In case you haven’t heard, Miley Cyrus released her fourth studio album on Tuesday. So if you were wondering why Miley has been acting so strange lately, Bangerz is the answer. The former Disney star has made it her mission to get the world talking, and of course, buying her new record. It worked. I bought it.
I didn’t grow up watching Hannah Montana, and the only Miley song I knew until recently was “Party in the U.S.A.” But since I spend a lot of time ministering to teens and young adults, and because I am constantly reminding my seminarians that they need to be culturally literate, I figured that I needed to see what this new Miley album was all about.
Since Cyrus’s antics have been so aggressive as of late, I thought that the first track was going punch me in the face. It didn’t. As a matter of fact, I had to check to make sure I was listening to the right album. “Adore You” is a soft, slow, groove of a love song, and it offers the hermeneutic key to understanding Miley as well as the next twelve tracks on the record. Her voice glides as she confesses, “I love lying next to you/ I would do this for eternity/ You and me/ Were meant to be in holy matrimony/ God knew exactly what he was doing/ When he led me to you.” And there it is – the ideal. Miley has high hopes, and she longs for authentic love, the same as the rest of us. Unfortunately, she never finds it.
What do you do when you can’t find real love? What do you do when you’ve been hurt, used, abused, betrayed, objectified, and abandoned? Well, you either find some healing, or you numb the pain and let your heart grow cold so it won’t get hurt again. Miley opts for the latter. With the exception of “Adore You” and the Ben E. King inspired “My Darlin,’” Bangerz is a pretty fallen album – your heart breaks, and you do what you can to cope.
Back in the 80s Twisted Sister shouted “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and the Beastie Boys told us to “Fight for Your Right to Party.” In that same spirit of license and teenage rebellion we find Miley’s “We Can’t Stop,” which was released as a single earlier this summer. It’s a party jam, complete with slick beats and auto-tuned vocals, but the lyrics are pretty obtuse. For example: “To my homegirls here with the big butts/ Shakin’ like we’re in a strip club/ Remember only God can judge ya/ Forget the haters because somebody loves ya.” This is the kind of song Plato warned people about in the Republic.
In a recent interview Cyrus mentioned that she was following the pop-star tradition of Madonna and Britney Spears, specifically in her most recent appearance at the VMAs. On “SMS (Bangerz)” she invited her exemplar Spears to sing/rap with her. (SMS is short for “struttin’ my stuff,” not “short message service,” in case you were wondering.) The track calls to mind vintage Salt-N-Pepa, except that Salt-N-Pepa penned lyrics that made more sense.
“Love Money Party,” “4×4,” and “Do My Thang” are like all the majority of the songs on the album – they’re well produced and they’re probably fun to dance to, but they don’t really go anywhere or say anything important. And perhaps that’s the nature of pop music.
Speaking of pop music, the most poppy track – in the most classic sense – is “#GetItRight,” which echoes the spirit of Smokey Robinson and The Jackson Five. Musically it’s light and fresh, and the whistling is fun, but then there are the lyrics. Ready? “I’ve been lying in this bed/ Don’t you think it’s time to get it on?/ But we gotta get it right/ We can’t get it wrong.” Profound.
The heart of the album, however, is Wrecking Ball, and it’s a big heart. The songwriting isn’t going to make Bob Dylan jealous any time soon, but the voice will, and so will the passionate and explosive hook. Remember that punch in the face I was looking for at the top of the album? Here it is: “I came in like a wrecking ball/ I never hit so hard in love/ All I wanted was to break your walls/ All you ever did was break me/ Yeah, you wreck me.” The verses are Tori Amos and the chorus is Ann Wilson—it’s Miley Cyrus at her best.
Bangerz ends on a note of confusion and even despair. On “Someone Else” Miley confesses that she’s changed: “I used to believe that love conquers all/ That’s what’s seen in movies/ Come to find out it’s not like that at all/ You see real life is different.” I believe her. I think Miley once thought that authentic love was possible, and I don’t simply mean romantic love— I mean real, self-giving, unconditional, agape love. I don’t think she believes that anymore. She says as much herself. After starting out with a nice paraphrase of St. Paul’s treatment of love in First Corinthians, things turn sour quickly: “Love is jealous, love is selfish, love is helpless, love is blind.” She has turned into someone else. Without love, we all do.
So what do we do with Miley? Here’s an idea: On the very same day that Miley Cyrus dropped Bangerz, one of the best songwriters in the English-speaking world released her latest record entitled, Sliver Bell. Her name is Patty Griffin and she’s classy, seasoned, smart, professional, and grounded. Although she flies under the radar of the pop-audience, she makes great music, and people who really know good music know Patty Griffin. I think Miley needs someone like Patty. She needs a maternal, musical mentor who will help her get the greatest return on her God-given voice and help her to find some redemption while she’s at it. After all, that’s what Miley really wants, whether she knows it or not.