Photo by the great Damien Fry
by Mike Derrico
While doing some research on Rock Under Fire’s Ticketmaster episode, I stumbled on some facts regarding Miley Cyrus and her Hannah Montana period that found their way into the podcast discussion. From there, it snowballed. The end result is this article.
If there is one thing certain about Miley Cyrus as a recording artist, it’s that she has yet to settle on any one particular sound or style of music to define herself. The good news is, with six studio albums behind her it’s probably a little late for that. Either that, or she is right on the cusp of something that may or may not transpire next time around.
The biggest criticism of Cyrus’s latest album Younger Now, is that it’s the most “dishonest” work she’s ever done, and lots of the hipper-than-thou publications that rose to glory on the Internet in the past decade and a half are trashing her album most expectedly. These are people, who either A.) were hoping for more of the half-naked color-by-numbers hip hop trend-following of Cyrus’s 2013 Bangerz album, or B.) were hoping her drugged-out I-Don’t-Give-a-Fuck psychedelic period that gave us 2015’s Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, would continue with even more outlandish career-sabotaging antics.
But let’s face it.
They call it the music business for a reason.
So while I give her props for being brave as fuck and going in the direction she did on Dead Petz, it was not released as tangible product and not for sale as such. Therefore, she really only had one foot in the waters of badass when she knew it was time to put together a proper commercial effort and get it out to her fans…and in turn, make the suits happy. To suggest, however, that she has just turned out her most dishonest album yet, is to also suggest that she has already established herself as something we could clearly define and pigeonhole her into…as if to say, This is what Miley Cyrus is, and this is what Miley Cyrus is not. This is when she’s keepin’ it real, and this is when she’s full of shit.
The truth is, unlike most of her contemporaries, Cyrus has not made the same album twice, nor do her albums seem all that similar to each other. Sure, they’re quite alike in the sense that they follow trends of their time, and none are shockingly different from each other in that they offer no departure from the sounds of the past 15 years of pop music. But they are all conscious (and perhaps self-conscious) efforts of different genres and production values. What’s more, they all stress the underlying factor of Cyrus coming of age and highlight the only real natural evolution over the course of the six-album run, more so, beginning with 2008’s Breakout… and that’s the beginning of the artist maturing as a teen about to cross over into some provocative content over the next five years.
From the outset of Cyrus’s departure from the Hannah Montana character, or even more accurately, as she was straddling both identities, she was putting out generic pop rock songs penned by teams of writers, and produced along the same synthetic lines of Kelly Clarkson and the modern rock stylings of Fall Out Boy. In other words, Millennial Rock. So when “Behind These Hazel Eyes” was working its way inevitably into the earworm aesthetics of 2005, it was already forming the structure of what producers and record execs would hear happening for Cyrus. Clarkson was the “it” girl in 2005, and Cyrus was the next logical step in the progression of flavor of the week. That said, the execs were not really taking into account that Cyrus would eventually grow up, have a mind of her own, and attempt to continue in a manner in which the industry no longer cultivates or supports…an artistic evolution, artistic clout, and staying power. But at the time, Cyrus always seemed to release her own stamp on a trend a few years after the fact. To be fair though, Miley only turned 12 a week before Clarkson’s Breakaway LP hit the stores in 2004. By no means were her pop sensibilities, creative preferences or artistic ambitions even conceived of yet… at least not as Miley Cyrus. So by the time of her 2008 album, Breakout, Miley was 16, and surrounded by all the right writers and producers to help her create the latest generic and catchy pop rock album in the tradition of the formulaic 2000s.
2010’s Can’t Be Tamed was a further continuation of Cyrus maturing past the limitations and expectations of Hannah Montana and more or less an official separation from the TV character. Like Breakout, it stays in the territory of straight forward millennial pop, but strays as well, into the fat-bottomed production trends of Lady Gaga’s first two albums. Although Cyrus’s music coexisted in the same general ballpark, it didn’t evolve so much as change. Mainstream artists rarely take a natural evolution. They’re more informed by trends and directed by record labels. In general, there is very little room for evolution as an artist if you just follow current trends, and there are very few ground-breakers in any given generation of mainstream pop. More to that point, not every generation even has a ground-breaker to push the whole thing forward. Years and years… decades of following and reacting to past and current music go on at a time before anything remotely new happens, which in turn will only set in motion the next wave of copycat performers doing what everyone else is.
Cyrus, who has proven masterful in getting attention, is by no means a ground-breaker. She is simply not that kind of artist. The other good news for her is that she doesn’t have to be. Most don’t have to be. Trendsetting and groundbreaking were never prerequisites and criteria for great artistry, but it does help an artist’s credibility if they’re able to interpret trends with their own brand of authenticity. And trends continued to work out famously on Bangerz, the 2013 album that accompanied an all-out visual and conceptual media storm that saw Cyrus pushing boundaries not even her most ardent fans saw coming. Though none of her publicity stunts were shocking or original, she used the media and public responses, both bad and good, to her advantage. Regarding the actual music, there was nothing on Bangerz that distinguished it from everything else..at least not on any philosophical or creative level. It just proved to be another abrupt shift, this time toward the most plastic commonality that mainstream pop offers…the tired old hip hop trend of using airtight kick drums and processed handclaps as the foundation for almost every song.
Bangerz was no doubt a highlight for fans who live in that brand of 21st Century pop where the stars are a dime a dozen. The bottom line is not the art itself, but the fashion statement that the tabloid world is waiting for upon the initial drop, or appearance on the next awards show. The people of this world like awards shows and they like to get awards. The awards are the bottom line. It’s a world of delusional assholes who have cheapened the word artistry by accepting and expecting accolades for the work of the dozens of producers and writers who create the music they win awards for. So in that respect, Bangerz is a product of its own superficial times. If anything in Cyrus’s catalog stands as dishonest, it’s Bangerz. And although, her marijuana-fueled erratic exploits of the next few years would alienate fans who could no longer relate, her 2015 Internet release Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz would be her boldest work to date, opting for capturing spontaneous moments and shoving uncomfortable and awkwardly pathetic lyrics in our faces while the star totally fucking melts down in our ear buds. Thank you Wayne Coyne. If there was ever a Dylan goes electric moment in the 21st Century, serving as one collective WTF, Dead Petz is it.
Which brings me to Younger Now, and it’s funny because while critics are trashing it, they’re also describing it as a country pop album.
Sure, Dolly Parton sings on a song, but that’s about the extent of it. Cyrus’s content is too radical for country music, even on this rather non-controversial record, and she is too much of a free thinker. There is an unspoken code in country that calls for a foundation of conformity, blind patriotism, unquestioned right wing values, and an arrogant prioritization of the Second Amendment over the First Amendment. Given her support of Hillary Clinton alone, it is surprising Cyrus hasn’t been declared an anathema in the world of country music. The clear reason for this is that she has never been known as a country artist despite her roots. Had she been making country music all along and gotten famous through such an identity, the 2016 election would probably have initiated her exile from the genre, which would have disowned her. Fortunately for Cyrus, she doesn’t need country music and is artistically far superior to any current country artist that will be allowed to develop on their own criteria. Make no mistake…country artists are not allowed that freedom. Anyone remember the Dixie Chicks?
What Younger Now is instead, is a collective meditation on life after the noise settles. It is the sound of someone stepping back after (or perhaps during) some serious soul searching, and dropping all of the baggage of bullshit. It is the anti-Bangerz, and it is through Younger Now where Cyrus distances herself from the excess of that entire experience. Sure, it’s excess that she brought on herself, and if she becomes one of those chameleon artists where she occasionally returns to the bullshit every decade or so, then so be it. At least she owns her bullshit.
The arrangements are sparse and often seem unfinished, as if the blueprints are serving as the finished product. I feel however, that works to the album’s advantage as a cohesive piece as opposed to the patchwork schizophrenia of sounds over the past two efforts. The first few singles were denounced as lackluster and tame. While the title track could have used some structural work, “Malibu” is deliberate in its subtlety and doesn’t go for the throat with instantly catchy hooks. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t a “blockbuster.” The song is light, airy, and floats along in a reflective Jewel “Standing Still” sort of way. Musically, it’s that subtlety that marks most of the album, in that it holds back and refrains from making you instantly sing along to big predictable choruses. The songs call for more attention and are more demanding in the sense that it’s not base brain music that comes from the crotch. The architecture is mostly of rock structures but without the crunchy distorted guitars of Breakout. The production of Oren Yoel is impressive. Yoel is one of the 6482 names associated with the writing and production of Bangerz, the typical approach to most big hip hop albums. This time around, Yoel and Cyrus alone are largely responsible for everything we hear, and the result is her most streamlined and focused work yet…which leaves me wondering just how clueless some of these critics are when they say it’s her most dishonest album.
As someone primarily raised on rock music and a musician trained to play by ear, my natural instinct in hearing new music for the first time is to notice the familiar parts that connect it to something older. Even if it’s inadvertent on the part of the artist, I still hear older songs within newer songs. On “Week Without You,” just that happens, as Cyrus (to my ears) skates into Fiona Apple territory in a delivery much like “Paper Bag.” Until Cyrus starts fully writing her own material, it’s tough to gauge exactly what her true musical style sounds like. But because it’s only one writer and producer this time, the work feels less deliberate…less self-conscious…more intimate…more honest…more real. The music presented on Younger Now doesn’t necessarily make me view Miley Cyrus much differently. I still believe she’s a fucking mess…and who wouldn’t be, given all she’s been through by the age of 25. What I view differently is her potential as an artist by way of surrounding herself with the right people in the industry, and not the ones who are only thinking of the next smash disposable hit song or controversial headline.
What is most impressive on the album is Cyrus’s vocals. Her voice is undeniably powerful, and has always (as far as my personal limited experience with her goes) been most effective while covering someone else’s song in an onstage setting. I’ve never been able to enjoy the sound of her voice on studio recordings, and those synthetic-sounding backing vocals that always seem as if they’re generated by hitting a keyboard, always made me cringe. Yoel manages to finally get a great studio sound on Cyrus’s voice. What is most stunning about the entire project is the effect he achieves with the backing vocals. “Bad Mood” and “She’s Not Him” are shining examples of this. Or listen to “Love Someone,” perhaps the greatest thing Cyrus has ever done commercially. I haven’t heard distant ethereal backing vocals like that since Stevie Nicks recorded Bella Donna. I even had to check the credits to make sure Stevie wasn’t actually singing on it. Come to think of it, Stevie once said it best…”She has the ability to be great.”
Well anyway, that’s the gist of it. When you push boundaries on a mainstream level to places that Cyrus has gone, you have few other places to go from there. You either tone it down, and move in the opposite direction or you do porn. Let’s thank the good lord that Miley has found herself in that place where time is an ocean that ends at the shore. And Younger Now begins with the ocean. Time will let us know which type of artist she chooses to be. She seems to have a firm handle at this point on what’s real and what’s not. Put this girl in a project with T-Bone Burnett next time around, and see if they don’t create a masterpiece together. But that’s just my elitist rock-centric mind talking. What do I know?