Saturday, October 5, 2013

album review: 'bangerz' by miley cyrus

I'm sick of people talking about Miley Cyrus.

Yes, I'm aware of the hypocrisy here with me making that statement and immediately jumping into my review of her recent album, but here's the big difference between me and what most of the non-thinking members of the entertainment press did in the aftermath of the VMAs: I'm going to talk about her music. I don't care about her image or her supposedly 'scandalous' behaviour, and as much as I'm annoyed she found a way to get twerking inserted in the cultural lexicon, I'm really not all that bothered by the fact she managed to drive up controversy at the VMAs and give the program another couple years of relevance. Frankly, the level of slut-shaming by too many correspondents 'commenting' on this issue has reached disgusting levels, particularly when you consider historical context - I mean, maybe I'm just looking at this from somebody who knows his country music, but do any of you remember Billy Ray Cyrus' early persona? He was the one who wore the sleeveless shirts and conducted his concerts like a Chip 'n Dale show and showed up in Dolly Parton's 'Romeo' where she and a gaggle of other female country singers mooned over how incredibly hot he was - in 1992, no less! And sure, he got flack for it, but when Miley does the same thing in a pop context, everyone loses their goddamn minds?

Ugh. No, if I'm going to take an issue from Miley's VMA performance, it'd be with the music - it sounded terrible, mostly because Miley Cyrus isn't very good live (she goes sharp and off-key more often than she should) and was working with a lousy song. If anything, that's been one of the big issues I've had with Miley Cyrus as an 'artist': she has been given a ton of really terrible material by her handlers who seem bewildered by the fact that Miley clearly wants to take her image in a much more provocative direction. If she's given good songs, she tends to be fairly decent on them, as evidenced by her presence on the excellent 'Ashtrays & Heartbreaks' by Snoop Lion - which, I should add, is still one of my favourite songs of the year. And thus, I think I was the only critic stepping away from the VMAs thinking, 'Well, she's got a new album coming out and she's apparently got songwriting credits on the majority of the songs - this could actually be interesting, all things considered!' And given that Miley at least seems invested in her material (in comparison with her fellow pop starlet Selena Gomez), it might come across as better than expected.

So I gave her new album Bangerz a listen - did Miley Cyrus manage to present something interesting?

Well, somewhat. Let me make this clear, I don't think Bangerz is all that good, particularly in comparison with some of Miley's fellow young female pop stars. Natalia Kills, Ariana Grande, Colette Carr, Demi Lovato, they've all got nothing to worry about from this album, but at the same time, Bangerz isn't the disaster that Selena Gomez's Stars Dance was, which is something, I guess. But even with that in mind, I can't help but feel a little disappointed by this album: considering how damn hard Miley was trying to rebrand herself as a sexually-charged 'bad girl' and put the Disney image in the ground, I don't think that this album is quite as effective as it wanted to be.

Let's start with Miley herself: I've gone on the record before stating that I don't think Miley Cyrus is a good singer - and really, she's not - but I'll give points for effort and raw energy over talent most days and Miley doesn't abuse autotune in the same way some acts do (looking at you, Katy Perry). Yeah, it's there, but not in an obtrusive way, which I appreciated. That being said, Miley's voice is still not very good and her brand of shrillness can rapidly grate on the nerves, no matter how raw and emotional she's trying to be, and it didn't help the experience. 

I'll say this in her favour, though: she has more presence and personality on this album than I expected, and pretty much blows all of her guest stars off the table. Britney is a non-presence on the title track, Nelly's contributions to '4x4' are some of the weakest material he's put on record, Future continues to unimpress (how in the Nine Hells did this guy get a career?), and Big Sean... well, he tries. In fact, the one pleasant surprise on Bangerz was courtesy of French Montana of all people, coming off of a terrible album and a pointless collaboration with A$AP Ferg to not actively offending me on 'FU', mostly because he doesn't really rap and he lets Miley take center stage and all of the credit/blame. And really, that's one of the surprising strengths of this album: in an era where not having charisma or a personality doesn't disqualify people from becoming pop stars, Miley actually having both is a nice surprise.

It's too bad Miley herself is the only part of this album that's anywhere close to consistent or good, because the songwriting, instrumentation, and production are pretty much a mess, ranging from surprisingly strong to unsurprisingly pretty terrible. On a lyrical level, the songwriting never reaches the point of being actively offensive, but it doesn't often make itself all that special. On top of that, despite Miley trying her damnedest to infuse the lyrics with depth, they're all pretty vapid or basic. I'll say this for the songwriters, if they were trying to make the songs come off as if they were written by a teenage girl with a sloppy grasp of rhyme scheme, they succeeded her a little too well. That being said, there are occasional lines I liked, and even songs I felt rose above the shallow material to actually being pretty decent. The two that stick out are 'FU' and 'Wrecking Ball', the latter probably being my favourite song on the album because there's a surprising amount going on in the lyrics describing a dysfunctional relationship - Miley put her boyfriend on a pedestal and got hurt when she tried to get him to open up about his feelings, and it paints her in a reasonably sympathetic, if worrying light. If I'm going to have any complaints about the underlying themes of this album, it'd probably be here: as much as Miley wants to show off that she's tough and mature, many of the songs show a lot of indecision and fear about her relationships, and she doesn't nearly across as hard as she might want to - which I guess is a credit to her emotional honesty, but it does render some of her 'rebel' attitudes completely unconvincing.

And on that note, am I the only one who thinks that every single one of Miley's 'party bangerz' are anti-party songs in disguise? 'We Can't Stop', the big opening single from the album, seems to scream that Miley's partying isn't nearly as fun as she lets on, yet she can't stop, thanks to peer pressures, a poorly chosen image, and possibly chemical dependence. And then there's 'Love, Money, Party', which seems on the surface to glorify constant partying, but Miley's downkey delivery and the lyrics seem to suggest that at least she's self-aware that all of this 'partying' really adds up to a whole load of nothing in the end. That, and the fact that Miley sounds way more convincing delivering heartfelt emotional ballads and smoldering burlesque-style sex jams ('#GetItRight').

-And this leads straight to the central issue of this album: there is a massive gulf of quality in the instrumentation and production between the primary producer and the assorted other producers they brought on for this album (which include Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Pharrell, and others). And the problem is that said primary producer Mike Will Made It is a terrible fit for Miley Cyrus. Not only is the production often shallow and lacking in real depth in the mix, but his synth choices are often scuzzy, grating, and atonal, sitting on the top of the mix and doing very little to modulate. When the songs deign to have a melody line at all, it often sounds (like most bad trap instrumentation) way too unsettling and creepy to be paired with Miley's subject matter, and while the beats might be interesting enough 
(and I do appreciate his choices to go to the piano more than most), his production is often so minimalist and shallow that the songs don't leave much of an impact. And what's all the more striking is when Miley is given production by Pharrell or Dr. Luke, she nails it because a more organic or at least 'bigger'-sounding song is a more natural fit for Miley's strident delivery. 'Wrecking Ball' might be clumsy with its primary metaphor, but the sheer lack of subtlety in the instrumentation, lyrics, and delivery compliment each other very well - a testament to Dr. Luke's skill as a producer but also to the fact that Mike Will Made It just isn't a good fit for Miley. She'd be better working with Pharrell if she wants to go in a more 'sensual' direction or Max Martin or Dr. Luke or Jeff Bhasker if she's looking for sheer bombast - the choice to go with this underproduced trap-inspired instrumentation is a very awkward fit, and while Miley might be comfortable with the subject matter, it doesn't match her voice very well.

So I guess this all leads back to the big question: would I recommend Bangerz by Miley Cyrus? Honestly, that's a tough question, because there are some good tracks on this album that I liked more than I thought I would. If I were to recommend this album, I'd definitely advise you to avoid every track produced by Mike Will Made It, because they're the definite weak points on this record. If anything, this album feels transitional, reflecting that Miley is still in the process of deciding what kind of pop star she wants to be, and the fact that this album is something of a mess echoes that fact. If you're curious to see what Miley is bringing to the table, the album is worth a listen, but it's not essential. I'm thinking a 6/10 is appropriate here, and then maybe - just maybe - we could all go back to not caring about, to quote another so-called party girl, Miley's 'crazy beautiful life'. 

She's making it work for her, folks, and it's not like she's going to stop any time soon.


  1. Any plans to review the new KOL album? I've been patiently waiting :)

    1. Huh... I've got to be honest, Kings of Leon are just one of those acts that any review I'll write will piss everyone off, because while I don't hate them by any stretch of the mind, they're also a band I don't especially like either. I'll probably cover them at some point, but I'm not sure when.