The power to shock: it’s a neat little tool. Whether your record sales have declined, you have a new single dropping or you’re just looking to generate some buzz for an upcoming tour, having that nifty tool on hand can change everything. It’s not exactly a novel idea, either; pop stars have used shock for decades now and perhaps no other pop star is more renowned for their ability to ruffle the collective feathers of Western culture than Madonna. For so long it seemed like she could never falter in her relentless path—practically everything she did got people talking (and, not incidentally, sold millions and millions of records along the way… go figure, right?). Just when society was over singing about being a virgin she went and dolled up models in tight leather outfits, and started shooting all her videos in seedy, suggestive black and white. When even that became too blasé, she took it all off and peed in some random guy’s mouth in her controversial Sex coffee table book. No big deal. But, somewhere between then and now, she’s lost that powerful privilege. Maybe our society has simply reached that point where nothing could possibly shock us anymore?
But frankly if we’re going by the ubiquitous history of popular culture then that’s not entirely true. There are still plenty of Tipper Gores out there somewhere in Middle America—scoffing persistently while wagging their fingers in disgust—willing to raise a ruckus when entertainers try to corrupt their kiddies’ innocent little minds. Moreover, with the current state of worldly affairs over the last few years—as well as the overwhelmingly complacent, virtually anesthetized condition of the public—a good dose of shock is, in all probability, just what we all need right now. No, I doubt the problem is that we’re all just too jaded. One listen to the 2010s perplexing fashionable shock queen, ex-Disney star Miley Cyrus’ new album Bangerz, and you’ll quickly realize that the blame rests squarely with her: it’s the Smiley Miley whose seemingly overnight bad girl makeover and feigned ratchet image is the only thing keeping the public engaged, as the music is at a safe distance, and far from offensive.
Despite the spread of scandalous poses on the many various editions of the album cover, revealing interview with Rolling Stone where she candidly broadcasts her drugs of choice (you guessed it: weed and molly) amidst conversation about her project’s modus operandi and declaratory tweet regarding the album’s title (“If you don’t know why my record is called BANGERZ you’ll know as soon as you hear it,” she posted. “Nothin’ but #BANGERZ!”) Bangerz is really just an album about, well, Miley Cyrus. Of course, on some level, everything Miley does is about Miley—she’s a human publicity machine. But unlike Madonna, who, in the past had other, broader social and emotional concerns overlaying it all, with Miley what we get is a celebration of her own cult of personality. All of which might be forgivable if she was doing anything musically relevant, but this for an album being pressed as ‘adult’ (whoa, look out, Parental Advisory sticker present), Bangerz is the most conservative album both instrumentally as well as lyrically you’ll hear in pop music today. It’s an album that parallels Demi Lovato or Selena Gomez, not heyday (or any day) Lil Kim or Foxy Brown like the misleading media rollout may suggest.
In the recent campaign to prove she’s all grown up, Miley’s been on a grand tour through genres, making all sorts of strange pitstops at country, brostep, Dr. Luke takeoff, and even weird hybrid pseudo-reggae—all with varying degrees of success. But never has she sounded so out of place as she does in the club setting of “We Can’t Stop”. Miley slurs to the point of being virtually incomprehensible, and the message begins to sound miserable instead of (the intended) inspiring. The lyrics, which alternate between banal uplift messages and clichéd party imagery, don’t help either. For crying out loud, we’re at “hands in the air like you don’t care” by the second line! She’s not even trying. Neither is Mike WiLL Made It, whose sluggish production sounds like an upset stomach full of cheap beer. Since when did the concept of not giving a shit reach such a openly meta level? Miley—or her brilliant team of publicists and strategists—may endlessly sit around on Twitter and tweet about who knows how many rappers she’s listening and twerking to but it’s nevertheless jarring to hear the eponymous “Mike WiLL Made It!” drop on a Miley Cyrus song. The problem is, Miley’s now more interesting as a Twitter personality than as an entertainer; even when she reminds us of the latter it’s just Mike WiLL squandering his skill and Miley squandering her vocals for a sludgy spillover of Lesley Gore.
And perhaps what’s most offensive about Bangerz is that there’s not a shred of that raw, hypersexuality we see in her oh-so controversial televised live performances and photoshoots. Everything is by-the-numbers here and it is all so goddamn boring; the sort of collection of songs that appears as filler on a Katy Perry album. Throughout the album it sounds like Miley Cyrus is holding back and the lyrics are riddled with moments that’ll make even a middle school preteen airhead cringe: “Driving so fast ’bout to piss on myself”. Yeah. Yuck. Even the slew of guest rappers don’t contribute jack apart from their names appearing on the track listing. Nelly, Future, Big Sean, French Montana, Ludacris, it reads like a subpar mixtape being offered on DatPiff or LiveMixtapes from a dozen or so rappers trying to keep their heads above water. Britney Spears even chimes in indiscriminately, bringing practically nothing to the table other than a depressing glimpse into the future for Miley. Interestingly, however, Bangerz, is most successful when it veers away from its clubby pseudo-hedonism. The promising album opener “Adore You” enlivens the album far more effectively than the sexual pretensions of the following tracks. Ultimately, Bangerz suffers greatly from Miley’s uneasy transition from teen tart to sexually powerful woman. Had Miley been in charge of her career direction instead of mercilessly prostituted by her management she might have been able to produce something with some semblance of musical vision (à la Taylor Swift, perhaps).
Even though just last month Miley Cyrus stated in a interview with the people over at Associated Press that she “isn’t just a ratchet white girl”, the colloquial term “bangers” like many of the words she has been using as of late, comes from hip-hop culture, and denotes a track that is so good and beat-laden that you can’t help but bang your head to it. None of which are found on Bangerz, of course. So whether she wants to be or not, Miley is a blatant corporate shill—a pop culture succubus who is appropriating and reutilizing cultural symbols that originally came from rap and hip-hop culture without ever giving anything back. Sadly she is doing nothing with this moment, nor is she employing the endless resources at her disposal. White privilege in the music industry catapulting “Wrecking Ball” to number one in the charts, as its not-that-raw-or-bare and not-that-sexy video traded on an assumption of both to over one hundred million views in a week. Maybe this is a mirror on our own culture. Maybe we should just break the mirror. Additionally, Bangerz feels like an amalgam of songs specifically designated for radio stations hesitant to play rap.
Furthermore Bangerz and Miley Cyrus’ recent run is so mediocre that it’s almost captivating—in a strange way. Lana Del Rey verses, Katy Perry choruses, American Apparel circa 2006 album cover complete with an ironic, neon gangsta “Bangerz” scribbling. Is there nothing about this girl and her career choices that is not played out? I just wish she went all the way in—gave us the full monty—because in that case this would at least have some replay value. All what we are left with is an album that has us dreaming about an idyllic society, a simpler time, one where children can roam freely on God’s green earth and where you wouldn’t mind hearing “Party in the USA” ad nauseam. But maybe I shouldn’t act so surprised, more so even than Marilyn Monroe in the late 90s, Miley Cyrus is an empty vessel to be projected into, a means of escape and fantasy for a million different people in a million different ways. But not Miley herself. You can see it in her little-girl-lost interview persona, hear it in her meaningless mission-to-please lyrics, and perceive it in the disparate array of Frankensteins lined up to try and mould her into the perfect pop production that pleases all of the people all of the time. Bangerz, then, is Miley’s most personal statement. Because it’s as lost and shriveled and alluring and eager to please and disturbingly empty-eyed as she is.