The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: Making Sense Of Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz

Let us begin by appreciating — if not in the “Yay!” sense, at least the “Wow!” sense — that the Disney Channel cash cow behind “Party In The U.S.A.” closed out the MTV Video Music Awards by dropping F-bombs and pointedly proclaiming her love for marijuana, clad in a meme-costume ripped from the pages of an imaginary The Fifth Element tribute Tumblr, surrounded by an army of twerking drag queens, before surprise-releasing the 23-track double-LP she made with the Flaming Lips. These days we take it for granted that Miley Cyrus is a freak, but two and a half years ago, when Migos released “Hannah Montana,” Miley the NSFW pixie-cut party monster was just emerging as a novel new possibility. Of all possible life trajectories, joining Wayne Coyne’s merry band of politically incorrect starchildren (and bridging that weird world with Mike Will Made It’s world-conquering Atlanta street rap empire) feels truly out there, even considering our society’s storied history of fucked-up former child star behavior. Kudos, Ms. Cyrus; your repressed fantasies have surpassed all of our expectations.

Okay, now that we’ve celebrated the transformation that gave us Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, can we celebrate the album itself? Is anything about this impenetrable mess worthy of admiration? If nothing else, we must praise Dead Petz for this: It is the antidote for Taylor Swift fatigue. The unspoken Taylor/Miley divide that has been brewing ever since Swift went pop and Cyrus went wild reaches its apotheosis here. Taylor vs. Miley is our cultural avatar for poised perfection vs. spontaneous imperfection, polite society vs. fuck being polite, annexing all pop culture into your kingdom vs. burrowing deeper into your inner circle, demure smiles vs. feral tongue wags, complete control vs. completely out of control, making a YouTube documentary about sending personalized Christmas gifts to your fans vs. Instagramming yourself performing fellatio on a corn cob. When Swift was feeling 22, it looked and sounded like this; Cyrus, on the other hand:

Watching Cyrus throwing a wrench in the big machine (ahem) will naturally elicit some degree of pleasure in anyone with even the faintest taste for disruption — in how many movies does the free-spirited Cyrus archetype triumph while the carefully manicured Swift character ends up covered in muck? For all her #problematic tendencies, there is something to be said for Cyrus continually leveraging her celebrity to give outsiders a spotlight, from covering Against Me! songs with Laura Jane Grace to bringing a homeless teen on stage with her at last year’s VMAs. But after her disastrously desperate, tone-deaf VMAs hosting stint this year, it’s unclear how much longer the mainstream will welcome Cyrus except as a circus poodle to ridicule for yuks. And the endurance test that is Dead Petz suggests she probably doesn’t want to be there anyway.

Cyrus has spoken about how her pals the Flaming Lips opened her eyes to quote-unquote real music and helped her escape the prison that is pop. Like any 22-year-old grappling with who she wants to be, she embraces cliches like fresh revelations, singing the praises of acid trips and free love with the fervor of a budding music critic who just discovered Pavement. So it follows that her album comprises a splatter of her various concepts of cool: a hefty dose of melancholy psychedelia from the Lips playbook (especially the truly gorgeous “Karen Don’t Be Sad”), the brain-fried lunacy of Coyne’s more outré side projects (e.g. “Pablow The Blowfish,” on which she cries about her dead blowfish), a surprising amount of Lana Del Rey’s noir romance, no shortage of nauseous lo-fi provocations a la guest star Ariel Pink, some diaristic post-Drake hip-hop (starring human cheese factory Big Sean in the role of Drake), plentiful odes to debauchery (“Fuckin Fucked Up,” “I’m So Drunk”) and X-rated bedroom bangerz (“Fweaky,” “Bang Me Box”), even a dash of PC Music’s processed pop parody (also “I’m So Drunk”).

The sum of these enthusiasms is both deeply fascinating and largely unlistenable. Yeah, Dead Petz is speckled with a handful of truly masterful tracks, and yeah, it’s remarkable that a pop star at the peak of her visibility would choose to spend most of her cultural currency on this. Hearing Mike Will Made It’s radio-ubiquitous “Ear Drummers!” drop on such zonked music is its own kind of cheap thrill. There’s even an argument that the album’s unwieldy length is one of its virtues, yet another middle finger to conventional wisdom and the easy accessibility of the top 40. But those ideas are a lot more fun in theory than they are in practice, when you find yourself drowning in the umpteenth repurposed Yoshimi outtake. Like her spirit animal Coyne, Cyrus finds herself desperately in need of an editor and maybe an intervention. Their pet project is designed to be a fantasia, but like real life, you must trudge through it one day at a time.

Still, God bless her, Cyrus seems to truly believe in this music. She has to know that a project like this would attract more gawkers than fans. She must be aware that because the Lips already made an album with a pop star — the unfortunately shelved Kesha collab even more unfortunately known as Lipsha — the shock value of a record like Dead Petz is significantly muted. She surely had people from RCA Records begging her to make another “We Can’t Stop” — and due to contractual obligations, she almost certainly will get back to that someday. Yet she made this bottomless lysergic slop trough because it was the album she wanted to make now, at this point in her life when she’s exploring the possibilities of who and what she can be.

Applaud her for sticking to her guns, but also feel free to roll your eyes repeatedly. This is an album that begins with the lyric “Yeah, I smoke pot!” and ends with Cyrus sitting doe-eyed at a piano asking, without an ounce of sarcasm, “What does it all mean?” (You might not realize this because it’s hard to imagine most listeners making it all the way to the finish line.) It may well open up new worlds of music for hordes of impressionable kids, but rather than a radical gesture, Dead Petz is its own kind of basic — just another way to be happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time.

CHART WATCH

A hearty oooh-ah-ah-ah-ah to nü-metal goons Disturbed, who landed their fifth #1 album with 98,000 equivalent units for Immortalized. Between that and Luke Bryan’s Kill The Lights staying strong at #2 with 67,000, it’s a big week for red state music. Dr. Dre’s Compton holds steady at #3 with 61,000, partially bolstered due to its physical release. Keeping that heartland theme alive, country singer Kip Moore enters at #4 with a 40,000 tally for Wild Ones, a new career peak for Moore. He still hasn’t crossed over to Luke Bryan territory where non-country fans like me could hum one of his hits or pick him out of a police lineup, though.

After Ed Sheeran’s irrepressible x at #5 with 32,000 comes the #6 debut of Rob Thomas’ The Great Unknown. I’m happy to report that in terms of making a mark on the pop cultural landscape, the Matchbox Twenty singer’s album title is accurate; outside of his fan base, has anybody been subjected to a single song from the thing? Taylor Swift’s 1989 remains at #7 with 30,000, and now that we’re in September, the prospect of that album spending a whole year without ever dipping out of the top 10 seems like something we can reasonably entertain. That’s wild.

The most intriguing top-10 album for Stereogum readers this week is almost certainly Ghost’s Meliora, which racked up 29,000 units to begin at #8. As Billboard notes, that’s almost halfway to the 66,000 lifetime sales of the cartoonishly ghoulish Swedish metal band’s last album, the #28-peaking Infestissumam. N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton continues to benefit from the biopic of the same name, logging 29,000 units to land at #9. The Now 55 comp is at #10 this week with 27,000. Notably absent from the top 10? Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, which sold only 15,000 copies for a #16 debut. Goes to show what the vociferous praise of every major media outlet will do for you…

Over on the Hot 100, the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” has righteously unseated OMI’s “Cheerleader” at #1 for a second time. With “The Hills” now up to #4 and Beauty Behind The Madness set for a massive #1 debut next week, Abel Tesfaye is looking like our momentary king of pop — lowercase “k,” though, because a Michael Jackson mimic does not a Michael Jackson make.

“Cheerleader” bumps down to #2, while Silento’s “Watch Me” stays at #3. After “The Hills” at #4 comes Major Lazer/DJ Snake/MØ’s “Lean On,” down a spot to #5. Selena Gomez and A$AP Rocky’s “Good For You” holds steady at #6, followed by Fetty Wap’s “679,” ascending to a new #7 peak. “Trap Queen” is at #9 this week, and between those two Fetty tracks is R. City’s Adam Levine collab “Locked Away” at #8. The song is co-produced by Dr. Luke and, per Billboard, lends a writing credit to Toni Tennille due to a melodic resemblance to Captain & Tennille’s “Do That to Me One More Time.” Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” is at #10.

TRACK CITY

OMI – “Hula Hoop”
OMI’s wildly unmemorable “Cheerleader” has been #1 most of the summer — one of those “Who is actually listening to this?” situations. “Hula Hoop” is its follow-up, and although it adheres to the same generic lite-reggae dance-pop formula, this one at least has a hook.

Tori Kelly – “Should’ve Been Us (Remix)” (Feat. Jeremih)
Kelly is what might happen if American Idol types ever arrived pre-loaded with songs worthy of their winsome personality. I’m a huge fan of hers, but her conservative take on pop doesn’t mesh with the sound of a cutting-edge lothario like Jeremih.

Avicii – Pure Grinding For A Better Day EP
These two new Avicii songs show Avicii moving even farther from EDM to a pure pop sound something like Play-era Moby. They’re the most listenable singles he’s ever put out, especially the eminently funky “Pure Grinding.”


Tiara Thomas – “Mary Jane”
Thomas has quietly been racking up a solid discography of bad-girl R&B, but now that she’s working with the likes of radio-whisperer Ryan Tedder, she might not be under the radar for long. Thankfully, she didn’t have to compromise her sound; “Mary Jane” is a total jam.

Jovanie – “Part 1: Whip!”
As 14-year-old pop-R&B singers go, Jovanie is remarkably poised and self-assured. It’s no masterpiece, but “Part 1: Whip!” does not feel like a novelty song either.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • No, Taylor Swift (probably) didn’t fart on screen at the VMAs… [TMZ]
  • …and she (definitely) didn’t snort cocaine backstage, either. [Gawker]
  • One more Swift link: Sir Ian McKellen declined an offer to become part of her squad because “I had something else to do that night,” and apparently she might have gotten him kicked out of his NYC apartment. [Jezebel]
  • The White House acknowledged Kanye West’s 2020 presidential bid. [U.S. News]
  • Ariana Grande has a new song called “Focus On Me” coming out next month. [Josep Vinaixa]
  • “Love Song For The Earth” is a new environmental benefit song out this Friday by musicians including Paul McCartney, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, Fergie, Sean Paul, Goo Goo Dolls’ Johnny Rzeznik, and many more. [Mother Nature Network]
  • Tom Hardy loves to record himself singing hit songs by the likes of 50 Cent on the karaoke app Dubsmash, and 50 approves. [Vulture]
  • Avril Lavigne announced her separation from Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger. [Instagram]
  • One Direction covered the theme from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. [YouTube]
  • 1D also set six new Guinness world records. [EW]
  • The ratings for this year’s VMAs were way down, though they aired on multiple networks this year. [THR]
  • Kesha will guest on Jane The Virgin. [Twitter]
  • “Honey I’m Good” dude Andy Grammer has joined Dancing With The Stars for season 21. [People]

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