In her music videos, Miley Cyrus jounces around like a millennial uber-brat, flouting decorum and licking things without taking any real risks.
At Verizon Center on Thursday night, she worked the stage like pop music’s new class clown, singing sweet-tart hits built on mischief and horniness, both of which never go out of style.
Either you love the girl or you hate her — but “both” and “who cares?” are acceptable reactions, too. Because it’s been nearly eight months since Cyrus twerked her way into the national discussion, and we’re still trapped in a false binary, trying to figure out whether the 21-year-old embodies the decline of Western civilization or the meaning of life.
Onstage Thursday, Cyrus’s polarizing qualities seemed to melt into one sticky truth: She’s a middling renegade but a charming hedonist whose music will irritate parents but won’t hurt anyone’s chances of getting into college. The lovable stuff felt fun, the hateable stuff felt stupid, and most of it felt like both.
As far as stadium-pop spectacles go, this one favored quirk over grandeur. There were puppets, fireworks, balloon arches, dancing furries and inflatable animals two stories tall. Cyrus rode a giant fiberglass hot dog through the air and pantomimed a sex act with a dude dressed up like Abraham Lincoln. It was a sexed-up episode of “Teletubbies.” Twerk du Soleil.
It wouldn’t have looked all that shocking to anyone who caught a scantily clad Cyrus grinding on a squadron of teddy bears at last summer’s MTV Video Music Awards — unless you partook in the scoldy umbrage that quickly came crashing the morning after. A former Disney star had done something naughty, America was reminded that its buttons were still pushable and Cyrus’s brittle new album, “Bangerz,” went No. 1.
On Thursday, Miley proved she’s a much better singer than “Bangerz” lets on, frequently locating powerful notes at both the top and bottom of her register. She flaunted her range best during a sequence of acoustic covers that included Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and a version of “Jolene” spiked with four-letter words presumably not scribbled on Dolly Parton’s original lyric sheet.
Nearly everything else in the set was culled from “Bangerz” — proof that Cyrus is committed to obliterating the image she created in her adolescence playing Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel.
From the clumsy raps of “23” to the torchy EDM of “FU,” her songs are atypical, but certainly not as rebellious as the singer thinks they are. She has, however, rebelled from the steely good-girl-gone-bad sexual archetype popularized by Britney Spears more than a decade ago. Instead, Cyrus projected a slobbery juvenile desire we haven’t really seen since the Beastie Boys fought for our right to party in 1987.
Like the Beasties, she may grow to regret all this over-the-topness, but for now it makes her more interesting than Taylor Swift, more likable than Justin Bieber and more resonant than Ke$ha, the singer from whom Cyrus essentially stole her entire shtick.
And the only thing Cyrus seemed to regret on Thursday night was flubbing the refrain of her power ballad “Wrecking Ball.”
“I was spacing out!” she confessed to a rabid capacity crowd. Then she stuck out her tongue and carried on.