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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

21st Century Rock Queen: Miley Ray Cyrus

From the time Elvis exploded the musical universe and shook everyone up; Jerry Lee's piano burst into balls of fire; Mick had us all under his thumb; Janis took a piece of our hearts; Cherie bombed us; and Ann went all crazy on us, the very best rock ‘n roll has always been in-your-face, bold, evocative, guttural––embroiling our animal spirits in a way that no other modern musical form can. It is basic, primeval, carnal, sensual, blood boiling, and rhythmic, usually with a driving back beat that compels us to get up and move. One can find melodious, smooth, structured, soothing music elsewhere viz. on Broadway, in church, at a piano bar, at the opera, in the dentist's chair, or in elevators.  Rock doesn’t calm.  It doesn’t simply charm. It doesn’t necessarily sooth. It excites. It enlivens. It motivates. It takes one to another plane. And as often as not, it is overtly sexual. There’s a place for that other stuff, to be sure; but none of it is capable of doing what rock can do. And rock can also use those smoother, melodious forms quite effectively as punctuation marks. Indeed, the best rockers do exactly that. Take early Elvis, who had one of the most mellifluous voices ever ... he could be very silken and smooth … but he also could rock down lonely street like no other singer could before or since. Rock always riffs into something more primal: it gets our hips moving, hormones flowing, spines tingling, feet tapping, and our hearts pounding. It makes pictures in our minds; it brings engrams of the mind imprinted long ago to the forefront of our consciousness; it grabs onto us; and, if we let it, it can both elicit and communicate emotions in a way no other musical style does. Rock is dangerously wonderful. 

Today we see comparatively little of this in popular music's structured, formulaic, often over-produced, uninspired, and highly-stylized forms. But there is one person who encapsulates all that is best about pop-rock. She defines it. The best of our time is a pint-sized, pixie named Miley Ray Cyrus. What? Hannah Montana née Destiny Hope Cyrus dba Miley Cyrus––the Disney apostate and erstwhile whirling, twerking Dervish of the VMAs a couple of years ago––that Miley Cyrus?  Yes, that one---one in the same. But twerking Miley is sooo passé. She’s been on to new things these last couple of years. It got your attention though; it changed the game. It wasn’t just elaborate stagecraft or computerized pyrotechnics, all fun to watch, to be sure--but now commonplace and expected. Miley woke you up. She startled you. She shocked you. Like the best rockers before. And like Elvis decades ago, it brought out all the prissy Puritans and up-tight moral scolds in full force. Now, before you get your panties in a wad, and before boomers start invoking the old gods: John, Paul, Ringo, and George, hear me out.

It is true that Miley does pure pop. Dabbles in rap. And, of course, country. She’s got that authentic Nashville twang, one she comes by honestly. Her musical roots in country are not dissimilar to pop sensation Taylor Swift’s, her near contemporary. Miley is also a damn good balladeer with a surprisingly wide, 4-octave vocal range, which is the same octave range as the melisma queen, Christina Aguilera. Technically speaking, she's  (D2) E2 - G#5 - E6 (C7) ... which very few singers can match. For more comparisons, powerhouses Celine Dion and Adele both have a 3-octave range, and pop diva Mariah Carey has a 5-octave range. In contrast to many singers in today's popular music scene, Miley's notes are definite, precise, and without unnecessary embellishment to cover up a lack of precision or fill space that need not be filled. She doesn’t warble around a note to excess or bore us with gratuitous runs, as has become annoyingly customary in pop. Her natural state is as a mezzo-soprano.  But she can comfortably hit the high notes when she wants to, and she can go to lower registers much more comfortably, and with greater resonance, than most females. 

And it is equally true that Miley is just as punk as all get out, a rocker redolent of other great female artists such as Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, and Ann Wilson. She is capable of belting out any rock anthem there is ... and she can add many herbs and spices of vocal articulation along with the visuals of her supple and expressive body language highlighted by her vividly expressive countenance (she seems incapable of hiding her feelings) to enhance the emotional impact, be it uplifting, sensual, angry, or sad ... and unlike many, she can do it all without props if she so desires. Her unencumbered visage, hands, posture, and movements are able to say it all in a way that no stage artifice possibly could. Unlike many of today's pop artists, Miley does not need distractions to capture attention. Watch some of her Happy Hippie yard performances to illustrate. And, when on stage, like the best rockers, no, like the best artists, she also doesn’t give a fuck what people think … it’s her art and she is going to do it her way. And that is what the most innovative rockers do.

It was upsetting to many who saw her as the adorable, clean-cut Hannah to observe her transformation from a Disneyfied chrysalis into a sexual, self-confident, woman-in-control--a punch-you-in-the-face rocker who would strut, prance, gyrate, grind, and stick her tongue out--not altogether unlike the bad-boy Mick Jagger did decades ago, who also, like Miley today, set many a parent on edge. Some still haven’t gotten over her metamorphosis, calling her disgraceful, slutty, or worse. The fact remains, though, she has done nothing more risque than Madonna did on stage for a much longer period of time starting thirty plus years ago; it’s just that no one ever thought of Madonna as being like Hannah Montana.  But unlike Madonna, off stage Miley is in reality much more of a quiet homebody, happiest being with her pets and taking playful pictures for her fans, sans makeup and costumes. Oh yeah, she has partied and experimented, but not unlike many kids in their late teens and early twenties, and she has been much tamer than her critics would have it. Indeed, much tamer than some of her more contemporaries with more vanilla stage personalities. She was a typical kid and young adult, for Heaven's sake ... or at least with a typical young person's desires---desires undoubtedly constrained by what Disney expected for most of her teen years that she was finally able to unleash ... and typical except for being very rich, talented, and with a lot of access. But she was never out of control contra some other notable young pop idols.  

Also like Madonna, and Madonna's heir, Lady Gaga, Miley is attracted to holistic performance art, one involving her voice, her body, costuming, and props of her own unique design and style … and often enough, with trappings intended to provoke, evoke, titillate, and reflect whatever mood she happens to be in that day. However, as I said earlier, Miley needs nothing but her own voice and body to convey emotion. Don't get me wrong, she likes props, indeed, to excess in my view, but only because I am highly focussed on her voice and person; however, these affectations are as much as anything a product of her youth, her playfulness, and her admitted penchant for shocking people, and they are altogether supplementary. It would seem if her recent release, Malibu, is any indication, that she is returning to a more natural look with fewer props. I don't think there's a performer today who can visually transmit feeling as impactfully and artfully as she can with just her body and voice, and without additional staging. She is able to dominate a stage with her considerable charisma … and she can rattle your emotional cage with intention and purpose such that you feel exactly what she wants you to feel, which is what she is feeling, for she is to a very large extent like a prism for emotional energy, one that refracts her emotions into constituent parts that are able to penetrate her audience. You see it visually, for she is nothing if not physically expressive; but you also hear it come from deep within her, and you feel it inside you, whether it is sadness, anger, happiness, loving, or just wanting to get down and party. Her voice rises up from her chest in her 106-pound (soaking-wet) tiny frame as if it were coming from a deep cavern.  She uses her head voice rarely, but when she does it is pure, effortless, and she can go there with either soft tenderness or with piercing power. I think the real key to Miley's musical brilliance is that she is an empath, rather like a Geiger counter of emotion.  She feels everything and she communicates what she feels, no exudes it for all to see--what she feels naturally. This is why her performances are seldom identical. She cannot structure what she feels in a formulaic way that, say, Taylor Swift or Beyonce can.

Miley is the daughter of country star Billy Ray Cyrus. She was born in Tennessee in 1992. She’s been around for so long it’s easy to forget that she is only 24. Miley was wont to entertain from a very young age, seeking attention and center stage, and she had her first professional break in bit roles on her father’s television show, Doc. But what carried her further was no one other than herself and her own talent. While there is a clear advantage in terms of gaining initial access, no parental advantage makes one a superstar. She did that all by herself. Very simply, the girl could sing, and her smile and personality could light up a room. She had the vocal chops and the charisma that came across on both screen and stage. Indeed, her very name, Miley, is derived from the appellation and nickname “Smiley Miley,” indicative of the fact she was always happy and smiling as a child; her name was eventually formally changed from her birth name, Destiny Hope, to Miley Ray.  

By 13 she was a Disney television star where she played a wholesome teen … Miley Stewart, a regular teen girl by day, and by night––in disguise––a veritable junior rock goddess and teen idol, Hannah Montana. She quickly became Disney’s biggest star--a multi-platinum album artist, a movie star, and one of the biggest concert draws in the history of the tween-teen market. By the time she was 16 she was famous the world over as a real-life teen idol. Under the careful guidance of her parents … despite incredible wealth at a young age (she’s worth several hundred million dollars today), the pressure of being constantly watched and judged, she remained surprisingly centered. 

Miley doesn’t have a backstory of financial privation, a dysfunctional family, or the customary (often invented) Sturm und Drang to inform stereotypical rocker angst. Her family was well-to-do, loving, and close knit … they still are. She apparently was even part of the so-called Purity Ring, chastity movement––and by comparison to many in her celebrity peer group, even her age group more generally, she’s has had relatively few romantic entanglements, notwithstanding a reputation to the contrary, much of which has been manufactured by the tabloid press. The slut-shaming crowd, always at the ready to tear down women who dare to use suggestive or overt sexuality in their art, helped to promote the idea that her stage persona represented the way she always behaved off stage. No doubt, in part this resulted from a calculated effort by Miley to shed her goody-two-shoes image; but it does also represent what she felt at the time, what a great many young adults feel at that stage in their lives, in fact, and she is nothing if not pathologically authentic about herself ... whether about her love life, sex life, likes, dislikes, worries, laments, and her pains. She bares her soul for all to see on stage and hear in song, and on stage she is completely vulnerable. What you see is what you get with Miley. And what you see tomorrow may be entirely different than what you saw today or yesterday. Her art reflects her feelings at the moment. To observe her in concert (I've only seen those recorded and available on YouTube or television) is to see her performances always vary with her moods. 

Perhaps the biggest child star since Shirley Temple, it’s hard to express your adult artistry when everyone expects you to be a perpetually virginal, sweet, and precocious fifteen-year old.  She has effectively shed that image, but in truth, she is closer to being the good girl she grew up being, because she actually is a good girl (well, she likes marijuana and she says fuck a lot ... but so what, that's tame), and she is in many ways the opposite of an unbridled party girl that those who don't follow her think she is. She is kind, selfless, gentle, sensitive, and full of grace. She is always in control even when she seems out of control. She knows precisely what she is doing, and by all accounts from those who know her best, she is in complete charge of both her art and her life.

By her late teens, Miley wanted to break away from the Disney mold … and it was time for a full-grown, normal woman to emerge and to release the pent-up musical energy she held inside while dutifully purveying very respectable bubble-gum pop. Her first truly adult hit came with her oft covered pop-country anthem, "The Climb," which won MTV's best song from the  2009 movie, Hannah Montana: The Movie, and also the Teen Choice award for best single. This was soon followed by "Party in the USA,"  the infectious song from her album, Time of Our Lives, along with the award winning lovesong, "When I Look at You." These efforts resulted in Miley becoming iHeart Radio's International Artist of the Year in 2009. Her evolution as a serious rocker really began with her album Can’t Be Tamed in 2010, with the eponymous hit song and the sultry, “Who Owns My Heart.”  This is where we start to see some cracks in the good-girl shell. But these were still in between her earlier pop self and her rock self. The latter came full force with her next album, Bangerz, released in 2013, when like Venus emerging fully-formed from the head of Zeus, a rock goddess came forth with songs such as “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” (director's cut) … the former an in-your-face, party hardy, I don’t give a damn, paean to having youthful fun, and the latter an angst-ridden anthem of love and heartbreak, alternating between emotional capitulation to fulsome outrage, and a song that gives one more than an inkling of her vocal prowess. Bangarz had some mediocre tracks ... but so did Sgt. Pepper's and Exile on Main Street. Her "FU" song, for example, seems gratuitously in-your-face and without much point, a mere throwaway. The album was a hit, and “Wrecking Ball" (click for record-breaking, explicit version) deservedly charted at number one in the United States. 

Several songs in Bangarz were accompanied by visually stunning, and provocative videos with record-breaking views, and “Wrecking Ball” won MTV’s “Video of the Year” in 2014. Perhaps more than any other video in recent memory … and aside from the raw sexuality … in “Wrecking Ball” she is able to convey emotion in an authentic, evocative way that few singers can match, and one senses, or more accurately, one really knows that she is feeling the emotion she’s describing, that it’s not just an act, and her facial expressions and real tears, even a runny nose, add to and even say more than words alone could possibly convey. One doesn’t have to see it to feel it, but seeing it enhances the listening experience due to a powerful and charismatic presence that she visually conveys.

Miley received some unfair and wholly hypocritical criticism for borrowing from hip-hop culture, as though hip-hop stood alone without exogenous influences, and as though it was only to be cloistered in a gilded cage in which only a few were allowed to enter.  She was criticized for using black iconography and symbols, and for capitalizing on them to assist her commercial endeavors, a laughable criticism coming from those who do exactly the same thing day-in and day-out, selling it well beyond the African American community ... and who borrow freely from other forms. It is as silly as saying early jazz artists in New Orleans "stole" from ragtime, hillbilly music, and John Phillip Sousa and other musical forms only for crass utilitarian purposes and without due acknowledgement. Or that when they changed they thereby disrespected what they left. No, they incorporated others' art into their own, for that's what artists do. And they are not beholden to any particular form, they are entitled to change, as most great artists do over time.  I have written more about this issue here: Critics

Miley’s next venture was Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, a quasi-psychedelic collaboration with the Flaming Lips featuring some pieces with subtle overtones of both country and punk. It received mixed reviews, as is the case with most worthwhile stuff, because it won’t satisfy the watered-down, pedestrian tastes of those accustomed to cute, smooth, or flouncy-bouncy, vanilla pop. Miley does things her way, and to top it off, she made the album available to her fans for free! This is an internationally famous artist that could easily have made millions from it. That's the thing about Miley: she is true to herself and, first and foremost, to her art., and she marches to the beat of her own drum, critics be damned. It makes her nearly unique in the superstar arena. She actually does things for free.  To suggest she is a crass utilitarian or solely commercially oriented is simply a prima facie falsehood. Some of her most vocal critics cannot make that same claim. 

Petz is an avant-garde, highly experimental, autobiographically authentic, at times salacious, and in places, brilliantly conceived--and mark my words, it in due course will be seen as important and transformational.  The best pieces were written solely by Cyrus; but she had collaborators on some, and the hand of Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips is a significance presence. In a word, Petz should be considered a remarkable work from any artist, but perhaps particularly remarkable given that it came from a 22-year old. No one but Miley Cyrus could write and sing a heartfelt tearjerker about her pet blowfish, the late Pablow (along with some other tributes, thus the title). Laugh if you will; but then listen to it, for it is a wonderful piece. Then there's the vulnerable Miley of "I Get So Scared," which portrays the mixed-up honesty of a young woman trying forget a past love while playing the field. Or how about the plaintive "Slab of Butter" (get past the introductory stoner talk); the melancholy "Cyrus Skies"; the haunting "Karen Don't Be Sad";  the deep and provocative  "1 Sun"; or the lyrically light "Space Boots" --- nothing in Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic repertoire was better than these, and most of it was not nearly as good.  Petz is in parts a work of considerable genius. 

Petz also has some very explicit and personal tracks about sex; offputting to some, no doubt--but that's Miley Cyrus, or at least she's the one willing to tell it in song, for it is not at all unexpected or uncommon for a young person to have many of the same feelings and anxieties that she evinces and manages to express so beautifully, and also often bluntly and unvarnished, which will undoubtedly make some listeners uncomfortable with the unfettered exposure to her inner emotions and desires. To be sure, there are a few throwaways (it's a double album, there are 23 tracks--and again, it was released at no initial cost to her fans), but it is a radical, extraordinary, and welcome departure from over-produced, derivative pop. 

While all this is going on, Miley has been involved in a great many charitable endeavors. At the grand old age of 24, she is one of the most generous celebrities in the world. She has contributed a great deal of money, time, and energy to causes ranging from the City of Hope to helping homeless and at risk youth. She has been very involved in supporting the rights of LGBTQ persons. People who have worked for her and who know her personally attest to the fact that she is a remarkably kind and compassionate person. This sits in juxtaposition to her critics, the pious moralists who find tight pants, exposed skin, and some youthful, hormonal stage antics by a girl in her early twenties to be so reprehensible, but who in their suffocating sanctimony probably do comparatively little, if anything at all, to ease the privation of the less fortunate. Since her Hannah Montana days, she has used her celebrity to great effect in order to ease the suffering of others in different ways. Not just with money, mind you, but with her feet. Often, for example, she would … and still does … visit sick kids in hospitals to their delight, and she visits and encourages homeless and outcast kids. Recently she formed her charitable foundation, Happy Hippie, which supports various worthwhile causes primarily centered on youth.

One of the things that illustrates her integrity is her sense of loyalty--one that differentiates her from many in her industry--for example, the fact that she has kept the same musicians as her principal band since she was a young teen. That is highly unusual in an industry that manifests comparatively little fealty, and where there is considerable turnover in the musical support staff of a star of her stature. She doesn’t simply cast people aside, and she takes care of the people who depend upon her and upon whom she depends (see interview with her musical director and drummer since age 12, Stacy Jones). And she shows absolutely no jealousy or pettiness towards the successes of others in her industry, including her own musical family. Indeed, she goes out of her way to help others get ahead, and not least of all her little sister, Noah, whose recent entry into the musical scene is something Miley lauds and promotes at every turn.

Now let’s get one thing straight: Miley Cyrus has vocal abilities which greatly exceed the capacities of the average pop or rock star. She uses her natural instrument to suit the music and the mood … she can growl, yell, croon, use falsetto, be smokey, go high or low, be smooth or sweet, devilish or coquettish, plaintive or assertive. When she rocks out, she uses her rock voice, which is incredibly powerful and capable of shaking the roof.  Her natural position is mezzo-soprano, but she is comfortable just about anywhere in the tolerable listening range. But unlike many of her contemporaries, she is in no need of auto-tune (click for examples) or high-tech help, notwithstanding the fact she does like to experiment with techno-electronica. Anyone who doubts her basic rocker pipes should listen to her hair-raising cover of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” with Adam Levine, Alicia Keys, and Blake Shelton as part of the television talent show, The Voice, where she is one of the musical judges. Or if you have any doubt about her ability to do a powerful ballad that can stand-up to anything Adele or Celine can do (actually, for my own tastes, she is better, and her vocal range is certainly larger), check out the song “Hands of Love” written by Linda Perry for the movie, Freeheld. Or listen to her Happy Hippie Backyard Sessions (available on You Tube), where she illustrates her remarkably smooth and powerful lower range in a duet with soprano Arianna Grande, covering Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over;” or her cover of the emotional Dido classic, “No Freedom”, where it is  visually evident that she is enveloped and transformed by the sentiment the song conveys;” and listen to the incomparable justice she gives to her godmother Dolly Parton’s plaintive masterpiece, “Jolene”.   My point is, don’t think even for a moment that she can’t carry a tune. She can hold her own with the very best divas of any era.

Miley has just recently released two songs, namely, "Malibu" and "Inspired," that are expected to be part of her forthcoming album. Both are a departure from Bangerz and Petz, and not quite like anything she's done before. And both have autobiographical significance. I have written more about Malibu here: Malibu 

Miley Ray Cyrus is only 24! Do keep that in mind. At that age, the Beatles and the Stones best work was yet to come. She has already done quite a bit, both in her music and, of great importance, as a compassionate and extraordinarily giving human being. And I hope and fully expect that there is much more to come from her. I can’t wait.

MB 2-4-17 (amended 7-12-17)