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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.

Music for the Ages and the Ageless: Younger Now (the Album): by Miley Ray Cyrus

Some of us are old enough to remember when Sgt. Pepper's came out in 1967 there were actually fans of the Fab Four who were disappointed. Some of the discomfited were among my friends. The album was different. Very different; radical in fact. Totally unexpected. No bubble gum yeah, yeah, yeah, I wanna hold your hand pop. No hormonal, plaintive teen-angst stuff begging for Help! It was adult! And full of meaning: Almost Dylanesque in that sense. The Beatles had hinted at maturity in Rubber Soul and Revolver, but nothing quite like this before. More than that, though, it was transformational, a little weird (then), but revolutionary, as the entire music world would realize soon enough. Nothing would ever be the same again in popular music. And today, some 50-years later, it is still widely considered to be the best album ever produced within rock and its several subspecies. More than any other in popular music, Sgt. Pepper's was the transformational work. And just to add perspective to contemporaneous music criticism: the venerable New York Times' music critic, along with many others, didn't approve, indeed, panned the album's orchestration, construction, and lyrics.  

Ushering in the new can be hard and even controversial at first. There really have not been transformational artists in pop-rock in the last decade. Most everything in recent years ... in pop-rock, metal, hard rock, and alternative--let's just call it all rock for simplicity, for that's each species principal tap root ... has been purely derivative rather than fresh, unique, and innovative. That doesn't make it bad music. It just means it is more of the same, a rehashing of similar styles, some better than others to be sure. If it is formulaic, saccharine, and heard in elevators, in which case, chances are, it's no longer rock n roll. And as for the singing, well, vocals are only one aspect of the art ... and there are plenty of good vocalists around, look in any church choir or glee club. But there is a difference between standard choirboy/girl singing, the kind of thing one would find at any good performing arts school or a large church, and making a listener want to get out his chair. Good rock gets you out of your chair.

While some wags seem to think music springs fully-formed from the head of Zeus like Athena, unfettered by exogenous influences, the fact is that all music "appropriates" from other cultures and what precedes it. There is a lot of nonsense afoot about "appropriation" right now, and mostly by those who know nothing of music history or who wish to preen as uber-aware on racial justice. Music is also inherently iterative and recursive, and its component parts are generally not new at all. The "newness" comes about from how it's put together,  how those recursive rules are utilized, such that when it's great, the whole of the song ends up being greater than the sum of the parts.  The blending and arrangement of its constituent elements is what makes it into something innovative ... whether adding country to hip hop, or EDM to psychedelia, or combining all of these things in a way that no one else has done.

Aside from instrumentation and technology, though, an essential aspect of great music is in the lyrics ... the words the artist chooses, the fit with the composition, and the emotion they evoke.  The means by which the lyrics are conveyed is of particular importance ... the vocalization, with all of the little hiccups, legato, phrasing, staccato, projection, intonations, head and chest voices, full voice, guttural sounds, and so forth, that accompany the vocals. And not least of all, it is the intention behind the piece. Of course, rock as a genre, by its very nature, is meant to upset, to cajole, to get people to move, think, rebel against the machine, want sex, want to dance, want to punch the sky, and made to feel. It is not granola or vanilla. It is hot sauce and chocolate with nuts. It works in contrasts with misery or delight, peaks and valleys. Not an even strain or even keel or steady as she goes. Rock rattles the soul.

Comes now Miley Ray Cyrus.  Permit me to encapsulate some history, which we know began with the adorable Disney character, little Hannah Montana: precocious and pretty, safe and virginal, watchable by youngins and parents alike. Talented, but entirely Disneyfied and derivative. And then, oops, there's Bangerz.  Or as Little Richard said back in rock's most formative years: "Good golly Miss Molly, sure like to ball.When you're rockin' and a rollin' can't hear your momma call!"  Imagine what the critics said about that! With Bangerz, parents' and their kids' wigs are flying topsy-turvy, each for entirely different reasons -- and Miley Cyrus emerges.  And many are of course outraged by this transformation. All of the sudden virginal Hannah is gone, and a young woman with the normal urges of a young woman (we fathers don't always like that) comes forth in music, and she even does it on a public stage and in video in a very explicit way!  Parents who thought Madonna was great 30 years before are suddenly sounding like pinched Puritans fresh off the Mayflower. Simultaneously, we learn then that this is an artist who can indeed both sing and rock out, and adopt and adapt various styles to her purpose, and we see even today people imitating what she perfected then, from Demi to Katy to Taylor. And on its heals, some side-show events soon occurred with Miley covering some greats in her backyard, and all without artifice or electronic aids, proving once and for all that this girl has an incredible vocal ability: a four-octave range with the ability to transition from contralto to mezzo soprano, smoothly,with resonance, and also from one genre to another with relative ease.

But then, what does she do? She goes and changes again! And again it irritates and alienates those who want more of the same. Some fans skip it as an aberration, even today some do, thinking it best forgotten. She gave the album away for free. Who does that?  Well, Miley Cyrus does. And here, in Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, we see she is not only a great performer, but also an artist .. and a musician that is to be reckoned with.  Petz is a psychedelic pot pouri modernized with electronica with hints of hip hop and country. The best writing on it is what she wrote herself. It also showed she is a formidable lyricist, and that she is to John Lennon's depth what Taylor Swift is to Paul McCartney's cleverness. Critics such as the most well-known Miley-hating screed, Pitchfork, saw it as a vanity project. But tell me, what kind of art isn't inherently vain? One wants others to see it or hear it ... it is an expression of oneself.  Art is inherently exhibitionist, and it is therefore "vain" by definition.  I will take Elton John's and John Mayer's assessment over Pitchfork's ... and both of them among other luminaries consider it a work of genius. 

Lo! yet another change: Younger Now. Which brings us to today and my main purpose, here. As one might expect, there's already been negative commentary from the peanut gallery--consisting of those stuck in the past and, predictably, don't want this "new" Miley. Heavens, it has country, they say. It's a craven appeal to the general public, to Nashville even, they say--God help us--or that her new sound (specifically in "Malibu") is creepily pure as one wag in the New Yorker said. USA Today, hardly the ex cathedra source of musical analysis for aficionados, but read by many, says it's at once sanitized and tame. Huh? And, oh yes, that she left the hood behind after exploiting it, as though every rapper were from Compton and didn't borrow English, iambic pentameter, and 4/4 beats ... among many other "cultural appropriations". We want Bangerzley back, they say. Here's the thing, though. Bangerzley never left! Nor did Hannah. Nor did Petzley. They are all there.  But with more.

This is the same Miley.  But it's a Miley who has changed and does not deny who or what she was, for who she was is still a part of what she is today. It is the becoming Miley. Much as we all should be: becoming--emergent--building on our past. It is Miley's acceptance of who she was, a past that does not wholly define her now. It is also an appreciation and re-absorption of a time (be it idealized or real) before the pressure of having to be something else, having to prove something to others, having to escape, to leap in the herky-jerky way from childhood to young adulthood ... a process we all go through one way or another ... and along with the comfort and happiness that eventually comes to many of us from not having to justify or excuse who one was then or who one is today, and becoming comfortable in one's own skin. USA Today and others missed that. But many more serious music critics are getting it right. Did we expect she should be the 15-year old virginal girl next door all her life? Or that forever she must appear as a 20-year old vixen in spandex and pasties? Or can we now just simply accept she is now a grown woman with an extraordinary gift for music, music that will reflect who she is at any given time, an authentic person, not simply a pop star, and that who she is will evolve over time, as is the case with all of us one might hope.

Younger Now, the album, is a musical masterpiece.  I don't use such an appellation lightly.  Consisting of 11 simple songs, Miley collaborated with the musical polymath, Oren Yoel, who was the producer and instrumentalist on the album. Miley performed all of the vocals on ten of the songs, including the back-up vocals, as she nearly always does. Miley wrote all the lyrics herself except for "Rainbowland," where she collaborated on both the writing and singing with her Godmother and country legend, Dolly Parton. Miley has given various explanations for the overarching theme of the album, including--as I said before-- getting in touch with one's inner child, the freedom before the onset of late-teen and early-adult angst. Another is that she sees some of it as speaking out against ageism and division, and with the hope of bringing people together. This is quite consistent with some remarks she's made on the political front ... seeking to unify through music, notwithstanding differences in opinions. She has a very definite liberal outlook on a host of issues, and has been outspoken; but she is wont to get along with those who don't share her view ... characteristic of her according to those who know her best, such as her musical manager Stacy Jones, for we are told she is pathologically authentic and preternaturally nice, wanting as much as anything to be liked by all and to like them in return.

Some of the album shows anger or emotional turmoil resulting from episodes in Miley's life ... and in at least in one case, in the life of a friend. Listening closely, one will find influences of multiple genres throughout the album, but I think it can best be described as more classical, early rock or rockabilly in terms of overall orientation. To be sure, there are big strains of country ... but also hints of hip hop, pop-rock, psychedelic, EDM, and alternative ... But it's Miley Cyrus most of all. That's important; and it's also the "beauty part," as old timers in New York are wont to say. It has her sometimes idiosyncratic idiom and grammar, her Tennessee twang, and, characteristically, it's also part autobiography. It also has the infectious punctuations ... the yeahs, and the ohs, and the guttural exclamations, breaks, and hiccups that characterize her vocals. One of the things that makes her music outstanding to me is that I can listen to it over long periods. There are other great vocalists and artists that I can listen to, but usually for only a few songs before I need something else. Miley, like only a handful of others, is someone I can listen to for hours at a time without a break. This album makes one want to drive and drive in the car, like the old days with my eight track ... not stopping til it's over, going around the block just one more time until it is and before pulling into the garage.

I'll make some brief observations about each piece, beginning with the two about which I've already written in separate articles, and at much greater length than I'll do here.

The eponymous song, "Younger Now," blends country, pop, rock of an older era, and electronica all into one, and it manages to lyrically convey the idea that, while Cyrus has changed, that she is not who she was, she still embraces her past, and it affirms what the Greek philosopher Heraclitus suggested long ago, that change is the only thing that is constant and the central principle of the universe. The obvious implication is that she will change again. Thus Cyrus writes, "no one stays the same," and she like Heraclitus proclaims the ultimate unity of opposites, "what goes up must come down." It also says something powerful about emerging from youth, which is, that once one stops working so hard to be and appear older, and quits grasping at the illusion of freedom from authority, in this case, the shackles of childhood and the rigors of television stardom at a young age, one feels a certain sense of relief, indeed, younger than those years of tumult and discovery most of us experience in mid-adolescence to the onset of adulthood, and therefore, "I feel so much younger now."  In other words, perhaps like she felt once before all the Sturm und Drang occurred, when she was a happy-go-lucky girl (as those who know her best say she was). The lyrics are simple, but beautiful, and packed with meaning. She sings smoothly, deliberately, and without showing off. There are no giant belts or glass-shattering notes. The volume is fairly fixed and the enunciation clear. Her notes are both precise and to the point without unnecessary embellishment.

"Malibu" is a love song, highly personal, as has been much of her music. It's upbeat with some definite foot-tapping, torso moving, and head bobbing back-beats. Lyrically simple, Miley’s voice is in wonderful form, and her accent is subtly present, as is her easy conversational idiom. This is not a power ballad, but it has a couple of soaring moments, notably a run with some progressively louder and higher ahhhs that caused some chills in my spine first time I heard it. Unlike so many in recent generations, Miley does not engage in gratuitous runs or melisma to cover for a lack of precision or pitch problems as has become all too common. She uses them sparingly, but when she does, she does so with ease. For much of the song, one can almost imagine her singing it lovingly to her lover as part of a conversation on a park bench. It's what the kids call a "bop".

"Rainbowland" is a joint effort with Miley's Godmother, Dolly Parton, one of the greatest songwriters and country artists of any era. Their writing styles and voices fit hand and glove, and it is bound to be a classic and loved by people of all musical persuasions.  It might be the song that has the greatest crossover appeal in the world of country, in no small part because of the inimitable Dolly .. although there are others that could well cross that line too. Miley comes by country honestly, for Dolly and her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, after all, are country royalty .. and she's sat on the knee of many a country legend since she was born. And it is simply undeniable that a great deal of Miley's work from the very beginning has had a distinctive country aspect in her presentation. In a recent interview with the Recording Academy, she said that she and Dolly wrote the song, "because we wanted to write a song that could really make a difference — that could speak to the current situation of not only our country but the world. It says 'We are Rainbows/Me and you/Every color/Every hue,' and it's about embracing everyone that is different."  Along with "Inspired," it is a song with a message, a plea, really, but not heavy handed and both sweet and persuasive.

"Week Without You" is a breakup song of sorts. Internet wags have already speculated that it has to do with Miley's breakup in 2013. Perhaps. I'll wait for Miley to tell us that. Maybe it's just the recapture of some of the things she recollects that she was feeling then, and with some poetic license that includes what one imagines they might have felt in circumstances that didn't occur, which, of course, is what songwriters do.  As method actors know, the same emotion can in fact underlie different events or thoughts or lyrics. More accurately, I think it's a hypothetical break-up, but within the context of how she might feel or might have felt. We all know she knows the emotion that accompanies a breakup; she can evince that emotion without being specific about the details of what really happened.  On the one hand she sings, "I know that I gave you my heart. But you stomped it to the ground, And that's what got me wondering what it's like, To not have you around."  As though she's only wondering, not acting on it. Then she says, "don't want to wonder what it's like ... To not have you around ...You know I'd miss you, baby." Which is why I say it's hypothetical, not historical. The song is sung at once matter-of-factly and plaintively. No vocal pyrotechnics, mostly staccato, but with a toe-tapping back-beat, with a smooth intro with piano and guitar, and with a very fifties kind of rock sound as one finds in other pieces in this album. It is lyrically and rhythmically tight, and Miley is using her very solid rock voice, which, in my opinion, is her best voice, one that only a handful of women singers can equal, and none of the current generation can surpass. This is really a perfect song.

"Miss You So Much" is one of the finest love songs ever written. By a 24-year old, no less. So accuse me of hyperbole. But I am right. It is also as country as can be, even more than "Rainbowland," and with just the right amount of pop elements to keep her traditional pop-rocker fans satisfied. And the lyrics are both tight and beautiful. It apparently is about a friend's loss of a lover who overdosed. It is a very moving piece, and one with which most people can probably identify. "They say love can drive you crazy, My dear, Wanna trap you in a locket. Or in a pocket. So I can keep you near. No I'd never hurt you, If you fall I'd pick you up and drink your tears. But how can I miss you so much, When you're right here." One might imagine someone at a gravesite. Or holding a picture. And who in the early stage of a romance with the love of your life has not felt similarly? ... that even when the one you love is by your side you cannot get enough, and your need for that person is insatiable. It leaves to the imagination what's going through Miley's or her protagonist's mind ... and that is what good songwriting should do.  Oren's steel guitar work is a perfect touch to this wonderful piece. 

"I Would Die For You" is part confessional and part commitment. It's a beautiful testimony to love, at once plaintive and at times forelorn. "You are everything to me, And I would die for you ... There have been times I was up all night, Crying in the dark so I sleep with the light on. I've heard I've got words like a knife that I don't always choose just so wisely. But I see trees in the colored leaves when I think about all we could be." Oren Yoel's backing guitar is just right. Miley gives a few hints of her upper range ... which is very large .. but there is nothing show-offy.  The background chorus (by Miley) is haunting.

"Thinkin" is a lover's complaint. It's about absence and longing .. "you ain't been callin me enough (nough nough nough)  now I'm longing for your touch (touch touch touch)."  It's about being pissed off, but wanting someone, nonetheless: "I don't know where you always go ... we ain't got nothing if we ain't got no trust." It is the kind of song you can expect a lot of young people are going to be lip synching very soon. I think it applies to both sexes of all sexual orientations at one time or another. "I been thinking way too much (much, much, much) ... you won't pick up the phone (phone phone phone)." I mean, who hasn't felt that at one time or another in a romantic thrall? This song has a very definite hip hop punch in the chorus ... "All I do is think about you" with countryesque refrains.  It's a great mixture of sounds.

"Bad Mood" is similar to "Thinkin" in the sense there's some anger, but there's confidence in it, and saying to her lover just exactly what the case is going to be.  "And I wonder what you would do, yeah, if you couldn't rely on me ... I always wake up in a bad mood ... You, know, it's gone on way too long, and you know it's wrong ... and when it gets rough I get tough ... I've had enough."  You can visualize Miley punching the sky, her eyes on fire, and poking someone in the chest as she lays down the law.  Oren's percussive work is splendid and makes it a fine head-bobbing piece. Kids are gonna be humming along on this one. It's driving music. 

And if you're looking for something with some classic rock guitaring by Oren, very reminiscent of 60s bands like the Kinks, and with even more pointed anger, from Miley, then"Love Someone" is your song.  Here Miley goes full Taylor Swift with some bluesy-to-rock vocals. "Ever since the day that I met you, I knew you weren't the one. But nothing ever stops me from forgetting packing all my shit and moving on ... to make someone stay you gotta love someone, You gotta love someone (Hey!)." This song is going sure to arouse some feelings on the part of anyone who is aggrieved with a failed romance with a self-centered and, what would appears to be, an unromantic lover. It's pretty clear this is not about the person with whom she is engaged to be married, and who has been her principal love interest since her mid teens.  

Much has been said about Miley's sexuality, not least of all by herself. She came out as pansexual in 2015. I won't speculate on who this song is about, but hints are readily available on the public record. "She's Not Him" is a love song and a lament of sorts, a dolorous kind of apology to someone who loves her. There's some Dead Petz elements to this ... both with Miley's vocal background and Oren's instrumentals.  It is about loving someone other than the someone who loves you, and in this case, there's a woman with whom she cannot fall in love, and a man who she does love, and try as the other woman might, it's not going to happen for her, because she cannot ever be him. "No matter what you say, no matter what you do, I just can't fall in love with you, cuz you're not him."  It's a sweet song, even a mournful and apologetic one, for she knows it's hurtful to another, someone she doesn't want to hurt, but she has no choice. "You don't deserve all the bullshit I put you through ... Every time you walk through the door, I swear to God you're more beautiful than before, but you're not him." Feelings are incorrigible, after all, and they can't be willed away.

"Inspired" was released as a single after "Malibu" and before "Younger Now," and its proceeds were donated to Miley's charity, the Happy Hippie Foundation. It is a wonderful piece, one reminiscent of Lennon's "Imagine" in its simple beauty and profound meaning. It is not a rock piece or what the young people call a "bop." She was motivated to write this when she supported Hillary Clinton for the presidency in 2016, though it's allusion to contemporaneous politics is not immediately apparent. And just like "Imagine," which nearly fifty years later we hear being played today, "Inspired" has not been a chart burner; however, it will undoubtedly outlive many that ultimately will be consigned to the dustbin of forgettable songs.  Lennon: "You may say I'm a dreamer, But I'm not the only one. I hope some day you'll join us., And the world will be as one." Miley: "How can we escape all the fear and all the hate? Is anyone watching us down here? Death is life, it's not a curse. Reminds us of time and what it's worth. To make the most out of it while we're here."  Every time I hear this song I am moved. And something else: Lennon knew how to make number one hits as well as anyone if not better; but he began to write for the sake of art in his late twenties and early thirties, and to a point where he no longer cared about the charts. It's pretty obvious that young Miley Cyrus is already at that point, let the chips fall where they may, she is going to do what she wants. And very frankly, that is one of the things that separates the proverbial wheat from the chaff in great musical artistry. Genius doesn't require consensus.  We who are not geniuses eventually come around.

The overarching theme of the album is surely autobiographical ... and if it is not in completely accurate in its details, I suspect it depicts real emotions about real events, and it's intended to evince and evoke those feelings. It is mostly old fashioned countrified rock n roll (which, after all, is rooted in rhythm and blues, Gospel, and country), though filtered through the lens of some modern electronic wizardry, and with hints of hip hop and other genres throughout. It also puts the lie to the notion that she abandoned hip hop, by the way, which she neither said nor did, but was falsely accused of doing, or of wearing "black" like some sort of costume and then throwing it away. Nothing could be further from the truth. That she incorporated some hip hop iconography in her music is little different than African Americans adopting rock iconography, as Prince did routinely, to cite one of many examples, moving back and forth among genres.  She abandoned misogyny and objectification and, as a husband, brother, son, and the father of a girl, I am grateful for that.  While I have my favorites, and some pieces are better than others, it is as good as an album can be. Pertinent, authentic, and often enough, simply riveting.

Here's the thing, folks. Miley Ray Cyrus is a formidable artist, one for this era and for eras to come.  Elvis is one of her musical heroes, and one can feel his influence throughout in the way she attacks the vocals and the visuals on video and stage.  I venture to say she is a natural heir to Elvis in presentation, perhaps more than any other artist in recent memory, and maybe ever. No male has pulled it off as well ... The King's chemistry is hard to describe, but there's a lot of it in this small package.  One of my friends referred to her as the musical lovechild of Elvis and Madonna. That seems quite apt to me. Lyrically, however, she has more in common with Lennon and Dylan. She has Elvis-like intonations and the charisma and revolutionary spirit of both Elvis and Madonna, who, I might add, were both castigated for a variety of reasons in their day, too, for not being good musically to being merely prurient. Those sages are dead and forgotten. Elvis and Madonna's places in history are secure.  I keep repeating this, but Miley Cyrus is only 24!  It is easy to forget how young she is given that she's been a public figure for a decade. But she came into her own just a few years ago. Lennon and McCartney were several years older when Sgt. Pepper's was released, and Madonna had yet to put out her first album at Miley's age.  Mark my words, this work will be imitated in short order. Much as Shania put some pop-rock in country, Miley is putting country back into pop-rock, much as it was some seven decades ago. There can be little doubt that she will be much more than a footnote when the history of this era's music is written. She's already a shelf of books unto herself, and I suspect she's only scratched the surface.

Michael Berumen 9-28-2017