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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.

Miley Cyrus and Malibu: Coming of Age in Art and Life

Miley Ray Cyrus’ legion of fans, most of whom grew up with her and her music beginning with her Hannah Montana days, were not disappointed with her new single, “Malibu,” the precursor to her forthcoming album. It may seem strange that a somewhat respectable boomer in his dotage--one who in 1964 was at the Hollywood Bowl Beatles' concert when he was 12; the Monterey Pop Festival at 15 in 1967 with a cavalcade of 60s rock greats; who was living as a runaway hippie in a Haight-Ashbury flophouse and hanging out at Golden Gate Park for several months, watching the Airplane and Dead perform for free in the park; and someone who as a young adult was in the Saturday Night Fever-Boogie Nights disco era --would be commenting on Miley Cyrus’ work at all, let alone being a fan of hers. However, I expect more of my vintage will become just that as a result of her new music. As anyone who knows me would surely tell you, I love my old stuff from the halcyon days of unbridled youth, but I’m not -- and I never have been -- stuck in the past, and I keep up with current trends in several musical genres. There is a lot of great music today, not always from the biggest hit-makers, I hasten to add. Keeping up with the kids must mean I'm perpetually childish. But the young nearly always determine musical trends, so, I'm okay with that. 

I came to Miley Cyrus in a circuitous way. Of course, I had heard of her as the television phenom, Hannah Montana, and of her popularity among kids some years ago. My daughter is only a few years older than Miley. But I never paid serious attention until I read an article about her a couple of years ago -- (in the midst of her notoriety as pop's bad girl ... all very exaggerated) -- about celebrity generosity, and in which she was featured as being among the top in bounteousness among entertainers (in both time and money), and at the very top among teen and young adult stars. It impressed me. It was then that I did a little research via YouTube and iTunes and took a retrospective look at her music. I’ve been a fan and followed her ever since. Indeed, I've studied her music and I have read a fair amount about her, including the several post-Hannah controversies. I have written at length, elsewhere, about her musical evolution and talent, and a bit on her biography (see here), as well as a rejoinder to some of her critics (see here), to which I’ll add a coda a bit later in this piece.

In a word, I think Cyrus is one of the great pop-rock entertainers and artists of the modern era. My principal purpose in this piece, however, is to comment more specifically on her new song, “Malibu,” which was just released earlier today, and to do so with the knowledge that she hopes this will be a new beginning for her musically, and for her, personally, as well. 

To encapsulate, "Malibu" is surely a love song, but something more than that. It’s a highly personal, as have been other songs in her repertoire. The song is upbeat and happy, not plaintive or wrought with angst, and with some definite foot-tapping, torso moving, head bobbing back-beats. It's excellent driving music. It is lyrically simple and beautiful. Miley’s voice is in perfect form, and her Tennessee accent is audible, subtly so, and at not full-throttle in a Grand Ole Opry way. This is not one of her power ballads, or one where she blows the roof of with pipes that should only belong to someone twice her size, and there’s no “sitting on a cornflake” stuff as in Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz  (much overlooked and containing some of her best written and my favorite pieces). It is nearly conversational in a kind of casual, sing-song, breezy sort of way, where she’s using her mid-to-upper middle range voice (she’s technically a mezzo soprano, though many characterize her as an alto). One can almost imagine her singing it to her lover as part of a conversation on a park bench. Her diction and tone are clear and distinct. There is a beautiful run, but no unnecessary warbling and trilling.

The verse in "Malibu" tells a story. I suppose we can’t know its meaning for sure, that is, unless she tells us. She's told us a few things, and it is clear that it is autobiographical in nature. But I think most of it is pretty clear. I am not going to give a complete musical exegesis, but just highlight some of the main parts of the song, including a bit of armchair interpretation. 

The piece begins with a thank you to her lover for bringing her to live by the ocean in Malibu, where she has found this new solace and a renewed sense of freedom. I view Malibu as something of a metaphor. While she was from Tennessee and without much coastal beach experience, I suspect it could be anywhere that brings her comfort. The ocean and coastal environs obviously do.

I never came to the beach or stood by the ocean
 I never sat by the shore under the sun with my feet in the sand
But you brought me here and I'm happy that you did
 'Cause now I'm as free as birds catching the wind
I always thought I would sink, so I never swam
 I never went boatin', don't get how they are floatin'
And sometimes I get so scared of what I can't understand

One can imagine a pop star of her fame -- what with obnoxious paparazzi having followed her since her early teens; people hunting private pictures constantly; with expectations by everyone to be one thing or the other in order to satisfy an image they choose, rather than the freedom to be the person she is; and the pressures of 12 years (she’s only 24!) of constant celebrity, work, and criticism -- that it would cause many, especially a child or near child in her late teens and early twenties, to wither emotionally. And yes, there's even the pressure of adulation, and not living up to the manufactured image -- the problem of inner self-doubt about being deserving of it, something that has driven more than one famous person to therapy or worse. There's an admission in these lyrics of being frightened about what I take to be feelings or things about herself that she didn’t fully understand, emotions and worries that required her to run away and distance herself rather than risking failure. This, I suspect, entails some acting out in both life and on stage … not at all unexpected of most young people, sans the stage. She did it in both places. But in real life, from everything I've read from people who know her personally, never to excess or out of control, despite the reputation fueled by her stage antics and a lot of sanctimonious and often hypocritical moralizing by others. 

My interpretation … I thought I’d sink, i.e., fail … I never fully committed because I didn’t understand … and that scared me. But now she’s happy, and it’s due partly to him insofar as he is the object of her love, and he might have helped point her in a direction ((i.e., Malibu), but more than anything, because she has found herself, whom she wants to be, and what she wants to do. She found this in Malibu. I surmise a little about her personal relationship and its ups-and-downs, but this is an acknowledgement of not only reconciliation, but change making the very possibility of a reconciliation to occur. Malibu is the overarching metaphor for security and comfort and knowing herself. Peace with herself, which, and this isn't entirely unusual for a youngster, came with some struggle. 

Then she gives the raison d'être for the song in the lyrics of the refrain. That through it all, notwithstanding the ups and downs of the past or even ones to come, it has come to this--and this is where and with whom she wants to be:

But here I am
 Next to you
The sky is more blue
In Malibu
 Next to you
 In Malibu
Next to you

Then she shows her pure delight at just being with her lover, and that it is much more than just the physical attraction that usually begins a relationship, especially among the hormonally propelled young, but the thing people do for the entirety of a good and long-term relationship, namely, talk to one another. And it makes clear she wants her current peace of mind and the relationship she now has to remain intact. The personal giveaway is that her lover, who in real life everyone knows is her fiance, the actor and surfing enthusiast, Liam Hemsworth, explains the ocean's current to her, something a surfer might understand, while she just smiles--and as anyone who has ever been in love knows, when your lover talks with enthusiasm about anything, whether or not it is something that would ordinarily interest you outside of that conversation, or even if you don’t understand it, you are simply delighted at the happiness he or she derives from telling you, for allowing you to share in their enthusiasm, because, quite simply, you are in love, and you can hang on every word ... not because of what is said, but because of whose saying it. Who in a romantic relationship has not given or received such a smile, as though what is being said by the one you love is the coolest thing on earth? She says: 

We watched the sun go down as we were walking
I'd spend the rest of my life just standing here talking
 You would explain the current, as I just smile
 Hoping I just stay the same and nothing will change
 And it'll be us, just for a while
Do we even exist?
That's when I make the wish
To swim away with the fish

That’s the key. She doesn’t want it to end, she is in bliss, and she wants it to continue. It’s not just sex or romance, it’s more complete, more complex, less fleeting  … it’s the yearning to be with someone you love forever, to swim away together, to be inextricably tied to one another, and for a moment of pure delight and bliss to last. One wonders, she says, could it even be real, do we exist, is it an imaginary thing, an illusion. If one reviews some of her music in the last three albums, particularly the last psychedelic experiment, one realizes she often speaks allegorically. A student of Miley's music can sometimes pick out the meaning because of knowing about her; but it is not always obvious even to those who follow her, and one must be left imagining, which is how it should be. 

The bottom line and conclusion of the piece is that is that she has found peace of mind in her love life, and greater happiness and security, overall, after some tumult--a sense that she can remain secure--and that having found this, it is a new beginning, a fresh start, leaving behind some things, by which I don't think she simply or only means an artistic style of this or that kind or antics on stage. I also think she means leaving things behind that were not good for her or for their relationship. And I think she means things that no longer seem relevant to her life. The last lines encapsulate the story: 

We are just like the waves that flow back and forth
 Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning and you’re there to save me
 And I wanna thank you with all my heart 
It’s a brand new start
A dream come true 
In Malibu

The song involves an admixture of musical styles that speak to all of the main genres of Miley’s background, including country, pop-rock, techno-electronica, psychedelic, and yes, hip hop. I’ve heard others, including her father and Miley herself, say it that harkens back to her roots. Indeed it does; however, it also uses an amalgam of all of the styles that she’s used  up through her Petz period that serve to move her art forward. One hears hints of all of it. No doubt the multifaceted background of her brilliant musical producer, Oren Yoel, helped in this fusion. He played all of the instruments in the piece, I believe. A writer, engineer, and multi-instrumentalist, Yoel worked on several of her Bangerz pieces, and he even co-wrote a couple of Dead Petz pieces. He’s worked with a very diverse group, including hip-hop artists such as Kanye West and pop artists like Justin Bieber. He moves comfortably in every arena of the popular music world. 

There is at once a breezy aspect to the song, and a progressive, 4/4 driving back beat  accompanied by a loud bass, and with a use of polyrhythms and syncopation that lends both rock and earlier African American, percussive jive overtones, possessing stronger movement accents on the off-beats. The traditional 4/4 beat this is found in modern rock, pop, and in hip-hop in one form or another. It is said by musical historians that the 2 4 emphasis in the back beat began in the Middle East with hand held percussion instruments such as the tambourine which produced the rhythmic mood and incentive to dance. Clapping (and this songs mimics it in places) might be its real origin. It traveled widely and was eventually incorporated to create jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, rock n roll, and hip-hop, along with some of the more driving and eclectic accents of percussion from the African tradition.

There are country string elements, too, almost steel guitar garnishes, and there's some subtle electronica evincing some acid rock. But the overriding feel is still pop, with just enough back beat to call it pop-rock. Some find the combo of pop and rock disturbing. Rock purists (like many jazz and hip-hop purists) often seek to define themselves in a way that excludes things, as though their music ought to be in a gilded cage.  It shouldn't, for rock, like hip-hop is and jazz was is just another form of popular music (as even Opera was), and in fact, many of the greatest rock artists did a considerable amount of what we might consider pure Britney Spears or Taylor Swift type pop, not least of all the most sainted rock gods of all: the Beatles.

One of the prettiest parts of the song is the rising bridge of Miley singing  “aaaahhhhh, aaaahhhhh” where she gives just a bitty taste of her range (it’s quite large, a four-octave range when she's on her game, much larger than most all of her peers), and, more than anything, it illustrates her vocal control in transitioning; however, it is not one of those annoying, show-offy runs popularized by a couple of 90s and early 00s divas, warbling and wobbling around every note to the point of annoyance. 

The entirety of the piece must put to rest the silliness and outrage by some that one has heard in the buildup to its release suggesting that Miley has abandoned hip-hop, and only now that she’s catapulted herself into super-stardom. This is wrong on several fronts. First, she was a superstar well before her several (not nearly as many as some seem to suppose) hip-hop songs in Bangerz. She could fill any stadium, and she was reputed to have some the largest ticket prices in the business on the aftermarket with her extraordinary popularity among her age cohort. Ask the parents who had to buy the tickets. Her stage and video antics that borrowed from hip-hop included much more: there was Madonna, Gaga, and acid-rock stuff going on, along with a good deal of subtle and not-so-subtle erotica that hardly belongs solely to hip hop. The more salacious aspects are nothing more than what kids see all the time on their ubiquitous devices, and nothing more outrageous than what Madonna and the Beastie Boys were doing decades before, both on stage and in real life. They also seem to forget that Miley left her Bangerz period almost immediately after her touring, then beginning her psychedelic and more introspective period, which was not seen as so controversial. This was also the time when she formed her charitable foundation. the Happy Hippie Foundation, for helping LGBTQ and underprivileged kids. While she had long contributed time and money to various causes, her foundation gave her a new focus and sense of purpose.

What really created the controversy was her having said in her colorful way (saying there'd be no more riding cocks and such) that she was leaving behind misogyny, its attendant objectification of women, and bigotry, all of which are clearly found in aspects of hip-hop (and other, more traditionally "white" forms, too), and that she's doing so out of a sense of responsibility to others, along with a change in her own outlook and personal life. This was twisted as being a complete put down of hip-hop. It never was. And to suggest otherwise is tantamount to saying all of hip-hop is defined by these things, which it is not (despite what the great jazz artist Wynton Marsalis has suggested when he branded hip hop as minstrel-show entertainment). Miley said she was leaving those distasteful and now irrelevant (to her) elements behind, not discounting all of hip-hop, parts of which she continues to be informed by and admire.

Second, what great artist doesn’t borrow, expand, modify, and evolve over time, whether the classical greats Mozart and Beethoven; jazz geniuses Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis; the pop-rock giants Lennon and McCartney; or the hip-hop/rap artistry of Ice Cube and Kanye West. No genre of music exists without outside influences; and every genre is subject to being adapted by others or morphing into something new, much as old-school rap morphed into modern hip-hop. Music never has and never will remain static, and no culture can be said to "own" it, just as no culture remains pure without influence, or sacrosanct without change or without informing other cultures who borrow from it.

What Cyrus said she abandoned was the objectification of women (where they are mere mindless automata intended to satisfy rather than persons and subjects, a difference many fail to comprehend) and the over-sexualization that attends it. What she wants to project in her music, at this point, is more happiness and love, she says, which is reflective of her life.  Anyone who has studied her music and her performances, and who knows anything about her personal interactions with others, knows she is at once a complete empath, and she is constitutionally unable to disguise her feelings at the time they occur. In other words, her musical style is patterned on her life of the moment, the way she feels then. That is called authenticity. Much praised, little practiced. With that said, the fact remains that she has maintained all of her influences in various degrees, all of the elements are in this one piece, and she has abandoned nothing musically insofar as I can tell. 

To suggest, as some have said, that she has betrayed a culture is simply preposterous. She is accused of capitalizing on hip-hop iconography of living in the hood and such, which of course is a phony accusation given the fact that the majority of hip-hop artists today are hardly off the streets of Compton or former gang bangers, themselves, notwithstanding their tatted bodies and urban talk. And any artist that picks up a horn, a microphone, a guitar, or uses an electronic device, beats on a drum, uses language, or utters a lyric in iambic pentameter has borrowed something from another culture. She has done service to music more generally, and that is a tribute to the styles that she has incorporated, not a betrayal.

There never was and still is not an unjust expropriation or exploitation: after all, this is the youngster who gives music away and forgoes millions in earnings for her fans (in addition to millions of her wealth and her time that she devotes to the unfortunate, much not seen by the cameras with appearances at hospitals, blood banks, and such--out of the limelight). No one has suffered from her actions, and many have benefited from them, including in the world of hip-hop with people she employed. Given some of the harsh comments she has endured, it is a testament to her strength of character and her fundamental kindness that she never stopped doing what she could to alleviate the pain of others.  What she has done musically is fuse the best of her experiences and left behind the worst--or things that no longer represent her more mature, adult self. A self that now includes another consideration: someone she loves and aims to please.

Her video is simple and beautiful. It is not overproduced; full of highly-choreographed dancing; it uses special effects sparingly; and it has a cast of one, well, two, counting her dog. Miley is seen being what I suspect represents what Miley might actually be like in life outside of the publicity and media mill having to answer questions about her sexuality, drug use, and such… girlish, sweet, tastefully coquettish, and a little shy (don’t let her previous exhibitionism fool you—boldness on stage is merely cover for many performers); but comfortable in her own skin with just being herself. There are no fancy hairstyles or elaborate costumes. She is blessed with great natural beauty, and that is certainly an advantage in disposing of distractions; indeed, I think she is more beautiful today than ever before. There are balloons, beaches, grassy knolls, and a waterfall.  While I won’t take anything away from several of her Bangerz videos, there can be little question that this is the style suits her best. The reason I say that is that Miley Cyrus is one of the very few artists who can get away with simplicity by virtue of her highly expressive countenance and communicative body language. She doesn’t just feel the music, the music feels her … and she is able to project her feelings through music in a way that few can without a lot of artifice or staging. 

I said I detect shyness in Miley that might come as a surprise others. Some of what she has done before, I suspect, is to counteract that. To illustrate, the whole sticking out the tongue business has become a set-piece and insignia, now something expected of her, but she once confessed it originated as a girl with the discomfort of being on display, of being unsure of herself, a certain awkwardness (hardly uncommon with a teenager), of being constantly photographed and not knowing what to do. I picked up a definite sense of insecurity and a feeling of social awkwardness in some tellingly autobiographical lyrics in Petz. Maybe I’m over-reading things.

I must add, this song was written in the car (she wasn't driving -- thankfully, she used an Uber driver) on the way to her gig as a coach on The Voice. If I spent ten years on it, I could not come up with such a pretty piece, let alone in jotting it down while commuting to work.

Do I think Miley has conducted herself perfectly. Of course not. Who has? She is a normal person, aside from her artistic gifts--a normal girl and young woman, except she grew up before everyone with a kind of pressure that most of us will never have to experience. She made some mistakes, of course, none of them serious. But she knows that, and her critics are intent on characterizing her by them. They were minor. The fact is, Miley Ray Cyrus, while not perfect, is about as decent a person as one will find. Her generosity towards others speaks for itself.   

Here’s my overall assessment. "Malibu" is a beautifully constructed love song: lyrically, vocally, and instrumentally. Visually, it is Miley at her very best: being herself, naturally, and without a lot of trappings (to see more of that style, see her Happy Hippie backyard performances and some of her more intimate concert work, or her live BBC radio sessions). I think this will be the piece that will cause older folk to notice Miley’s vocal chops. Miley is 24. She’s been around a while, so people sometimes lose sight of just how young she is. This is better work than many very famous artists were doing at that age, including several at the forefront of the music scene today.

To put it in language Boomers and rock music history buffs might understand well, she’s gone beyond the "I Want to Hold Your Hand" teenager stuff … though it was all clever, well sung, and age-appropriate. This, then, is her Revolver period, one where all of her experiences come together and her music turns completely adult. And as the Beatles had George Martin, she’s had some help along the way, too, among others and not least of all, her music manager and drummer, Stacy Jones; producers Mike Will, Dr. Luke, and Oren Yoel; and the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne. But Cyrus is the central artist and driving force, the prism that bends the light, the weaver of the musical threads, and without whose genius it could not be done. Her Sgt. Pepper and the White Album phase has yet to come, but I suspect it will be much sooner than later.  Miley Ray Cyrus is a force of nature, an entertainment genius, and no ordinary pop-rock singer destined to flame out anytime soon. Mark my words.

Link to my artistic analysis and bio of Miley.

Rejoinder to criticism of Miley. 

Miley's Happy Hippie Foundation

MB 5-11-17