Great pop music can bring a crowd together, but when the most controversial tongue on YouTube applies its slobber to a sledgehammer, a foam finger or a backup dancer’s jouncing posterior, we’re a nation divided.
The tongue, of course, belongs to 20-year-old Miley Cyrus, whose new album proves that her muscular hydrostat is much better at licking stuff than it is at articulating the lyrics to a series of bland pop songs.
Misleadingly titled “Bangerz,” this warm pile of pre-masticated bubblegum comes 44 days after Cyrus’s performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards, where she famously danced around an army of teddy bears, wearing a foam finger and tiny outfit while singing poorly. (For the record, she only pantomimed licking that dancer’s butt.) The morning after, America was summoned to the digital water cooler for a tsk-tsking that felt every bit as tiresome as the girl-gone-wild image Cyrus had just put forth.
Which brings us to “Bangerz,” an album likely to spark more pseudo-outrage over Cyrus’s pseudo-outrageousness, but shouldn’t. Instead, it raises legitimate concerns over the diminishing role that actual songs play in a YouTube-era pop career.
Aside from the album’s two chart-scaling singles — Cyrus’s shoulder-shrug of a summer jam “We Can’t Stop” reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 while the slightly catchier “Wrecking Ball” currently sits at No. 1 — this thing feels slack, brittle and deeply unmusical. There’s plenty of numb power balladry and more than a few awkward embraces of hip-hop, all sung in a voice only a fraction as powerful as Cyrus’s immune system.
Still, it’s a voice that raked in millions for the Disney Channel shortly after Cyrus began starring in the kiddie sitcom, “Hannah Montana,” way back in 2006. Cyrus’s dad — “Achy Breaky Heart” crooner Billy Ray Cyrus — starred as her television dad, too, setting the stage for a real-life coming-of-age narrative that would unfurl effortlessly on TMZ.
Accordingly, Cyrus has spent her early adulthood carefully mutating into a perfect chimera of rebel-celeb archetypes. She’s a Disney cherub turned sex symbol, not unlike Britney Spears. She’s a millennial living out the plot of “Less Than Zero” in 21st-century Los Angeles, not unlike Lindsay Lohan. She’s a white pop star borrowing heavily from black culture, placing her in a continuum that spans from Elvis Presley to Justin Bieber.
And she’s currently posing on the cover Rolling Stone — licking herself this time. Inside the magazine’s pages, she shrugs off her critics and rebuts those that accused her of playing too fast and loose with racial imagery at the VMAs. (A tangential Rolling Stone piece touched on Cyrus’s admiration of Sinead O’Connor, causing the Irish songwriter to respond with an open letter that told Cyrus she was “extremely concerned.”)
Throughout the magazine profile, Cyrus doesn’t seem in peril so much as negotiating a balance between poise and trepidation. But the headline dubs her “America’s wildest child,” perpetuating a myth that “Bangerz” consistently fails to live up to.
That feels most evident with “We Can’t Stop,” a song that’s become impossible to divorce from its video. In the clip, Cyrus writhes and smirks through various party scenes, mugging for the camera, scolding her scolds: “It’s my mouth, I can say what I want to.”
Her lyrics make references to cocaine and ecstasy, but listen with your eyes closed and it doesn’t sound like a rebellion anthem so much as a sentimental ode to wrangling the newfound freedoms of adulthood — which is a fine thing to write a song about. But it’s more of a Hallmark card than a brick through a window.
“Wrecking Ball,” meantime, relies completely on its video to keep Cyrus on message. It’s a simple, broken-hearted love song with an avalanching refrain that sounds like a slower, duller version of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.”
In the video, Cyrus alternates between forlorn and anguished, sometimes breaking character to lick a sledgehammer or swing from a dangling chain almost entirely in the buff. But close your eyes again. The small husk in her voice is ill-fitted to that monster hook — which makes the song more interesting, but not necessarily good.
The rest of the music on “Bangerz” is either completely forgettable or indefensibly shoddy. The album-opening “Adore You” falls in the prior camp, with Cyrus striking a surprisingly conservative pose. “We’re meant to be in holy matrimony,” she sings, her voice lightly Auto-Tuned to parallel the weepy string section. “God knew exactly what he was doing when he lead me to you.”
And even when she’s flexing more rambunctious attitudes, Cyrus consistently proves how ordinary she is. Like any other millennial her age, this is a 20-year-old who loves loud parties and louder rap music.
But she remains unable to turn those interests into interesting music. “SMS (Bangerz)” is a jumble of bad rhymes, tacky electro thumps, melodic swatches of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” and an unflattering cameo from Spears.
With “Do My Thang,” she raps so stiffly, so joylessly, both her command of rhythm and her reported love of hip-hop should be thrown into question. “I’m a southern belle / Crazier than hell,” she rhymes. “Getting wild up in here / Getting live up in here.” And then later in the song, “Oh yeah, I’m the southern belle / I told y’all once before I get crazier than hell.”
The album’s most revealing line, however, comes during “4x4,” a strange, digital barnyard stomp that curdles the moment Cyrus follows a big declaration with a bigger question: “I’m a female rebel / Can’t ya tell?”
If you have to ask, the answer is no.