Miley Cyrus has been all over the media lately, but next to none of it has been for her music. The VMA performance, hosting SNL, taking photos with Terry Richardson, ruining twerking, being casually dismissive of Sinead O’Connor’s concern and viciously disrespectful to people with mental health issues. No one has expended this kind of energy and clout to piss off the public since the writers of Lost ended it’s first season in a literal hole in the ground. I’m not here to comment on Miley’s life choices. Buzzfeed has you covered for that shit. I am by no means a fan of her coveting black women with large posteriors in the same way Gwen Stefani cultivated Japanese girls like fashion accessories. I do not condone really anything she’s been up to lately, but I’m also not here for all the slut shaming and media stoning that’s been going on either. Other corners of the internet can help you if you’re looking for social justice critiques of cultural re-appropriation and problematic gender stereotypes.
I write about music and I am a 27-year-old man who has been listening to Justin Bieber’s “Heartbreaker” for the last forty five minutes. I am endlessly fascinated by pop radio’s sublimation of ironic finger quotes “urban” music trends and the ongoing war to create lowest common denominator product in today’s post-Internet free-for-all of genre bleed. Miley Cyrus decided to make her fourth studio album by hanging out with some of my favorite working producers and songwriters, called her album Bangerz and apparently got Lisa Frank to do the album art, so, yeah, here we are.
The album opens with “Adore You,” a misleadingly dulcet ballad that belies the sweaty grind fest that makes up the lion’s share of the remaining album cuts. Surf Club associate Stacy Barthe is crediting in the liner notes, which explains the song’s accessibility and warmth. It’s a nice swerve for people expecting an album titled with a pluralized Z to be all killer, no FEELer. You already know lead single “We Can’t Stop,” the undeniably effective hit that launched this whole campaign. Mike WiLL Made It, a producer who is used to making strip club anthems for Juicy J, has a blast here and throughout the album, deftly adapting his signature sound to compete with “Wrecking Ball”s Dr. Luke’s tried and true Max Martinisms.
The two weakest songs on the album also feature it’s two biggest guests, Britney Spears and Nelly. “SMS (Bangerz)” is maybe the most ineffectual song Britney has associated herself with in the last few years, and its clear from her inclusion on the track that Miley is aiming to capture the gay-baiting, dance club aesthetic It’s Britney, Bitch has been cultivating of late. She fails, and not even in the fascinating way. THAT particular brand of misfire can be found on “4X4” which features the amazing lyric “Driving so fast, about to piss on myself.” The Southern feel, all line dance stomp and guitar strum, is an interesting reach. As the progeny of the progenitor of “Achey Breaky Heart,” Miley should be poised to present that country aesthetic in her new found persona as an earnest call back to her roots. Instead it is just awkward and weird and made me want to listen to Carrie Underwood.
For me, the most anticipated guest on the album was Future, the R&B Astronaut who’s become so prevalent in the current radio landscape. I just don’t have the words to describe why I like Future as much as I do. He’s like a phantom that escaped a haunted Auto-Tune set up, a rogue line of programming that gained brokenhearted sentience. If the first song Ultron ever heard was Lil Wayne’s “Prostitute Flange,” he would have begun recording music as Future. “My Darlin,” their innocent enough duet, is charming, in an offbeat way. The track curiously samples Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and the hook is about staying together and making a movie and how “it’s gon’ be in 3D,” further solidifying Hip-Pop’s recent preoccupation with unrealistic sex tape goals (see 2 Chainz’s “Netflix” as well as the hook from his “Used 2.”) The song works as well as it does because of Future’s sincerity, and his conviction is contagious, temporarily transforming Miley into someone who can keep her tongue in her mouth long enough to emote.
Actual Worst Song on the album goes to “Love Money Party” a clubby nonsense thing of wonder that was conceived under the false notion anyone needed a celebrity pop songstress to define the differences between “love,” “money,” and “parties” as singular concepts. Big Sean shows up and raps a partial verse. It’s not the best sign when a man who will excitedly rap at the opening of a credit card approval letter sounds bored on your song. It’s an acceptable loss, though, as it leads directly into “#GETITRIGHT,” a sexy time machine back to 2001-02, when The Neptunes ran the radio. The lyrics are as clunky as they tend to be when a woman who isn’t Kelis lets Pharrell Williams write from her perspective, but it’s bubbly and fun and infectious, which is the name of the game as far as I’m concerned.*
Most Interesting Song goes to “FU,” a hot mess featuring the Black Rob of blog rap, French Montana*. It’s built on this staccato dub wobble, punctuating Miley’s misguided but effective vocal impression of John Fogerty on the soaring hook. The two letters of the song’s title are easy enough to figure out. It takes after The-Dream’s “Florida University” in terms of childish PG-13 vulgarity, when it could have followed in the high heeled footsteps of Queen Brit’s “If You Seek Amy,” but there’s something about it that just works.
This is an album all about duality, particularly Miley’s. Her voice is all over the place, howling melisma one minute and twangy warbling the next. Codeine sipping swag posturing aside, Miley is at her best when earnestly emoting over plaintive but pleasant synth flights. Miley Cyrus is not the first pop starlet to lash out at her public image and make some questionable decisions it’s doubtful she’ll be the last. Britney Spears made it through that phase by worshiping at a Janet Jackson shaped altar, presumably built out of LipSmackers chapstick and Pepsi royalty checks. I’m not sure what pop deity can guide Miley through this. Maybe Big Boi should let her borrow some of his Kate Bush vinyl?
Personally, I liked the album a lot more than I anticipated. I’ll admit, morbid curiosity brought me here. That and the rumor of a track produced by Tyler, The Creator, forcing me to forever wonder when Miley will smarten up and get that Earl Sweatshirt feature. While I would have included Mike Will’s disgustingly catchy “23”, bonus track “Rooting For My Baby” is worth the iTunes purchase alone, a soft and smooth love song that manages to call to mind both the video for J. Lo’s “Baby, I Luv U” and VH1 Soul mainstay Res’ underrated debut album, How I Do, a high wire act of evocative nostalgia that would require all four of Goro’s arms to adequately applaud. The song, like the best parts of the album, succeeds because it’s Miley, unadorned and unfettered, just singing something beautiful and slight enough to be easily digestible. Bottom line, Miley’s got enough personality and heart to hang with the Katys and Ke$has of the world, and this album shows that. Whenever she’s done trying to shed the Disney slick snakeskin from her dermis through exceedingly offensive acts of pop cultural antagonism, she’ll be an enduring radio presence for some time to come.
Bangerz may just have to settle for “guilty pleasure” classification for now, but give it time, and it’ll be a fashionable album to call back to in years to come.
*If nothing else, the Neptunes co-founder’s contributions to this album will make a great chapter in my novel, 2013: A Tale of Two Pharrells, as pop music’s Cool Uncle nimbly hopscotches between amazing comeback production and getting lucky with robots and pissing people off by hanging out with Robin Thicke instead of Justin Timberlake. Seriously, PW + JT = Post-MJ dance pop’s true OTP.
*There was a really good French Montana/Hannah Montana thing in here somewhere, but I just couldn’t dig deep enough to pull it off. I am deeply shamed.
Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz is available digitally and physically at every music outlet on Earth, but I would recommend buying it at Target. It just seems right.