Music

Miley Cyrus: Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz

Crass, often cringe-worthy and overtly sexual, Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz is a fascinating, bloated mess.


Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2015-09-01
Amazon
iTunes

If nothing else, Miley Cyrus should be applauded for her clear refusal to give a fuck in terms of her public perception, former teenybopper fan base and country roots. Regardless of the actual quality of the music itself, she is exploring the music she wants to, unconcerned with commercial success or role model status. In other words, drugs may well have been the best thing to happen to the erstwhile Hannah Montana.

To be sure, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is a gloriously sloppy attempt at being as transgressive and provocative as possible (why else would she open the record with a plea to smoke pot?) that often falls flat on its face. But is nevertheless endlessly fascinating. More than anything, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is the sound of an artist (yes, she should be classified as such) exploring her potential and following her muse into strange and ugly places.

But just as often, she proves herself capable of great melodic beauty. “Karen Don’t Be Sad” is a gorgeous, affecting electro-ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on her collaborator’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. With her raspy, smoke-stained vocals occasionally breaking and sounding on the verge of tears, it’s a lovely moment that stands in stark contrast to the somewhat juvenile opening that is “Dooo It!” Elsewhere, “Cyrus Skies,” another clear highpoint, is a soaring ballad that shows off the whole of Cyrus’ impressive range.

Throughout, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is very much the work of someone having spent a great deal of time in the Flaming Lips’ universe. More than anything else, Cyrus positions herself as a sort of female Wayne Coyne, her fractured voice cooing away detachedly and lost in a psychedelic haze. It’s a fascinating approach and departure from the work on which she has made a name for herself over the last decade. Were this her debut effort or had her Disney Channel past not saddled her with a squeaky-clean preteen image, Cyrus may well have been heralded as a great new talent.

Unfortunately, she carries with her a certain stigma that prevents many from seeing her as the artist she has long since proven herself to be. Far from a popular opinion, Cyrus’ contemporary work must be approached at a remove from and without the contextual framework of her early years. Far from a mere calculated image makeover, her approach to music in general and psychedelia in particular is far too odd to be anything less than an artistic evolution that, for better or worse, hinges upon a complete and total self-reinvention, a reshaping of a long-held public perception that will leave many questioning the validity and authenticity of her recorded output for years to come.

In teenybopper terms, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is essentially her Head. Where the Monkees struggled to prove themselves anything more than the Pre-Fab Four, capable of playing their own instruments and writing songs equal to the hits on which their reputation was built, Cyrus has long been seen as a talented vocalist and performer. Here, she simply breaks with the stylistic mold within which she was fashioned to create something that feels new and different because of who she is/was. But the songs and sounds here could well be in the direction she was always headed. Having grown into an artist in a manner most public, she unfortunately saw the entirety of her artistic evolution play out in front of an audience of millions.

Now, creating and performing on her own terms, it can’t help but feel like a slightly disingenuous attempt at a sort of self-destruction/rebirth that will ultimately allow her to become the person she wants to be. But this is only because of who she was perceived to be, not necessarily who she actually was. And given her age, it’s unfair to hold her to a standard within which she remained at 21 who she was at 13; no normal person is fully developed at that age.

While this might sound a bit apologist in nature, it’s meant more to provide the proper framework within which to approach Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Yes this is a Miley Cyrus album and yes she has done some absurd things in recent years that fly in the face of the younger version of herself, but who hasn’t? Taken on its own, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is a sprawling, often sloppy, occasionally transcendent amalgamation of psychedelic pop filtered through a decidedly 21st century lens.

And while not everything here succeeds (much of the album is, in fact, a sprawling mess of ideas) Cyrus deserves a great deal of credit for unabashedly taking chances with her music, her image, both past and present, and what will ultimately be her controversial legacy within pop music. From “Karen Don’t Be Sad” through “Space Boots” she manages a gorgeously free-floating quartet of stylistically and thematically similar songs that, on their own, would make for a solid core of any album. That they’re surrounded by strangely juvenile and often awkward spoken word interludes like “BB Talk” makes them all the more startling.

Admittedly, her lyrical over-reliance on her drug use and sex life can, at over 90 minutes, become cringe-worthy. But taken in small doses, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an artist putting the whole of herself fully on display. Whether or not she continues down this road of full transparency and explicitly sexualized lyrics (“Bang Me Box” in particular) remains to be seen. But in the meantime it’s an often-uncomfortable approach that finds her working through a host of complex physical and emotional interactions that don’t often find themselves expressed in mainstream pop music.

Ultimately, it’s a messy, deeply personal move that finds Cyrus unabashedly putting forth an unapologetically full-fledged reinvention of self, one lacking in timidity and subtlety. So brazen is Cyrus here, especially in giving the album away for free, that Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz can’t help but feel like a declarative line in the sand; you’re either with her or against her. And regardless of which side you come down on, she doesn’t give a fuck and is going to continue doing whatever she wants without apology. That’s the mark of a true artist.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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