Let’s get this out of the way: “Bangerz,” Miley Cyrus’ new album, is pretty awful. It’s a problematic, fractured jumble of what pop music has worn and handed down for decades. It’s about 10 percent killer and 90 percent filler. It’s packed with head-scratching guest spots and song titles with hashtags. And as it unfolds, its hyper-present title and culture-appropriating sounds stray ever further from the #DGAF attitude we’ve all grown used to since “We Can’t Stop” made us choke on our bowls of “twerk” SpaghettiOs.
From a bird’s-eye view, Cyrus’ comeback album is more of a depressing soul-search than it is a romp through the sexual, nonstop party we’ve seen in her recent videos; but in the grand scheme, is the music even important?
The answer is even more confusing and dismal than Cyrus’ Shania Twain-esque ballad “Maybe You’re Right,” which finds the former “Hannah Montana” star conceding to her haters in self-conscious vulnerability. Unfortunately, the 20-year-old’s newly shocking image has been crafted to overshadow her raw talent, popping up from time to time on “Bangerz” before getting buried under piles of messy production and rushed songwriting. And so Cyrus has broken YouTube’s 24-hour view record and skyrocketed to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 for licking sledgehammers naked, not for real, catchy hits.
Anyone who watched the “Wrecking Ball” video, got excited, pre-ordered the album and was sorely disappointed by the full experience is another victim of the manipulative plan of the American music industry — combine youth, violence and sex in videos, and the music doesn’t even have to be good.
But to fully rail “Bangerz” as a failure and a vacuum for good pop is not fair. Past the downtempo zombie rave of “We Can’t Stop,” there are moments of beauty that shine through and remind us that Cyrus is not only a talented visual provocateur. Opener “Adore You” is one of the best post-Frank Ocean love ballads in 2013 and feels even sadder and more poignant in context with the star’s recent break-up. “#GETITRIGHT” gives us much-needed context about her perpetually taunting tongue and sounds like The Jackson 5 mixed with anything Pharrell has touched this year. Even a couple of the EDM tracks have merit — “Drive” beats Rihanna at her own avenged bad-girl game and “FU (feat. French Montana)” is the catchiest fusion of Calvin Harris and “Cabaret” in recent memory.
Any of these songs have the potential to slay the charts and, knowing Cyrus and her arsenal of visual collaborators (Terry Richardson, Diane Martel), we’ll get coerced into obsessing over them through reeling video.
Everything else is a downward spiral. The semi-titular track “SMS (Bangerz),” which features Britney Spears in one of the most uninspired and perplexing cameos of the year, never gets anywhere or says anything. Its two-dimensional trap surfaces again and again throughout “Bangerz,” each time losing steam and outweighing the power of the album’s scant listenable sections. “Love Money Party” and “Do My Thang” are as literal as they can get, surpassing Ke$ha at the whole shameless sleazy shtick and attempting to turn Cyrus into some sort of self-proclaimed “sick southern belle, crazier than hell.” Instead, she just sounds like a high school kid at homecoming in 2007, trying to sing along to “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” This circles back to her image in “We Can’t Stop” as a Deep South member of the twerk team, but really doesn’t add up in juxtaposition with the traditional ballads and crossover country tracks that are scattered throughout the album.
It’s irrefutable that “Bangerz” is inconsistent, but to deny Cyrus the celebrity gravitas she’s worked so hard for is more than unfair.
On “Saturday Night Live” last weekend, she announced the official murder of “Hannah Montana,” kept up with the show’s comedy heavyweights and gave solid performances of her new tracks. Most of all, she had a gleam in her eye that was unforgettable, mirroring the intensity of her best and worst moments so far this year; the common denominator in every instance is her passion for cultural presence, be it oversexed, offensive or merely sensational.
Despite what Sinead O’Connor’s open letter to the star might claim, Cyrus is in control of her body and her mind. “Bangerz,” then, exists as the ramshackle foundation of her departure from an unforgettable and exposed childhood toward a life with more identity and substance. Whether she hits the notes or not, we’ll still be watching.