For the past few years, I’ve taught “The Braindead Megaphone” to my writing students at UMass Amherst. It’s a George Saunders essay about commercial news media post 9/11, which compares telecasters to a dumb dude with a loudspeaker, making humankind more stupid with his deafening inanity. My students usually like reading it, not only because it allows them to discuss in class their fave source for news (ahem, Twitter), but also because the essay is funny, particularly Saunders’ pitch-perfect impression of a telecaster reporting on “a piece of dog crap in a bowl.” (“Dog-crap expert Jesse Toville provides his assessment of the probable size of the dog and its psychological state at time-of-crappage.”) This part usually gets a laugh from the class. They laugh because they think they are too smart to fall for that dog crap, and they are totally right. We should all be too smart to fall for that crap.
But I haven’t felt very crap-proof lately, and most of the crap flicked my way is done up in Miley Cyrus-patterned gift-wrapping. It’s not that I feel inundated by anything Ms. Cyrus herself is doing — heck, “We Can’t Stop” was one of my favorite pop songs of the summer, and its all-over-the-place video, replete with money sandwiches, yogurt blood, hotdog piñatas, and an awful lot of Miley’s tongue, is as entertaining and WTF-y as some of the best Lady Gaga videos. I liked “We Can’t Stop” enough that I hoped Bangerz, the first Miley album since she parted ways with her character Hannah Montana, would be halfway decent. I hoped it would be decent in the same way that I hoped Ariana Grande’s album would live up to the Mariah-esque acrobatics on “The Way” (it doesn’t), or that Selena Gomez’s Stars Dance would have even a hint of the weirdness of “Birthday” (it doesn’t).
Little did I know I would have to crawl across a whole sea of Cyrus think pieces before I even got a chance to sample Bangerz. Ever since the VMAs, I’ve felt like a student in a survey course from my nightmares/hell/both. Our class reading list tackles interesting and important and vast subjects — feminism, cultural appropriation, marketing strategies — but unfortunately each of these topics is anchored fast to Cyrus’ twerking heinie, and as a result of this anchoring the intellectual relevance of the syllabus sinks to brain-numbing depths. What do I find at the bottom of the Cyrus-feature-sea? A whole ‘nother slew of Miley dissections, so banal they don’t even bother using a compelling blade with which to slice her up. “What Miley Cyrus’ Tongue Says About Her Health” and “No Ifs or Butts: The Miley Cyrus Twerking ‘Bobble Butt’ Is Here,” God help me, are the titles of two real “news” articles I read this week. They seem lifted straight from “The Braindead Megaphone.” I was truly, honestly interested in listening to Bangerz after “We Can’t Stop” dropped, but I wasn’t exactly stoked on going into an assuredly dopey pop album with a post-colonial reading of the VMAs tugging on my cerebral cortex.
In a fairly scathing (and totally enjoyable) review of Bangerz for Spin, Jessica Hopper asks, “Did you really expect an album called Bangerz to reveal anything to you?” Well, now that I’ve sat down with the whole thing, Bangerz actually has answered a few of my questions:
1. How many times, on a Mike WiLL Made It-produced album, would I have to hear an assertion that Mike WiLL did indeed “make it”? Answer: Seven. It’s exhausting.
2. Has Miley decisively crossed the Disney-sponsored footbridge she’s so desperately trying to arson into oblivion? Not really, nah. Despite her repeated assertions that she’s a “Southern belle, crazier than hell” trying to make a dirty hip-hop album, there are too many tracks on here that could just as well have been sung by another ex-Mouseketeer, like Miley’s former role model Hillary Duff. See: “Maybe You’re Right,” a moving-on power ballad that feels predestined for a Disney Channel Original Movie. “SMS (Bangerz),” though it brings up images of self-pleasure, is misguided, not only because its liberating power is utterly hollow, but because it reinforces that Disney association by bringing on Britney Spears as a guest. (Spears, unsurprisingly, flatlines next to Miley’s can’t-stop-won’t-stop liveliness; Spears sure isn’t the ringmaster of this circus.) If not for its expletives and its French Montana verse, the vampy, theatrical belter “FU” — as in, “I got two letters for you” — could have been culled from a TV musical. Miley’s not exactly making Kidz Bop tracks, though. These songs are explicit enough, alluding to vibrators, Ecstasy, and even violent eye-scratching. But singing about adult-ish content does not an adult make.
3. Is Bangerz interesting enough to merit the massive tabloid and editorial word count Miley 2.0 has racked up over the past few months? On that one, I can get a “hell no.” Sure, the songs are catchy enough — “Adore You” and “Drive” in particular — but Bangerz is as erratic as it is derivative, the post-pubescent heart-leakings of a young performer who, as she keeps assuring us, is very much acting her age. Like the “We Can’t Stop” video, Miley’s album is all over the place, and every time I listen to it, I finish up unsure of who exactly our young star is trying to be. Maybe she’s the twangy, Nashvillean “female rebel” she swears she is on “4×4,” a bouncy, clunky Nelly collaboration (in which Miley delivers one of the album’s weirder ha-ha moments when she sings, “Drivin’ so fast ‘bout to piss on myself.”) Possibly she’s the devotional, impassioned balladeer who duets with Future on “My Darlin’,” another one of the album’s several marriage-minded numbers. Perhaps she really is the turnt-up rapper she wants us to think she is on “Love Money Party” and “Do My Thang” — producer Pharrell and collaborator Wiz Khalifa, at least, have vouched for her honest genre fandom. Maybe Miley contains multitudes, but to me it seems like she’s trying to be so many things that she winds up as nothing.
And that’s the thing — when you’re 20, you don’t really know who you are. You’re allowed to try on a couple hats (or in Miley’s case, lick a couple inanimate props) before you figure out your own style. Bangerz is an insecure album, both in its awkward sexual confidence and in its singer’s chameleonic vocal performances. Miley is effusive and energetic, but she has no idea how to articulate her disparate thoughts, feelings, and interests, particularly when she writes her own lyrics. This pointless verse on “Someone Else” is fairly representative: “I used to believe love conquered all/‘cuz that’s what I’ve seen in the movies/I’ve come to find out it’s not like that at all/You see, real life’s much different.” Um, duh? Listening to these words feels like eating celery — I’m chewing, but with all the work it takes to chew, am I actually netting any calories? The album lacks substance, and so lands her nowhere near the lofty place she was publicly hoping to scale, namely the ranks of her idols: Michael Jackson circa Bad, Dolly Parton, Lil’ Kim. All of those artists had focus, and although Miley’s about a lot of things, focus isn’t one of them.
That doesn’t necessarily mean she won’t make something interesting in the future. But, like my students (who are the same age as Cyrus), she needs a little time to figure out a way to stop mimicking her heroes and develop her own voice. As she sings on “Do My Thang,” she’s gonna, um, do her thang. I’m just hoping that thang becomes her own thang soon, and somethang interesting, so we can all stop feeling so dumbed down by otherwise articulate analyses of vapid post-teenage mimicry. Until she gets to the point of real artistry, can we ease off on the eggheaded Op-Eds, please?