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Music Review: Bangerz

Miley Cyrus
RCA Records
5/5 stars

Miley Cyrus has won a massive pissing contest with the American mainstream. “Bangerz” is her finishing blow. Her victims run the gamut, including but not limited to: sheltering soccer moms, cable news twerking critics, slut-shaming Buzzfeed commenters, slut-shaming-shaming Tumblr adolescents, over-educated think piece drafters and (lest we forget) Liam Hemsworth.

Cultural context is needed for this claim to hold any water. If you have not been following along with the Cyrus narrative of late, the abridged version is as follows.

The ex-Disney Channel starlet began to shed her 'wholesome' image almost immediately after abandoning the tween entertainment factory. Her first infamous evocation of sexuality was at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards, where she did a two-second stunt involving a strip pole and an ice cream truck. Cyrus was 16. Needless to say, people made a stink about that.

Next came her 2010 music video for ‘Can’t Be Tamed’ in which she played the role of a sexy raven who escapes a birdcage and goes on to destroy what seems to be some sort of gala for socialite museum-goers (i.e. The Establishment). Cyrus then hovered relatively under the radar, occasionally surfacing via Twitter with photos of herself in strange poses or with most of her hair lopped off (before that was Beyoncé-tier trendy).

Age 20 threw a more mature and almost entirely reimagined Ms. Cyrus back into the limelight. She landed the number one spot on Maxim’s 2013 Hot 100 list, for which she posed for a stunning and purportedly risqué photoshoot. Shortly after, she began the unfurling of "Bangerz"—her most recent LP effort—with the single and music video ‘We Can’t Stop.’ This first breadcrumb of "Bangerz" ushered in a new wave of obsession, idolatry and outrage directed at Cyrus. Within its first 24 hours, the video broke a Vevo record, raking in 10.7 million views.

But that figure barely scratches the surface of the immediate and jarring relevance of ‘We Can’t Stop.’ Simultaneously, it was criticized and admired for its countless 'WTF' moments and nigh pornographic scenes. While declarations of “it’s our party, we can do what we want” reigned over top-40 airwaves as an all-summer anthem, the old cliché slanders for young female pop stars reared their ugly heads.

“She’s too young,” they moaned in unison. “She’s being a poor role model. She’s acting like a whore.”

Given the nature of the video, mainstream critics were able to chalk up Cyrus in ‘We Can’t Stop’ to an immature, misguided 20-year-old celebrity utilizing shock value to 'make a point,' and make a pretty penny while she was at it. They slut-shamed or belittled her. They could not have been more wrong.

Other more 'nuanced' or 'enlightened' academic critics took microscopic scenes out of context to paint Cyrus as somebody who should not be taken seriously. Let us not get into all of that. (And let us not get into the associated MTV Video Music Awards performance, for which she has absolutely nothing to apologize or answer for.)

The truth is that 'We Can’t Stop' and the other 15 tracks on "Bangerz" and their artist, Cyrus, are to be taken very seriously, if not as a group of songs, then at least as a grade-A cultural phenomenon.

Over the loud droning of post-VMA slut-shamers, and slut-shamer-shamers, and celebrity open letters, and zillionth-wave-feminist open letters and AriZona-Iced-Tea-phallus photoshoots, “Bangerz” dropped. The buzz had accumulated to deafening levels. Fifteen minutes before October 8, the day of the iTunes release, the album rocketed straight to number one. ‘We Can’t Stop’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’—the other pre-release music video which featured a fully nude Cyrus atop a wrecking ball and shattered the same 24-hour Vevo record Cyrus claimed months earlier—proved themselves correct.

In the same vein, "Bangerz" covers its own critics. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to accomplish. Given the context and outcome for Cyrus and her album, it is difficult not to conclude that "Bangerz" has earned a perfect score. Even if the musical content of "Bangerz" were truly unpleasant, its lingering on the top of the charts means that Cyrus has won.

In the months leading up to her album, Cyrus promoted rule-breaking, personal liberation and a general attitude of not giving a s**t about those who doubt you—a message that, despite everybody’s supposed shock and distaste, was actually what we all wanted.

And most of the tracks are actually really good.

The opening tracks ‘Adore You’ and ‘Maybe You’re Right’ join forces with the wildly famous ‘Wrecking Ball’ to round out a triumvirate of poignant post-breakup power ballads that are as sincere as they are accessible. Cyrus engages in her 'ratchet girl' persona in the title track ‘SMS (BANGERZ)’ and ‘Do My Thang,’ showing off her tepid rapping talent. Although her lyrics and rhythm in these rap bits are not superb, Cyrus presents herself as an unpretentious experimenter. She lacks the arrogance and demand for proper artistic respect of Lady Gaga while remaining far less banal than Katy Perry, et al.

‘4x4’ invokes Cyrus’s down-South upbringing in a way that is fun and lighthearted, but it is unfortunately misplaced among the other songs, making it the only unlistenable track of the bunch. ‘On My Own’ deviates from the rest of the album much more palatably—it sounds like a Michael Jackson dance hit, and is a standout track for those who do not fancy millennial radio pop.

Lyrically, “Bangerz” explores themes of love, sex and heartbreak, which makes sense considering Cyrus recently broke off her engagement to fellow young star Liam Hemsworth. ‘We Can’t Stop’ and the other more party-friendly tunes focus on celebrity lifestyle and the importance of letting go of society’s expectations and one’s own anxieties.

On both of these fronts, Cyrus flanks herself with a team of industry moguls. Songs are largely produced by Mike Will and Pharrell Williams, while Britney Spears, Big Sean, Nelly and Ludacris each are featured on a track. Said celebrity drop-ins range from Spears's familiarly absurdist verse on the title track to French Montana's backing vocals in the post-breakup taunt 'FU.'

The most important cut from “Bangerz,” one that has real staying power and the potential to be genre-defining, was produced with the help of Williams, the pop mastermind of the hour.

‘#GETITRIGHT’ is this track. ‘#GETITRIGHT,’ on a first listen through "Bangerz," makes you want to stop and instead put it on repeat. It is terribly catchy, complete with whistles, cute guitar riffs and a readily memorizable chorus. Miley croons about that oh-so-relatable moment of laying in bed with a potential lover right before the sexual encounter unfolds. After listening to the song several times, it becomes almost impossible not to dance.

‘#GETITRIGHT’ also has the ability to bridge any alt-culture resentment for an artist as popular as Cyrus. Indie pop angels Rostam Bantmanglij and Sufjan Stevens have both espoused praise for the track and its artist, an act that would typically be perceived as gauche by the difficult-to-please indie crowd.

These affirmations bring hope that “Bangerz” will reach further than a typical pop audience, attracting those with more musical knowhow with its variety and self-awareness. The Bangerz-Cyrus 2013 aesthetic will reign queen and spread its influence over pop music for the foreseeable future.

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