Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz — released amidst (and overshadowed by) the condemnatory fervor following the VMAs — is the album Miley Cyrus wanted to make. She did it outside of her label contract, on a $50,000 budget. It’s a candid portrait of one of the most candid to-a-fault artists giving in to many of her best and sometimes her worst impulses, without restraint. The album can be wholly insufferable, and at times it’s simply clueless, but just as often, it’s kind of, dare I say, stunning?
Oddly, Cyrus doing what she wants has aligned somewhat with doing what Wayne Coyne wants. Down to the provocative schmutz smeared across Cyrus’ face (which is wholly reminiscent of certain images that earned the Flaming Lips the disapproval of Erykah Badu) on the album’s “cover,” Cyrus’ new work is reminiscent of the old Lips. She has very publicly befriended Coyne (who seemed to magically appear in her life not long after the dissolution of the most intriguingly nauseating idea that never was, Lip$ha), enlisting him and his fellow Lips to co-write and produce a good deal of her free, digital-only album. (Bangerz producer Mike Will Made It also contributed production.)
Even the “Dead Petz” part of the title seems to be referencing the Lips. As Cyrus told the Times, “I really think, in a way, [my deceased dog Floyd’s] energy went into Wayne’s energy. What [Floyd] was to me, Wayne has become.” So, in case you weren’t already too caught up imagining him as every American millennial’s creepy uncle, you can now imagine Wayne Coyne as Miley Cyrus’ reincarnated dog. With the encouragement of the aging experimental pop musician/canine, Cyrus has achieved a level of control over her career rarely granted to 22-year-old pop stars. In her case, her antics are often written off as grotesque self-indulgence, but that obscures what it really represents: agency.
As she told the Times, “I can just do what I want to do, and make the music I want to make.” And it seems that the music she wants to make is not cash-cow Top 40-bait, but rather, a take on experimental psych pop with a Lips-y nod toward B-grade science fiction. “Yeah I’ve been alive/But I’ve been a liar,” she sings on the menacing “Cyrus Skies,” perhaps in reference to what she considers her newfangled authenticity, as if to suggest her older music was somewhat manufactured.
Cyrus looking at the world by way of Yoshimi/Soft Bulletin-era Lipspiration reveals this album to be temporally… complicated. It’s the mid-2010s, through the lens of the early aughts, looking toward the ’60s to comprehend the cultural colonization of technology and the coming future — aka the 2010s. With such forms of time travel, you risk falling into a black hole, say, somewhere during the album’s dizzying and hyperbolically annoying opening track, but if you manage to sidestep it, you’ll find yourself legitimately moved by the four following songs — a collection of expansive, spacey, and yes, actually quite beautiful ballads.
“The Floyd Song (Sunrise)” was written about her dog (the one Coyne, er, became), who was killed by coyotes. The song taps into the dissociative nature of depression: the sun’s gleeful insistence on rising, despite one’s internal life refusing to wake from its comatose state, inciting a battle between the pull towards the solipsistic and the constant, mocking reminder of the universal. At the song’s close, she repeats, “Oh sun, oh sun/ I see you happy” with surprisingly poetic restraint. But by track seven — following a 50-second interlude — that restraint is gone. “BB Talk” — a monologue set to ambling music — features Cyrus, sounding so much like herself that it seems she’s caricaturing Vanessa Bayer’s own SNL caricature of her, with lines such as:
In the beginning, it was like, we were fucking homies and shit, and then all of a sudden you started with some fuckin’ baby googoo tongue down my fuckin’ throat.
Etcetera. Between this and the first track, the album’s more mature moments — of which there are many — are bracketed by other tracks that bear the diction of stilted, tweenish rebellion. In one section of the album, Cyrus lyricizes the sexual fluidity that she candidly discusses in interviews, as on “Bang Me Box” — in which she pleads with a lover to “finger [her heart]” and “Milky Milky Milk,” in which everyone licks each other’s milky nipples.
“What seems like fantasy or trippy, it’s not to me. It’s my actual reality,” Cyrus also told the Times. This underscores both Cyrus’ — and this particular album’s — progressive appeal, as well as what can be so irksome about both. This reality, so privileged as to constantly seem like a trippy utopian fantasy, has led Cyrus to to be a powerful LGBTI activist, employing her public-figure status to renounce societal constraints on gender and sexuality to legitimately helpful ends with The Happy Hippie Foundation. And indeed, Cyrus knows privilege like none other. Though she’s had to wriggle out of the compartmentalizing forces of Disney and mainstream pop, Cyrus has always had the immense support system of wealth and fame. So when her “trippy fantasy” butts up against far less fantastical, less “post-” issues like race — as it recently did in her “What’s good, Miley?” dispute with Nicki Minaj — it can seem naive. Similar to Wayne Coyne, the whole “I don’t give a fuck” attitude can come across as merely ignorant when it indulges selfish inclinations to trample every social boundary, as though they were all equal, or without context.
But sadly, what people still seem the most turned off by is Cyrus’ vulgarity; generally, it appears many don’t understand that Miley Cyrus isn’t desperately trying to turn them on. She’s trying to turn herself on. Cyrus’ visual and lyrical displays of sexuality can be so off-putting, so genuinely bizarre and unsexy as to abide by no one’s standards outside of her own.
Like watching someone enact the strained specifics of autoeroticism, some parts are boring, and others offensive to the senses. But between all that, there’s the beauty of watching someone delight in the ecstasy of self-discovery. “Masturbatory” itself is a gendered term, unleashed most often as a criticism of men’s work — because men have historically been granted such ample room for self-indulgence. (It’s not surprising that Wayne Coyne once used the word as a sort of self-compliment.) So it’s radical for a woman — especially a young woman — to release a 23-track musical thinkpiece that’s not just indulgent, but masturbatory — even if it’s somewhat derivatively inspired by the works of her favorite masturbatory gentleman.
On the album’s last track, “Twinkle Song,” Cyrus screams, “What does it all mean?” over and over. It’s not pleasant. In fact, it’s kind of silly, and kind of ugly. Then, a moment later, it’s transcendent. When was the last time you heard a pop star so willing to exhibit the whole, awkward trajectory of finding herself within a song?