the VMAs controversy, as well as the recent end of her four-year relationship to fiancé Liam Hemsworth, whom she’s called her “first serious boyfriend,” the album is accompanied by a great deal of hype. Like Taylor Swift’s Red before it, it’s hard not to view Bangerz through the prism of Cyrus’s relationship struggles.
The first track, “Adore You,” is a somber ode to Hemsworth, with Cyrus’s auto-tuned contralto voice wailing, “You and me were meant to be/in holy matrimony.” But the tune, an R&B slow jam over a basic beat, is one of the more languid tracks on the album. Cyrus’s heavily auto-tuned voice seems to drone on forever, stretching out words—“I a-do-oh-oh-ooooore!”—like Mariah Carey on a falsetto rampage, albeit in a ho-hum low register.
The 20-year-old is at her best when she’s having a good time, like her previous standout track “Party in the USA,” so things get off to a somewhat rocky start here. Fortunately, the mood picks up with her hit single “We Can’t Stop,” which, with its twinkling ivories, cymbal smashes, and lo-fi beats, is an absolute smash of a single, and a galvanizing pop anthem about teenage rebellion. Towards the end of the tune, Cyrus flips the bird to all those that judge her, screaming, “It’s our body we can do what we want to! It’s our house we can love who we want to! It’s our song we can sing if we want to! It’s my mouth I can say what I want to.” It is undeniably catchy, and one of the best pop songs of the year.
Bangerz might be the most schizo album of the year. It isn’t a bad thing, but may prove disorienting to some listeners. The track “SMS (Bangerz)” is shameless rip-off of Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” and sees Cyrus rapping at top speed like Da Brat—before Britney Spears comes in for a cameo, singing unintelligible lyrics like, “I’m flying high up on a bird like a phobiac/My slick quarter, eye down my purse, where the dollars at?” It’s a hilarious mess, however, so not a total loss.
“4x4” is a fun little country-infused rap-hoedown track that grows on you after repeat listens, and features a fun verse by rapper Nelly, with Cyrus proclaiming in her Nashville twang, “I’m a fe-male re-bel, can’t you tell?” After some initial impressive vocal flourishes, the subsequent track, "My Darlin'" proves to be another subpar ballad. And when Future comes in, like a bat out of auto-tune hell, and sings with Cyrus in unison, “We gon’ make a movie, a movie, and it’s gon’ be in 3-D, 3-D,” you can’t help but roll your eyes.
But this is all forgotten when the next track, “Wrecking Ball,” comes on. Unlike most of the album’s other Hemsworth-aimed ballads, which come off tired and de riguer, this is a grand, bruising ballad. Cyrus strips herself bare. It may ultimately be overshadowed by its crazy music video, which sees the singer in the buff swinging from a literal wrecking ball. This is a shame, because it’s the hugest ballad she’s ever done, with Cyrus pleading, “I never meant to start a war/I just wanted you to let me in/I guess I should have let you in.”
After this high, however, we’re dropped into the gonzo rap track “Love Money Party,” which is without question the worst track on Bangerz. It’s completely ADD, and sees Cyrus spitting silly lines like, “Party ain’t nothing but a party when you party everyday ain’t nothing but a party,” at top speed. But the groovy, Pharrell-produced “#getitright” pulls us back in with its mellow beat, guitar strums, and background whistling. The production sounds very similar to the Pharrell-produced “Beautiful,” and is a fun lil’ sex anthem with Cyrus cooing, “I’m dancing in the mirror/I feel like I got no panties on/I wish that I could feel ya/So hurry, hang up that damn phone.”
Back to the schizo thing. No other singer in recent memory has assumed as many vocal inflections as Cyrus does on Bangerz. At times, she’ll do a fierce spoken-word routine a la Gaga, and others, drop some eh-eh crooning reminiscent of Rihanna. On the crunk anthem “Do My Thang,” she mimics Trina, rapping, “Bang bitch, you think I’m strange bitch? Ge-gets bananas like a fuckin’ ‘rangutan bitch.” Then, on the very next track “Maybe You’re Right,” she’ll sound like Kelly Clarkson, before closing with the Gaga-esque dance track “Someone Else,” screaming, “I’ve turned into someone else!”
From a musical-identity standpoint, Cyrus is all over the place on this album, and it’s pure artistic calculation born out of mild desperation. But those complaining of “cultural appropriation” need to remember that we live in the era of musical calculation, a time when the second-biggest rapper in the world is a half-Jewish ex-Canadian soap star, the most “gangster” rapper was once a prison guard, and the world’s biggest female pop star started out as a Christian rock singer. There are no “rules” anymore for Cyrus to break, and on Bangerz, she tries just about anything to gain our attention. And guess what? She has.