“If there’s one thing that bothered her about the [VMA] fallout, it was the idea that her performance was racist, or a ‘minstrel show,’ because, critics argued, she appropriated black culture and used black backup dangers like props. ‘I don’t keep my producers or dancers around ‘cause it makes me look cool,’ she says. ‘Those aren’t my ‘accessories.’ They’re my homies.’”
—Miley Cyrus to Josh Eells, Rolling Stone #1193
Remember that time when Miley Cyrus wanted to prove to the world that she was no longer a little girl by appearing in a provocative music video that sparked some outrage? You know: the one where she’s dressed like an avian goth stripper?
That video above was the song “Can’t Be Tamed” from Cyrus’ absolutely dreadful album of the same name, where she set out to prove, much like Britney before her, that she was a powerful, sexualized woman that had no time for tween-friendly Hannah Montana image that brought her to fame in the first place. Of course, Can’t Be Tamed was a misguided attempt at maturity in every single way imaginable, the album even coming out on the same label that released her Hannah Montana discs, the entire thing lacking any sort of sincerity of intention while the songs themselves featured generic platitudes and a too-professional studio sheen that left her attempts at a more sexually assertive stance sound pretty darn boring. Despite numerous radio hits already to her name, Cyrus wasn’t happy with this arrangement, and soon fired her manager, label, and everyone else from her Disney days, determined to reinvent herself once more.
In the weeks following Cyrus’ overtly sexual (and completely inescapable) VMA performance, the United States’ threatened showdown with Syria was heating up, and despite the fact that news sources published 2.4 articles about the Syrian crisis for every one that was written by Cyrus, Americans were 12 times more interested in reading twerk-related thinkpieces than they were about a possible military strike on a foreign land. One buzzy and controversial music video lead to another, and before long, not only did Cyrus net the first #1 single in her family, but the groundswell of anticipation for her ludicrously-titled new album Bangerz was reaching epic proportions. Hate it or love it, she played the mainstream media expertly, and now, with the world watching and all of pop culture hanging on her every whim, does Ms. Cyrus pull off a game-changing artistic statement? Moreover, does she even need to?
The short answer for both of these questions is obvious: no.
Bangerz is at its core a party album, and a trashy one at that. There are times when Cyrus (and her army of co-writers) try to inject some emotional gravitas in there, self-referential lyrics that TMZ aficionados will invariably try and construe as some sort of message directed towards ex-hubby Liam Hemsworth. Yet while Bangerz pleasures are fleeting at best, the times when she goes all-out goofy, embracing the campy side of the popstar equation, she actually seems to have found her groove; shame these moments are surrounded by such atrociously forgettable filler.
Things start off on a surprisingly generic note with “Adore You”, a very simple and straightforward piano ballad about commitment that features almost zero rising action, keeping the heartstring-pulling sentiments firmly in neutral, Cyrus’ passive vocal delivery doing little to drive the point home. Credit then to the album’s go-to producer Mike WiLL Made It for trying to inject some energy and life into the whole affair. “We Can’t Stop” feels closer to Cyrus’ intended aesthetic: an actually catchy anthem about not caring about what others think, living life to its fullest, and filling said spandex-clad life with as much vice as possible, even as she sweetly sings support for “the girls with the big butts / shakin’ it like we at a strip club.”
Yet when Cyrus brags about her various adult activities (“Ask how I keep a man / I keep a battery pack”) before rapping about her forthcoming world tour on “SMS (BANGERZ)”, she forgets about the rule of lasting pop music: braggadocio can only go so far (especially with a song that features such a formless sense of melody). Pop music is a perfect place to embrace and introduce absurdities, but while Britney Spears wanders into coo some words about flirting while Cyrus starts asking “where Mike WiLL at” in the lyrics, it only serves to show that she knows a producer named Mike WiLL and nothing else. In fact, for all of Mike WiLL’s stabs at crafting would-be club anthems, the man proves to have a horrid sense of how hooks work, leaving a slew of missed-attempts and mangled opportunities in his wake.
While no one will deny the catchiness of “We Can’t Stop”, his overuse of Future’s empty drawl on “My Darlin’” winds up distracting from the melody way more than it should, and the album’s worst track, “Love Money Party”, borders on atonal. The only other track even comes close to flirting with the widely-appealing “Stop” is “Maybe You’re Right”, a solid John Shanks co-write with a big anthemic chorus and one of Cyrus’ more engaged performances, here unlocking a higher vocal register that we haven’t heard from her before and that will serve her well in the future. Yet when songs like that are surrounded by “Do My Thang” (which features a great chorus but a bizarre verse made up of Gregorian chants and Cyrus reminding us multiple times that she’s “crazier than hell”, once even prefacing it by saying “I told ya once before”) and the vanilla Euro club excursion “Someone Else”, it soon becomes clear that Mike WiLL’s misses outnumber his hits by a painfully wide margin.
Thus, virtually all of Bangerz best moments stem from the work of outside producers, ones that make sure Cyrus isn’t taking herself too seriously and getting better songs out of her because of it. “FU”, a will.i.am co-sign, sounds like a rollicking Broadway number: a playful, fun kiss-off that would have been even better without French Montana (as are most songs). Pharrell provides two minimalist bursts of excitement as well, one in the form of the catchy-but-flat “#GETITRIGHT”, which at once copies RedOne’s production of Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” a little too closely but also proves to be the perfect kind of track for playing during a runway show, which invariably would get Cyrus’ approval. Meanwhile, the goofy, almost throwaway squaredance of a club song that is “4x4”, complete with some accordion work, might very well be album’s most memorable song: absurd, ridiculous, and actually playful in a way in which these other Bangerz aren’t.
Of course, the big guns are brought in for the big ballad, and “Wrecking Ball”, produced by godlike hitmaker Dr. Luke, is the kind of broad mainstream song that shows how you how to properly build up to a chorus before hitting us over the head with it. Its simple rising-and-falling action, predictable yet effective regardless of the context. Mike WiLL would best suit himself by studying the tracks that the other producers have provided, as they don’t indulge Cyrus’ boring acts of sorority girl defiance: they instead play with her, push her, and reach that perfect level of outrageousness that makes the songs immediately fun, relatable, and memorable all the same.
Shame though: for all the parodies, thinkpieces, magazine covers, and tongue-waggings, Cyrus brilliantly positioned herself into a realm of influence and attention that few pop stars are ever able to achieve only to release an album of generic platitudes and clichéd club songs whose impact is tragically minimal. Perhaps that album title is more fitting than we initially thought: by calling it Bangerz, it will distract us from the fact that it contains so few actual songs.