Yes, I thought her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards was tasteless. Yes, her twerking skills leave a lot to be desired. Yes, I’d like for her to put her tongue back in her mouth. Yes, she’s officially overexposed.
And yes, I love Miley Cyrus’s new album.
There are an awful lot of misgivings about the current iteration of Cyrus. You either love her or loathe her right now, and she’s given both sides plenty of ammunition. Her metamorphosis from the lovable Hannah Montana character she played on the Disney TV show of the same name to outrageous pop star in skimpy clothes (and nude in one of her music videos) has been jarring, to say the least. But you also get the sense that it has been self-directed.
“Bangerz,” her fourth studio album and the first to capitalize on her new image, comes out on Tuesday, after a long lead-up that yielded two hit singles (“We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball”) and a firestorm of criticism about her recent behavior and her unwavering defense of it.
The truth is, Cyrus isn’t doing anything new. She is firmly sticking to the script. After three albums of generic pop songs that parroted the fluff her peers were producing, Cyrus finally breaks free of the pack with “Bangerz.” You may not like who she has become, but she clearly does.
That bump and grind at the VMAs was a rite of passage. It put her in the pantheon of pop stars who use that stage to declare their independence. There was Madonna writhing on the floor to “Like a Virgin” in 1984, not to mention those lip locks she planted on Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera nearly two decades later. Spears, too, has raised eyebrows on the show, notably with her striptease to “Satisfaction” in 2000.
By the time Lady Gaga galvanized the masses, she was fully formed and proudly waving her freak flag. It was the same for Katy Perry, who started as a Christian pop singer before wholly revamping herself as a pin-up pop star with tongue firmly in cheek. Down and dirty and unapologetic, Ke$ha is what she i$, as is Rihanna.
Artistic liberation is also about the freedom to be who you are, whether that’s chaste or hyper-sexualized.
Because Cyrus was first known as Hannah Montana, the girl next door who parents hailed as a role model for their impressionable children, this brazen reinvention has been a shock — at least for a large swath of her original fanbase. But she has picked up plenty of new fans in the process.
Not everyone is buying this idea that Cyrus has the reins. Sinead O’Connor, after learning that Cyrus modeled her video for “Wrecking Ball” after the iconic one O’Connor made for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” penned an open letter to Miley on her website recently. She didn’t mince words.
“I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe, or encouraged you in your own belief, that it is in any way ‘cool’ to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos,” O’Connor wrote. “It is in fact the case that you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether it’s the music business or yourself doing the pimping.”
Cyrus didn’t take the advice to heart. She responded on Twitter with a snide message that read, “Before Amanda Bynes . . . There was . . . ” with a link to a series of tweets that questioned O’Connor’s mental stability.
O’Connor has a valid point, but artistic liberation is also about the freedom to be who you are, whether that’s chaste or hyper-sexualized. I don’t get the impression that Cyrus is a marionette whose strings are being pulled by those greedy music execs that O’Connor mentioned. If anything, Cyrus looks like she’s having a great time being 20, rich, and famous.
That was certainly the takeaway from her recent interview in Rolling Stone magazine. She was pithy, in charge, and made absolute sense. She reaffirmed that her antics are outrageous, sure, but they are not reckless. There’s a difference. Cyrus isn’t off the rails in a way that should make us worry about her mental or physical well-being.
If anything, Cyrus comes off as harmless on “Bangerz.” There’s some coarse language and drug references, including that line about “dancing with molly” (a nickname for ecstasy) on “We Can’t Stop.” Mostly, though, Cyrus is here to party, prone to declarations like “I’mma do my thang.”
In that respect, this 2.0 version of Cyrus reminds me a lot of Lady Gaga: The presentation doesn’t match the nature of the music. Gaga thrives on looking like an outsider, a champion of the disenfranchised, but her songs are some of the most formulaic, mainstream, and toothless confections in modern pop. (Exhibit A: “Applause,” her latest single.)
The music on “Bangerz,” which has been rendered secondary to Cyrus’s public notoriety, is less in your face. It does not redraw the parameters of pop music or even break new ground. But it’s consistent, the most obvious extension of Cyrus’s new image that embodies the ethos of YOLO (you only live once). One person’s garbage is another’s Friday night soundtrack.
The music itself is similarly innocuous, a buffered mix of R&B, hip-hop, Top 40 pop, and the slightest country tinge. Slow down the clattering beat of “4x4” and you’ve got a country jamboree perfect for square dancing. “SMS (Bangerz)” has an old-school hip-hop feel, from Cyrus’s fluid rapping to the strain of Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” bubbling up in the melody. That Spears makes a cameo is nonessential; she’s barely there and adds nothing. “#GETITRIGHT” is an undeniable hit in waiting, with a breezy soul vibe you’d expect from Justin Timberlake.
One listen to the album and you think, “What is all the fuss about Miley?” As obscene as she appears, she is still her own best judge of how her career is unfolding.
“I know what I’m doing,” she told Rolling Stone in an excerpt from that cover story. “I know I’m shocking you.”James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.