Miley Cyrus Kills Compromise: Does Her New Free Album Change the Pop Rules?
In 2015, Miley Cyrus isn’t someone who can go unnoticed.
But it’s easy to forget the carefully stoked flames of fan anticipation that awaited the newly pixie-cut clad Miley before "We Can’t Stop" landed on Planet Pop in 2013. The rest soon became pop culture fodder to the point of ubiquity: twerking, trippy visuals, thinkpieces and the baring of flesh all seemed part of Hurricane Miley.
In the eye of that particular media storm was the fizzy melting pot that was Bangerz. Leaping between hip-hop pastiche and a surprising amount of introspection, it was a curious beast. In some ways it had more charm and personality than other 2013 pop releases, but it also felt strangely lacking in big hooks, more concerned with mood and attitude than pure pop thrills.
Of the three singles released from Bangerz, two became a blueprint for the new Miley Cyrus: "We Can’t Stop" and its turnt-up thrills effectively signposted Cyrus’ deep dive into 'ratchet-pop,' while "Wrecking Ball" became both a show-stopping pop ballad and a pop culture talking point so strong that both its original video and a ChatRoulette parody gave it legs at various points on its chart journey.
Following a much discussed tour, plenty of much-needed debate around cultural appropriation, a foray into visual art, working with the Flaming Lips and defining (or not defining) her own gender identity, Cyrus occupies a curious space in pop culture: She’s a worldwide megastar who has ridden the Disney train into a following she seems keen to subvert. Sometimes it’s thrilling and laced with bravado; other times it feels boneheaded and lacking in self-awareness — much like most people in their early 20s, really.
Cyrus spent most of this week past kicking up a fuss, from doubling-down on some pretty clueless dismissals of Nicki Minaj’s issues with pop politics to gracing her 2015 MTV Video Music Awards hosting gig with outfits that could be best described as Cultural Appropriation '90s Raver Barbie After A Bad Trip. After closing the show with new song "Dooo It!", she confirmed that the heavily rumored, Flaming Lips-produced free album she’d been making was a reality, called Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, and fans could stream the record right then and there via Soundcloud.
It’s an audacious move to record a passion project; an out-of-label-contract album with very little press leading up to the release, bar leaked tracks and Internet rumors. It’s even more audacious to turn a TV hosting gig into an extended commercial for that project, when the usual commercial avenues likely won’t respond.
Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is a trippy, psychedelic ramble through a number of moods that sees Cyrus stretch her undoubtedly assured voice into new and interesting pastures. This isn’t a pop record. While that sounds like an obvious point to make, there are glimmers of pop’s sticky choruses and songs that could probably be finessed into something more palatable if Cyrus so wished. But that doesn’t seem to be the point.
Cyrus has sung the praises of the Flaming Lips and worked with Wayne Coyne for years at this point, while also seeming to chafe at the expectations placed on a young pop star. If anything shows the difference between Bangerz and Dead Petz, it’s the contrast between their respective Big Sean cameos: Bangerz’ "Love, Money, Party" sees the Detroit native add brag-heavy bars to a to-the-point party, whereas Dead Petz’ "Tangerine" sees him pop up for a downbeat, introspective verse that shows up the dark side to the excesses of that kind.
On numerous levels, Dead Petz is a slog to get through. Songs run on past the typical 3-4 minute pop running time, and often feel like improvised jam sessions instead of finished tunes. And yet, at times it gels in unexpected and engaging ways: "Karen Don’t Be Sad" and "I Get So Scared" feel like distant moody cousins to previous Cyrus cuts like "Adore You," melancholic folk-tinged numbers that remind you that Cyrus can nail the emotional arc of a song. That almost borders on parody on the likes of "Pablow the Blowfish" and "The Floyd Song," which see Cyrus sing about the titular dead pets with a plaintive quality that is almost uncomfortable to listen to.
Her playful approach to sexuality, evident on tracks like "BB Talk" and "Bang Me Box," feels in line with Cyrus' own carefree exploration of sexual mores, and also have nagging grooves that stand up to repeated listens. "Bang Me Box" in particular shows the way Mike Will Made It’s own production style can slither into interesting new territory when not fastened on some ready-made chart smash.
Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is an occasionally thrilling, if ultimately patchy listen that feels less like an album and more like a collection of demos for those curious to engage. Cyrus is chasing her own muse with little care for mainstream demands in a way that is rare from stars of her stature. In a fast moving pop landscape, it’s hard to see if a release like this will have legs past being a pop curiosity, or how it’ll influence Cyrus’ next major label release, but it comes at interesting juncture for both pop music and the boxes within which female stars in particular are expected to fit.
Many joked online about Taylor Swift having something of a fit when she heard that Cyrus was releasing a free album, after fans had been comparing and contrasting separate quotes by the stars on the concept of free music. (A retweet of one such comment by Zayn Malik saw Calvin Harris wade in to defend his girlfriend.) But that misses the point on both performers' intentions, and reinforces the idea that female pop stars are constantly in competition with each other.
If this project speaks about anything on the pop landscape, it’s the idea of compromise: When Bangerz arrived in 2013 it was stacked up against big ticket pop releases like Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP and Katy Perry’s Prism. Those were both albums that saw artists herald bold new reinventions, but both ended up feeling neutered in some way.
Gaga later confirmed that the ARTPOP album had been made under less than ideal circumstances, and her defensiveness at being (unfairly) labeled a flop throughout the album’s campaign was evident. Meanwhile, Perry’s Prism was initially billed as a darker, introspective record, but seemed weighed down by plenty of the candy-coated bubblegum that typified her previous efforts. Perry claimed she “let the light in,” but it was obvious from the singer-songwriter acoustic skew of Prism’s second half that Perry had made some compromises in the recording process.
While Perry and Gaga plot their next move, Cyrus — an artist who tried to distort her own image and sound via a major label release in 2013 — takes the idea of artistic compromise for pop performers and shoots it to shreds. Gaga took refuge in jazz standards with Tony Bennett to re-affirm her credentials as a singer (a slightly obnoxious phase for fans who already knew Gaga could sing and also enjoyed her dance-pop numbers), while Perry is still touring and undoubtedly putting herself into the kind of financial security Cyrus has maintained for years (that Disney money!), which could easily buy her more musical freedom.
Cyrus has showed her hand in a way that goes beyond the usual trite claims of “authenticity” easily bandied about famous faces. Dead Petz is a non-commercial, ultimately trying listen that’s tough to love for a pop-hungry ear, but also feels like a symbolic step. It lets Cyrus do what she wants, but also lets her be young and free. It’s easy to forget Cyrus is only 22. Dead Petz, with its petulant, moody slabs of noise and woozy, sometimes stirring emotion sums up youthful naïveté and verve in a way no amount of focus-group friendly pop hits ever could.
Miley Cyrus' Various Looks at the 2015 MTV VMAs