LOS ANGELES — I had one main concern about bringing my grade school-age daughter to see Miley Cyrus at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip, where the singer performed a show streamed live on the Internet celebrating the release of her “adult-themed” album “Can’t Be Tamed.” I was worried that the show might be too loud. So we made sure to pack the earplugs before heading to the concert, and we sat on the floor and ate a grilled cheese sandwich before America’s latest sexual menace took the stage and entertained us for an hour.
Does my lax parental attitude shock you? Try to consider this with a clear head. Cyrus is currently surviving Scarlet Letter levels of reproach for wearing costumes not much skimpier than what many elementary dance schools hawk to their prepubescent students, imitating Adam Lambert in a video and miming a kiss with a female dancer onstage — a reference to a form of exploration quite common among high school girls.
My daughter has heard jokes as suggestive as anything Cyrus offered Monday night at kids’ movies such as “Madagascar,” and saw racier images on the billboards hovering above the street on the drive to the club. Sexual display and broad innuendo run rampant in the forest of images and references in which she’s growing up; that’s part of contemporary life, and my job as a mom is to help her navigate it while developing self-respect and good sense.
I also believe in bodily joy, which is something pop music has always provided me. Miley Cyrus, product of the Disney machine that she is, projects more explosive happiness in her hits than cold Britney or calculated (if admirable) Gaga offer, and she’s more of a tomboy than Taylor.
Hannah Montana wasn’t too much of a hit in our house — my kid and her friends all prefer the snappier iCarly, and SpongeBob rules supreme. We never saw Cyrus’ movies. But we like her hits. “7 Things” kicks foolish-boy butt with a forgiving heart; “The Climb” shows her godmother Dolly’s influence. And “Party in the U.S.A.”? You haven’t really heard that song until a back seat full of kindergarteners has sung it to you.
So I didn’t hesitate a bit when the chance arose to make this review assignment a mother-daughter date. I wasn’t alone; the Cyrus show was initially planned as an 18-and-over event, but many concert-goers complained and, day of show, it was announced that youngsters would be admitted.
Cyrus emerged on time, as the live stream demanded, marching onstage in leather pants and a cut-out leotard that, like many of her recent costumes, seemed Bob Fosse-inspired. She stalked the stage with her dancers, singing her album’s title track, and then proceeded to belt her way through several selections from “Can’t Be Tamed,” including one song about not letting others rule her actions (“Robot”), another supporting “my gay fans” (“My Heart Beats for Love”), and another encouraging women to leave abusive or confining relationships (“Liberty Walk”).
The sound of the new material was classic rock-lite, with big power chords and a few dance beats thrown in. Cyrus sang the material emphatically, displaying serious lung power throughout. She’s a capable rock belter with that nice rough grain to her voice — a quality that will benefit her as she goes through this harder-hitting vein.
As for the content of her latest efforts, Cyrus, who co-writes with professional songwriters, is expressing the same fears and hopes that often preoccupy late adolescents. Freedom, individuality and the need to know whether love is true were certainly preoccupations of mine back when I was a 17-year-old Catholic kid.
They seemed a bit beyond my 6-year-old; she got bored and went to look at the colorfully decorated side balcony while Miley got deep into her new stuff, though she happily air-drummed during Miley’s cover of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and returned to sing and dance along with the oldies the former Hannah trotted out after the live-streaming portion of the night ended. She really just wanted to sing along to “Party in the U.S.A.”
One telling portion of Cyrus’ House of Blues set really seemed aimed at the grown-ups in the room. Oiling the wheels of her music with the real rock band that backed her all night, she smashed together three songs representing an elder few might have expected her to cite — Joan Jett, the former “jailbait” star who became one of rock’s most important female figures after surviving her intensely packaged pop youth in the Runaways.
As Cyrus rampaged through “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” and Jett’s signature “Bad Reputation,” I couldn’t help but imagine her sitting in a movie theater watching the recent biopic about that teen-age band. How could she not relate to the story of those wild girls, manipulated in ways connected to, though different from, her own youthful stardom?
By embracing the role and the sound of the rock rebel, Cyrus claimed Jett, who was herself 17 in the Runaways, as mentor. And she also showed that she’s still listening to Mom and Dad. One way to see her latest phase is as an attempt to claim the sense of power that rock offered her parents’ generation. Rock has always celebrated sexual liberation. It seems completely natural that Cyrus would not only present that as part of her act, but actually feel it.