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From the most manufactured of reality show alumni to the most earnest of authentic bluesmen, the worth, reputation and success of a recording artist has always been about more than just the music. As much as someone like Jake Bugg likes to insist that he’s “just a lad who writes tunes,” he has a brand and he has an image, and those feed into the public perception of him and the number of records he sells. However, music was always arguably the most important component of an artist’s arsenal until recently. We’re now in a post-Gaga world (or, more accurately, a post-Born This Way world) and it seems that it’s entirely possible for the quality of the music you make to bear little resemblance to the popularity of the package you’re presenting.
If that all seems horrifically capitalist to you and dashes your romantic view of the music industry, then welcome to the world of Miley Cyrus. What with all the media controversy around her videos, her performances, her twerking, her supposed cultural appropriation and speculation over whether she has thrush or not, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that she actually puts out records from time to time. It’s bizarre, given that her transformation from innocent Disney child star to hyper-sexualized adult singer is such a well-worn career path these days.
Based on the evidence of Bangerz, focusing on things other than her music actually might not be the worst state of affairs. Given her public persona, you’d expect Bangerz to be full of outrageously trendy production tricks, four-to-the-floor party anthems and songs that would frighten the elder generation (or, to not put too fine a point on it, ‘bangers (z)’). Instead, we get a record that is surprisingly dull, which alternates between syrupy, unremarkable ballads and up-tempo tracks that sound like they’ve been assembled by a committee of consultants.
Bangerz opens with “Adore You” – a lackluster ballad that would struggle to make the final cut on a decent pop album, let alone be the first track. This combination of earnest, non-distinctive, auto-tuned vocals over a forgettable, slow beat is repeated on tracks like “My Darlin’” and Cyrus’ recent single “Wrecking Ball,” which is the best of these more restrained songs, despite sounding like an update of a Heart or Starship tune.
Yet, there seems to remain the evidence of some restraint in the faster, livelier songs. This is characterized in a former single, “We Can’t Stop,” which, despite its strong melodies, never fully lets go in the way you might expect. The most striking thing in “We Can’t Stop” is the reference to “dancing with molly,” whom you suspect might not be a female acquaintance of Miley’s. Similarly, tracks like “Maybe You’re Right” and “Drive” refuse to tip over the edge, and merely showcase Cyrus’ homogeneity as a performer.
Moreover, on more than one occasion, Bangerz sounds like the product of a team of consultants from a professional services firm who have been tasked with preparing a report called something like, “The language and cultural signifiers of the ubiquitous ‘club”’. References to molly aside (Cyrus drops it in “My Darlin’” too), “Do My Thang” is, from its title onwards, frankly embarrassing with the assertions that, “We don’t give a f***”,” that Cyrus is a “Southern gal, crazier than hell” and, bafflingly, that, “It’s bananas like a f***ing orangutan.” On the painfully monikered “SMS (Bangerz),” Cyrus’ imagines hip-hop as if the genre began and ended with Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. Her supposedly relevant repeated refrain of, “I be struttin’ my stuff” should be consigned to parody for someone born in 1992.
Outside of mediocre, mawkish ballads and failed attempts at party-starters, Bangerz has a tendency to venture into the peculiar; “4×4” appears to be an attempt at updating a country-infused hoedown (penned by Pharrell and Nelly, no less) while “FU” is a 21st century show tune in 6/8 that bears more than a passing resemblance to “Delilah,” except with more references to texting and LOLs. Elsewhere, the most eye-catching thing about Bangerz is the awful song titles. Aside from those already mentioned, we have “Love Money Party” (a song which is about as superficial as you’d expect) and “#GETITRIGHT” (hashtag sadly not author’s own).
Amongst the reluctance to fully relinquish control and, dare it be said, wave your hands in the air as if caring were not a concern, repeated listens to Bangerz make you think that, despite its paucity of quality, it might be the direction in which pop music is headed. The success and ubiquity of “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines” in 2013 might suggest that the VIP-courting rave-pop of Avicii, Calvin Harris, and David Guetta all could be on the way out, and Bangerz is certainly a step in that direction. Viewed through that prism, the album’s apparent restraint becomes simply the prevalent trend of 2014 and beyond.
For all its failings, Bangerz has more in common with the music of Frank Ocean and The Weeknd than it does with that of Pitbull and Afrojack, and with artists like Lorde and Banks, there are certainly signs that a less full-throttle approach may be the future of pop. The inclusion of such highly renowned names as Mike Will Made It and Dr. Luke on the production credits means that Bangerz is hardly going to be found wanting when it comes to being on trend.
However, all the high-profile names in the world can’t disguise the weakness of the songs on Bangerz. Cyrus’ recent singles and elevation to tabloid fodder may have secured her place in the upper echelons of pop stardom, but you’d hope that, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, having a decent song or two in your repertoire should count for something.