Miley Cyrus’s story in progress is that of breaking a stale mould and discovering a grown-up voice and identity through hip hop, says jon Caramanica, slashing brickbats aimed at the 20-year-old star.
E nough already. Enough with the nose-in-the-air repudiations and the false moral panics. Enough of the finger pointing and the slut shaming. Enough with the using of Miley Cyrus as a punching bag.
Thanks to her loose-tongued performance at the MTV Video Music Awards this summer — which used black female backup dancers, Robin Thicke’s crotch and a helpless foam finger as props — and her decreasingly-clothed music videos, Miley has become an easy target, a receptacle for our national racial and sexual anxieties. In throwing off the chains of Disney, Miley is flashing cocksureness that has become a threat to established ideas of how young female performers should present themselves.
To some, her success has been seen as confirmation that something else is failing. Appropriation is to be handled in measured fashion, this argument goes, but that is a tired narrative and a false one. The most vibrant culture moves at uncomfortable speeds.
It’s numbingly easy to pick on someone like Miley for her creative choices, and the vitriol aimed at her in recent weeks has felt especially hollow, declarations of cultural war from defenders of an innocent past that never was. That goes for pop as a whole, which always needs flamboyant disruptors to survive, and for Miley herself, who’s been famous for half her young life and is astute about fame’s demands.
So, in a remarkably dull moment for pop, with smooth men ruling the roost, Miley has sensed the vacuum and is keen to fill it, emerging as a polarising figure, if not quite a transformative one. Her intrusions have been bold and a little left field. It’s no longer sufficient to shock for shock’s sake — better to show up armed with full agency and also a wink.
Bangerz (RCA), which was released recently, is Miley’s fourth solo album, though that’s not the most useful metric given the rate with which she’s molted skin in recent years. Simply put, Bangerz is the first album of the Grown-Up Miley era — She is 20 — and the first that’s not a direct inheritance of her days as the Disney idol Hannah Montana.
Miley has dived headlong into hip hop, just as seemingly every other young person in America has. In its lineup and sound, Bangerz serves as a catalog of the now, borrowing from several of the latest movements without being beholden to a single idea or crew. There’s the decaying digital vocals of Future on My Darlin, a bit of country-rap from Nelly on 4x4, some mature post-rap funk produced by Pharrell Williams on #GETITRIGHT. (And this doesn’t even include the much-teased but still unreleased remix of Kanye West’s Black Skinhead that Miley recorded following her performance at the awards show.)
The results are scattershot, but sometimes great, reflecting an artiste still making sense of new inputs. She worked largely with the producer Mike WiLL Made-It, a heavy in hip hop and R&B but not, until now, a true pop force. Even his success here is on unusual terms — the songs he’s created for Miley — rumble like obstinate weather systems. Their hit We Can’t Stop is an ornery, stubborn song, sticking low to the ground, never letting Miley soar vocally. But the video, with her in louche party-comedown mode, was a YouTube star burst. Suddenly, the exhaustion in the song was clear; it was because Miley was tuckered out.
Her second single, Wrecking Ball, was even more of an Internet phenomenon, largely because the video featured Miley — naked but for her Dr Martens — draped over an actual wrecking ball. She’s singing well on this song, but the rage and resentment in the lyric are secondary features. It’s a song that speaks to the eyes more than the ears.
Still, Miley has been widely lambasted for her sonic choices, as if appropriation of black culture weren’t the default state of white culture, as if it hasn’t been that way for generations. She may have come by her taste honestly, or she may be carpetbagging — it hasn’t been that many years since she insisted she’d never heard a Jay-Z song — and she may be playing fast and loose with signifiers with no larger understanding of their historical meaning.
Whichever the case, it’s clear that the rules that she’s breaking belong to an earlier generation, not her own. And there’s plenty of pop precedent: Britney Spears turned to Pharrell and the Neptunes to mature out of her teeny-bop phase, Justin Timberlake turned to Timbaland, and hip-hop producers like Polow da Don have helped give pop stars edge for decades now.
Plus, a tremendous amount of her appeal is visual. She is, quite suddenly, a 360-degree pop star. From her chopped, bleached hair to her white nail polish to her VFiles fashion choices to her Terry Richardson-directed videos, she’s leaped to the front of the pop class in terms of presentation. Her apparent fearlessness has more to do with the rejection of how Old Miley looked than how she sounded. Those bold choices have helped Miley fill the current void of a female pop idol. Her closest competition now isn’t Lady Gaga — who appears eager to abandon pop stardom in favour of cheap experimental theatre — but probably Katy Perry. No matter how candy-coloured Perry’s image is, though, her insides are milk white.
The thrilling bit
The thrill of Miley is that it’s virtually impossible to know what her insides look like. Her shift to high fashion and hip-hop was sudden and more effective than one could have expected. Twelve months ago, there would have been no way to predict that she’d show up on a song like 23 (from Mike WiLL Made-It’s forthcoming album) as a drawl-heavy rapper — rapping better than her song mate Wiz Khalifa, it should be said — and then appear in the video wearing a Michael Jordan jersey sliced and diced into some sort of bustier-diaper combo. It’s daring and odd and disarmingly effective; if she can do this, what other worldviews can she inhabit?
Of course, Spears doesn’t fully understand Miley, who’s closer in spirit to Madonna, of all people — the stadium-size provocations, the image malleability, the willingness to cause a commotion to make a point (or for the commotion to be the point). But Madonna had no Madonna of her own to react against. Miley is channeling, chewing up and digesting several generations of transgressive pop divas. Her spectacle isn’t about the size of the shock, but the unexpected twists and turns on the way. It’s sloppy and invigorating and, at its best, interesting. She’s experimenting with the shape of pop stardom — let her live.