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Just the Music: A Tabloid Headline-Free Review of Miley Cyrus’ ‘Bangerz’

We’ve all heard more than enough about Miley Cyrus of late: the twerking, the documentary, the music video with Lucifer Terry Richardson. What’s been rather overlooked in all the kerfuffle is that she has a new album out. And so, in the return of a semi-regular feature wherein we try to consider an artist’s music on its own merits, rather than getting caught up in its context and publicity — we listened to Bangerz all the way through, repeatedly, because we love our readers and we don’t want you to suffer unnecessarily. The verdict? Read on…

So: is Bangerz any good? The answer is to some extent going to depend on your tolerance for the sort of slickly-put-together-by-committee pop music that tends to dominate the charts these days. If you’re allergic to it, then you’re going to find little to like here, and you probably stopped reading at the headline anyway. But even if you are one of the ever-swelling tide of poptimists amongst us, you might find this to be more fizzerz than bangerz.

The thing is, despite its Cocktail-esque cover art and its pre-release promise of being a “provocative pop album” (© iTunes 2013), this is an often subdued and curiously ambivalent piece of work. Opening track “Adore You” is a curious choice to start the album, because it isn’t a banger at all — it’s a big ol’ power ballad, and it does demonstrate that, if nothing else, Miley can sing, with the sort of professionally Auto-Tuned and robotically emotive delivery that’s characterized pretty much every pop star since about the 1980s.

In what’ll become a recurring theme, it also rather undermines Cyrus’ newfound bad girl image, with its talk of being “joined in holy matrimony” and the idea that “God knew what he was doing when he led me to you.” The mood changes somewhat with “We Can’t Stop,” which you’ve no doubt heard a gazillion times already and may or may not ever want to hear again. If you listen to it closely, though, it’s a curiously melancholy piece for a party anthem — there’s a sort of latent desperation about the claim that “We can’t stop/ And we won’t stop,” an air of being the last at the party when the lights come on.

“SMS (Bangerz)” is where Cyrus’ new hip hop-influenced direction really begins to come through, with her adoption of hip hop-influenced lyricism (“We be struttin’ our stuff”) and subject matter (lots of talk of money, etc.). There are many shout-outs to Mike Will, who occasionally rouses himself from the slumber in which he presumably produced the track to shout back. On the whole, the album’s adoption of hip hop slang and sounds ranges from the competent to the audibly contrived — it’s hard to believe Billy Ray bought up his little gal to say things like “Every single day/ I’mma do my thang,” as Miley does on, er, “Do My Thang.”

But really, this is a pop album, and since hip hop is essentially pop music and has been for at least 25 years, it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear “urban” flavors here. The most obviously hip hop-influenced songs also happen to be the least interesting — really, it could be any other pop star singing, so faceless are the tracks in question. (This isn’t to say they’re bad — they’re not, necessarily, although they’re not great either.) I recently heard this album described as “the best album Rihanna never made,” which is an accurate enough observation, albeit with the caveat that Rihanna didn’t make it for a reason.

Nelly collaboration “4×4,” in particular, features some of the most hilariously awful lyrics you’ll hear outside of a Sting record. The first verse (“I’m a female rebel/ Can’t you tell?/ Drivin’ so fast/ ‘Bout to piss on myself”) is outdone by the second, which comes straight from the Kanye West school of “Hey, I just thought of this!” lyricism: “A little bit of dirt never hurt nobody/ Now I got dirt all over my body.” “Love Money Party” goes “Love money party” a lot, and features a verse from Big Sean, who sounds a whole lot better when he doesn’t have Kendrick Lamar putting him to shame. There’s even a track produced by will.i.am. Wonder of wonders, it doesn’t stink, which is about the best one can hope for from anything involving the Antichrist of the Billboard chart.

But throughout, there’s an interesting conflict between liberation and… well, conservatism, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given that pop music is, after all, an inherently conservative art form. For all Miley’s self-proclaimed reinvention as a raunchy pop star, she spends most of this album filling medieval gender roles — either pining for marriage (“My Darlin” finds her mourning that she “pictured us walking to the altar/ For better or for worse”), pining for love (“I used to believe love conquered all/ ‘Cos that’s what I’d seen in the movies/ Come to find out it’s not like that at all/ You see, real life’s much different”), or playing the woman scorned while pining for both (“If I can’t trust/ Then why am I giving my heart in exchange for him to love me?”). There’s a sense that all the twerking will come to an end, just as soon as she finds the right man to make an honest woman of her.

But anyway! Just the music! The album’s best moment is also its brassiest — “FU,” a big musical theater-esque number that wouldn’t sound out of place in the hands of Shirley Bassey or Liza Minelli. The lyrics are still somewhat clunky, but at least kinda witty — “What makes you think I’d stick around?/ I’m not as stupid as you sound/ And you sound pretty dumb right now” — and the theatrical nature of the arrangement is a fine fit for Cyrus’s voice. It’s a reminder, again, that she can really belt it out when she wants to.

Perhaps the most interesting moment, though, is “#Getitright,” with its inexplicable hashtag, which finds the two Mileys in conflict: “The thirst pours out of me/ The things I want to try,” she wails, but the let’s-get-it-on randiness is rather undermined by the chorus, wherein Miley makes the, um, sage observation that “We gotta get it right/ We can’t get it wrong.” There’s an echo of the good-girl-gone-bad trope so beloved of American pop music in general, but she doesn’t quite pull it off, mainly because she’s neither that good nor that bad. She’s too polished to be either.

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