Miley Cyrus had, as we’ve seen, never been happy. This was despite a lifetime of fame. But her story was not the typical one of a celebrity hollowed out by drinks, drugs and attention. Her damage was far more damaging – instead of her personality being hollowed out, she had never had a chance to fill hers in. Miley Cyrus was a brand. In her own words ‘I was made to look like someone that I wasn’t… and then when I wasn’t on the show, it was like who the fuck am I?’.
By the time Cyrus was an adult, this resulting catalogue of mental health issues – anxiety, body dysmorphia – appears to have given Cyrus the desire to wrestle back control of her life, and perhaps her art.
To the public, this was revealed in alarming form at the 2013 VMA’s. After all, you – as a tween star – don’t stroke a man’s penis in public with a foam hand without causing something of a stir. Headlines at the time reflected that. ‘Miley Cyrus performance stuns crowd’ was typical. ‘It was really, REALLY disturbing’, in The Daily Mail, was probably my favourite. It looked like Cyrus finally had a persona of her own.
But was that really the case? Or was it a planned manoevure by Cyrus’ team to place her back in the public spotlight after the commercial failure of her 2010 album Can’t Be Tamed, which sported a more adult yet still safe image? Were her team simply following in the footsteps of a long tradition of converting parental outrage into commercial success, from The Sex Pistols to Busted?
Cyrus says not. Asked about the performance, she said ‘It went to plan…this is who I am.’
Fair enough. But fast forward to two years later. The VMAs, 2015. Not only is Cyrus presenting, perhaps an indicator of the success which the 2013 VMAs image was calculated to bring, but she is also performing. She appears on stage with 30 drag queens and revealing outfit, although the outfit is probably within the borders of what you could walk down the street wearing. So far, so standard. What happens next, though, can probably be called unexpected.
Cyrus performs a standard pop number, with a standard if entertaining dance. But then there’s this weird rave-like bit, and then Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips (an oldish American underground band) turns up. He starts firing confetti from where Cyrus’ penis would be, of course. And then Cyrus drops a new album.
We later find out that the album has been made for less than $50,000, with no label input whatsoever. It has been produced by Coyne and not by pop super-producer (and massive dickhead) Dr Luke, who was fired by Cyrus. She commented that ‘this record is about music and not twerking’, with her label commenting that ‘She [Cyrus] has a strong point of view concerning her art’, implying that this was the direction she wanted to go in.
Whatever you want to say about the new album (Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz), then, it must be admitted that this is the closest Cyrus has ever come to doing what she wants to do. Her financial independence in the making of this record can only confirm this; her desire for this can only lead us to think that she was, once again, limited by her label last time around.
And what a record it is. The music (on the softer songs, at least) is made up of stunning soundscapes (layers of background sound), but with a strong melodic presence throughout. It is, in other words, what made The Flaming Lips so brilliant.
But it is still most definitely Cyrus’ record. The use of almost infantile instruments (such as a glockenspiel on Karen Don’t Be Sad) ties into the child like curiosity and exploration which exists in Cyrus’ mood and lyrics. She sings ‘Sitting here with nothing to say/ Looking out the window it just rained/ But the sun’s up for the day/ And there’s probably a rainbow’, simple metaphors for simple yet effective music.
That simple metaphor concerns a break up, and is part of the confessional feel to Cyrus’ lyrics. Most notably, on BB Talk, she says ‘Alright, so this is really fucked up, but/ everything that he fucking did just made me cringe/ and it was so hard to fall in but so easy just to fall right back out again’. It’s a far cry from ‘Red cups and sweaty bodies everywhere/ Hands in the air like we don’t care’. This record was obviously made for Cyrus’ own benefit, and as a result it’s far from Bangerz as Bangerz was from Hannah Montana.
So does the record achieve it’s aim, of creating a path down which Cyrus can finally, actually just be a person? Yes. And the record is all the better for it.