The Big Fight: Episode One
Is Miley’s return to her country roots music to your ears? Or do you, ‘Wrecking Ball’ etched into the deepest, darkest corner of your mind, smell a rat? For the first instalment of The Big Fight – in which we ask two writers to go head-to-head on a subject via long-form essay – Conrad Duncan and George Griffiths to butt horns Tennesseean enigma. Does she have an authenticity problem, or, rather, is really finding yourself just a little tricker than one might imagine? Gloves at the ready, friends. It’s gonna be a scrap.
“Miley Cyrus has an authenticity problem” – Conrad Duncan
Ever since she first donned a blonde wig as Hannah Montana, the question of authenticity has been central to Miley Cyrus’ story. It’s something that has followed her throughout her career and at times has threatened to overwhelm her. The show that made her famous may not have had any interest in subtlety, it was on Disney Channel, but it did articulate a conflict that is familiar to most popstars; a conflict between the celebrity and the real person behind them. Of course, in Hannah Montana that conflict was played for laughs, presenting Miley’s inability to lead a normal life as a source of life-hearted comedy, but it hasn’t been as easy to find a place for Miley Cyrus the person in the real world. Striking the balance between the pop persona and real person in her music was not as easy as throwing together one CD of Hannah Montana and another of Miley Cyrus, as her debut album attempted to do.
As either a rejection of fame or an attempt to cling to it, her career has been driven by a contrarian instinct with each new record pushing against the one that came before it. From her second album Breakout to last week’s Younger Now, Miley’s albums have been consistently marketed through their opposition to their predecessors, especially in recent years. Since Bangerz made her one of the biggest stars in pop, her career has lurched from left turn to left turn, moving from hip-hop-inspired R&B to experimental psych-pop to country pop in the time it takes some artists to release one record. What’s even stranger is that these albums were advertised on the premise that it showed us the true Miley Cyrus. But, soon enough, they were all discarded for a new direction. This doesn’t necessarily make her music insincere, many great artists develop by switching genre, but it does mean that her career has been in an identity crisis for most of the 2010s. While Younger Now might protest that it is an authentic document of her life, past evidence gives us very little to believe that it’ll hold that privileged position for long.
Of course, none of this really matters so long as Miley’s selling records. However, this week has shown signs that her career might not be as bankable as it used to be. Younger Now is currently projected to sell around 55,000 copies in the US which is a long way off the 100k+ predictions for frontrunner Shania Twain. This means that the album is set to be only the second Miley Cyrus album (excluding the free Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz) not to hit the Billboard no.1 spot. That doesn’t sound too worrying until you consider that her last record to miss the top spot, 2013’s Can’t Be Tamed, still sold over 100,000 first week copies and was beaten by two major releases from Eminem and Drake. Miley should have easily been the biggest star releasing music last week. Now, she’s looking like she might have to settle for third place behind Twain and Demi Lovato. Similarly, while the album’s first single ‘Malibu’ was a hit in the US, it only hit no.10 and has shown none of the staying power of ‘Party in the USA’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’.
Why then are fans switching off from this era of her career? One could fairly argue that the songs just aren’t good enough this time round. Younger Now doesn’t sound like it has many hit singles on it and even ‘Malibu’ sounds lightweight next to her biggest singles. But more importantly, Younger Now makes the mistake of playing up to one of Miley’s weaknesses – her claim to authenticity. It opens with a title track that acts as a justification for the album’s change in direction and never really moves out of that defensive position. What follows is a collection of passable but superficial country pop that does little to convince that Miley has anything original to give to the genre.
The same could be said for many of her past albums. Only Bangerz has come close to contributing something fresh and daring to pop music and even then, it’s most interesting moments felt uncomfortably borrowed from much less famous, and usually black, artists. Her next project, …and Her Dead Petz, was an unexpected turn for a major popstar but viewed on its own, it didn’t offer anything that was genuinely challenged. You could easily add it to the list of bad psych-pop records that’s been growing ever since acid became readily available. Elsewhere, her records have complied with familiar pop narratives – Can’t Be Tamed was her good-girl-gone-bad album while Younger Now is the familiar ‘back to my roots’ record. It also doesn’t help that artists like Lady Gaga and Kesha, Miley’s contemporaries and chart rivals, have both recently released albums that leaned heavily on country in ways that were more creative with the genre.
The problem with Younger Now isn’t necessarily that it’s songs aren’t memorable; the problem is that it’s unclear what exactly Miley brings to country music. There’s a nagging sense that the album’s creative decisions were chosen because they sounded interesting on paper. This isn’t a new take on country pop. At best, it’s an imitation of classic artists who came before her. That’s why Miley appears in her live performances dressed like Dolly Parton and why she appears on the album’s cover steeped in nostalgia for the wild west and the gaudy glamour of the 70s. But these decisions all sell Miley short – they present an artist who can only imitate her heroes rather than emulate them. The real Miley Cyrus is surely more interesting than the version we’ve been presented with in recent years and while I have no doubt that there is some truth to each one of her personas, all of them are simplified impressions of a person who has lead a bizarre and complex life.
Right now, Miley’s career is successful but it lacks the narrative arc that’s so important to maintaining superstardom. Greats like Madonna and Michael Jackson were not just successful because of their music but also because people felt invested in their story; they wanted to know what happened to them. Even today, artists like Rihanna and Kanye West have managed to cultivate that sort of reputation. Unfortunately, I don’t get that feeling about Miley Cyrus because I’m still not sure who she is or what she believes in. Maybe the successor to Younger Now will show some continuity with what came before it but I doubt it. And what should worry her is that if the next three Miley Cyrus albums are as polarising as the last three, I can’t see the public staying interested for much longer. After all, why should we buy into this Miley Cyrus when there will be a new one around soon?
“Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and the art of finding yourself” – George Griffiths
Re-invention is a necessary route to longevity in pop, but for figures like Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, who first came to prominence as child stars on the Disney Channel, their ability to re-invent and regenerate their personas is an essential part of their DNA.
Whenever you see Miley Cyrus, you always, in some way, associate her with Hannah Montana, don’t you? It’s an image, and a time in her career, that Cyrus will always carry as baggage. It’s unavoidable. The solo albums she released during the time that Hannah was still airing range from the surprisingly robust (Can’t Be Tamed) to the plain saccharine (Breakout). It was only when her commitments to Hannah, and thereby Disney, ended that Cyrus was allowed to spread her wings. And spread she most certainly did. Bangerz represents probably the most drastic and headline-grabbing musical re-invention of the past decade. If it seemed like interest in Cyrus could burn out after Hannah – her last album and singles had burnt out, and her film career had stalled – then Bangerz made sure everyone paid attention.
The album – and, more importantly, Cyrus’s promotion of it – was brash, loud and extremely brilliant. Cyrus cut her hair off, dyed it blonde and took the age-old mantra that sex sells and took it as a light suggestion; her performance at the 2013 VMAs with Robin Thicke was that rare, zeitgeist-defining controversy that will a pop-culture tentpole for generations to come. It also helped, of course, that the record was bookended by two brilliant singles; ‘We Can’t Stop’ and ‘Wrecking Ball,’ bolstered by their two videos which are both equally beautiful and unnerving. Bangerz made Cyrus, for a time, the biggest pop-star in the world, with first-week sales in the US that out-sold, at the time, both an at her peak Katy Perry and a just declining Lady Gaga.
There’s a lot to be said about the context of Miley’s transformation in this era – the switch from pop to Hip-Hop, the exploration of black culture and the ramifications both of these things would have on Miley’s own career and popular culture itself – but it’s worth noting that, even now, this doesn’t seem like a fake or forced transformation for purely commercial gain. That’s a massive part of it, obviously. Miley, and her record label, aren’t idiots, but part of Cyrus’s charm as a central pop figure is that in each one of her transformations – and, in a decade, she’s weathered more than some artists do in the span of their entire careers – seems authentic to her true self, what every the controversy or the context around it. It’s real, it seems, at least to her.
And so, we come to Younger Now, Cyrus’s new record. Shifting focus to a realm of country that’s more Parton than Twain or Swift, Miley’s newest effort asks us to realise that ‘even though it’s not who I am, I’m not afraid of who I used to be.’ It is, as it stands, her most cohesive and personal album to date. Dipping back into her country roots allows Cyrus to shift her focus inward, although this time it’s not about how many of her pets have died or many drugs she’s taken. It’s most about a relationship – the relationship, with former and now present finance Liam Hemsworth – and how getting back into it has shifted her mindset and priorities. The album’s first single, ‘Malibu,’ is a shining example of the album’s key mantra: change is good, and sometimes returning to the way things used to be, you can re-discover something new.
To be perfectly honest, there may not be one true standout track in the record – no ‘Party In The USA,’ not even a countrified ‘Wrecking Ball,’ – but that isn’t the type of album Cyrus has made. It isn’t the type she wanted to make. It’s a statement of intent, a signal to fans past and present that Miley Cyrus is a chameleon of the highest order, and whatever change that come next – her hair, her sound – it will always be the real Miley we see.
Miley Cyrus has always, in some shape or form, seemed happy with who she is and the characters she’s portrayed either on screen or in her music. The same can’t be said for Demi Lovato, the dark horse of the ex-Disney stars currently vying for zeitgeist-defining domination. Lovato has always had, in essence, The Voice. There’s no question of her vocal capabilities, but Lovato has always lagged behind the other girls in the sense of forming an identity for herself in her own music. In the past, it’s felt like she’s lacked Miley’s charisma, Selena’s sex appeal and Ariana’s penchant for bangers. Her output has it’s highlights – the sapphic ‘Cool For The Summer,’ the perky ‘Give Your Heart A Break’ and the stuttering ‘Heart Attack’ – but it’s never been truly consistent. Her previous album, Confident, was a particular low-point, with Lovato lost adrift amongst a name of big-name producers who had clearly gifted her some mid-level tunes that bigger names had passed on. A re-invention, then, doesn’t quite justify what Lovato has achieved on her newest album, Tell Me You Love Me. Regeneration doesn’t quite cut it either. Genesis, though, that’s the word. Like, after all this time, the real Demi Lovato has finally emerged.
The album, whilst still pop-centric, leans heavily on soul and gospel influences, especially on its title track and the crushing ‘You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore.’ It allows Lovato to make use of her voice – velvety smooth and capable of conveying real emotion – but doesn’t ever allow her to over-use it or over-egg it’s effect like. But the album isn’t defined by it’s down-tempos. It’s for the first time on this album that Lovato has up-tempo numbers, legitimate bangers, that feel like they couldn’t have been sung, or done justice, by anyone but Demi Lovato. There’s the initial rush of lead single ‘Sorry Not Sorry,’ the Timberlake-esque vibes of the bouncy ‘Sexy Dirty Love’ and the sheer joy of future single ‘Daddy Issues.’ The album’s centrepiece, though, is undoubtedly the smoky ‘Ruin The Friendship,’ where Lovato purrs over a low-strung baseline ‘what’s taken us all this time? Let’s ruin the friendship.’
Lovato has perplexed me for a long time as a pop music fan; she seemed to drift in and out of albums and singles without reason or rhyme. Where Miley always seemed to at least be aware of the identity of each of her musical projects, it just seemed that Lovato would throw a lot of stuff at the wall to see what would stick. Maybe it’s come with age, or experience, or maybe it was just a genuine lightbulb moment, but Tell Me You Love Me really is the best album of Lovato’s career, and the only time she’s really made sense as a necessary force in popular music.
Younger Now and Tell Me You Love Me are, admittedly, two very different trying to do two very different things, but they’re both testaments to the fact that it might take you longer than you expected, but finding yourself in your art is an art in itself and its impact cannot be understated.