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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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