Miley's 'Bangerz': Not half bad, but a mishmash
Miley Cyrus makes people mad.
Ever since she rubbed a foam finger in Robin Thicke's crotch at the MTV Video Music Awards, the Disney-star-turned-pop-provocateur has run a successful shock-tactic campaign to bury Hannah Montana and make Middle America wonder how their good girl could break so horribly bad.
The naked "Wrecking Ball" video, the lewd Terry Richardson photo shoots, the incessant twerking with tongue out: It's all been an expert set-up to Bangerz (RCA ½), the former child star's uneven-but-not-half-bad Mike Will Made It-helmed fourth album, which arrives Tuesday.
Bangerz is not Cyrus' first attempt to make herself over as an adult artist. She tried before with Can't Be Tamed, which came out in 2010, the last year the teen star made Forbes' Celebrity 100 list of top earners by pulling in $48 million.
The brouhaha preceding Bangerz - which is a hodgepodge of party and breakup songs featuring contributions from Britney Spears, Pharrell Williams, and rappers Big Sean and Future - has ensured that Cyrus will never be thought of as just a Disney goody two-shoes again.
Sure, in the six weeks since the VMA, it has sometimes seemed that the 20-year-old pop star, born Destiny Hope Cyrus the year her father Billy Ray's massive hit "Achy Breaky Heart" was released, has been careening out of control.
There's that reference to taking ecstasy, or "molly," in her "We Can't Stop" hit. And the rapidly escalating war of words with Sinéad O'Connor last week, in which Cyrus mocked the Irish singer's mental-health issues as well as those of Amanda Bynes, was surely not part of the prerelease plan.
But the music-business wiles of this showbiz kid and veteran entertainer - who was smart enough to cool down the controversy with a twerk-free performance on Saturday Night Live last weekend - should not be underestimated. In the MTV documentary Miley: The Movement, the Rolling Stone and Cosmopolitan cover girl said of her VMA performance: "People could think it's just a hot mess, but it's a strategic hot mess."
Cyrus sounded more like a seasoned analyst than a neophyte artist.
"How many times have we seen this play out in pop music?", she asks. "Madonna's done it, Britney's done it, every VMA performance."
In the setup of Bangerz, she has also succeeded in putting herself in the middle of a pop-culture argument about sexuality and race.
And there's more than one way to look at every Miley Cyrus Rorschach. Is she foolishly allowing herself to be "pimped" or "prostituted," as O'Connor wrote? Or, by swinging naked on a wrecking ball, is she asserting her own sexual power, as argued by another "Open Letter" writer, Amanda Palmer?
Does her sudden affection for hip-hop - she's seen earnestly singing Dolly Parton's "Jolene" in a 2012 clip in The Movement - smack of cynical, or even racist, cultural appropriation? Were the black dancers dressed as teddy bears at the VMA part of a minstrel show in which she took the clearest path to transgression by "blacking up"?
If so, it hasn't stopped Cyrus from being endorsed by much of the hip-hop community. Hip-popper Nelly teams with her on Bangerz's surprisingly effective, countrified hoedown/throwdown "4 x 4," in which Cyrus makes the dubious claim, "I'm a female rebel, can't you tell?"
Street rapper French Montana appears on the Amy Winehouse knockoff "FU," Bangerz's most grating track.
But she has critics, too. Danny Brown suggested that rappers who work with her are mercenaries: "Anybody doing that just trying to eat."
Cyrus defended herself in Rolling Stone: "I don't keep my producers or dancers around 'cause it makes me look cool. . . . I know what I am. But I also know what I like to listen to. Look at any 20-year-old white girl now - that's what they're listening to in the club."
Amid the noise, is it possible to hear the music on Bangerz clearly? Not really. But let's give it a try, and instead of posing the question of whether Cyrus has a right to make hip-hop-flavored music (of course she does), let's ask the pertinent one: Is she any good at it?
Sometimes. Cyrus occasionally raps herself - in cringe-inducing manner on "SMS (Bangerz)," and perfectly competently on "Love Money Party."
But Bangerz is by no means a rap record. It's a pop album, and in 2013 that means it employs rappers and hip-hop producers. The title track, which she sang on SNL fully clothed and not licking a mallet, is a power ballad, an emotional battering ram Bon Jovi would be at home with.
Smartly, the album starts off with "Adore You," a conventional R&B lament that reminds us that she's still only on the cusp of adulthood ("I just started living") and that she can actually sing.
From there, Bangerz goes up and down. "We Can't Stop" may be worn out, but it's an earworm that was a deserved summer hit. Rihanna, who passed on the track, was silly to do so.
Its mantra - "It's our party, we can do what we want" - works neatly for Cyrus as an assertion that she's grown up enough to make her own mistakes, and proved easily adaptable into the SNL satire "We Did Stop (The Government)," in which Cyrus masqueraded as Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann.
That said, Bangerz has way too many tracks in which Cyrus asserts her right to "Do My Thang" over an electronic beat. "I'm a southern belle" who gets "crazier than hell," she tells us, in a variety of ways.
But the album also contains sweet pleasures, like Williams' stripped-down funk-pop "#GETITRIGHT," or the supple "Rooting for My Baby," so not-scary it had to be a hidden, bonus track.
Bangerz is a mishmash. It's a strategically inconsistent hot mess that tells us what it sounds like when a 20-year-old former child star sticks her tongue out to convince everybody she's a bad girl at heart - knowing better than anyone that's not really true.