The Week In Pop

Miley Cyrus Can’t Stop Getting In Her Own Way

Can you believe it’s been less than 10 years since Miley Cyrus released “Party In The U.S.A.”? The song, which reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became her bridge from the Disney Channel to a grownup mainstream audience, feels like it has existed for several lifetimes. It was in fact released in August of 2009, which, to be fair, was many Miley Cyrus life cycles ago.

In the almost-decade since, Cyrus has proven to be great at singing and even better at riling people up. At the peak of her popularity, those skills coincided: “Wrecking Ball,” her sole #1 hit, was a magnificent power ballad that sent her voice soaring, and she paired it with a video directed by Terry Richardson in which she licks a sledgehammer and swings around in the nude. That version of Cyrus may be the one that lingers in the public imagination, but her career has not been defined by showing skin so much as shedding it. While most major pop stars attempt to reinvent themselves with each new album cycle as a means of maintaining people’s interest, Cyrus has swerved so radically on multiple occasions that some listeners have inevitably gotten lost along the way.

Bangerz, the 2013 album that gave us “Wrecking Ball,” also yielded “We Can’t Stop” and the can’t-unsee image of Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke while waving a foam finger at the VMAs. Recorded with heavy involvement from Mike Will Made-It, the reigning trap producer at the time, Bangerz found her diving headfirst into drug-addled hip-hop, breaking from the squeaky clean Hannah Montana persona she made her name on to mark her instead as a tongue-wagging party girl. 2015’s Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz was another left turn, an anti-pop experimental scrapbook concocted with help from the Flaming Lips.

Then came 2017’s Younger Now, for which Cyrus attempted to rebrand herself as an Americana-infused soft-rock artist — its own kind of bizarro plot twist in the context of what came before. Although the album did eke out a top 10 single with “Malibu,” culturally speaking, it was a blip. Her recent Mark Ronson collab “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart,” a genuine smash in the UK, peaked at #43 here in America despite a talk-show blitz and a superficially woke big-budget video. She’s remained visible via constant awards show performances and other assorted media appearances — she reportedly stole the show at a recent Chris Cornell tribute — but like so many of her A-List pop-star peers, she ain’t making hits like she used to.

With last week’s She Is Coming, the first in a trio of EPs that will eventually add up to an album called She Is: Miley Cyrus, she swerves back toward trap-pop. The timing is curious for a number of reasons. For one thing, her father Billy Ray has been at #1 for two months by hopping on Lil Nas X’s rap-country hybrid “Old Town Road,” easily the biggest song of 2019. Miley herself was crossbreeding country and hip-hop on Bangerz six years ago, so if she’s going to move in a hip-hop direction again, why not jump back on that horse and ride ’til she can’t no more? It feels like a missed opportunity, but maybe to her it just seemed opportunistic.

Not that Cyrus has ever exhibited concern about seeming opportunistic. The most eyebrow-raising aspect of her decision to embrace hip-hop again is that she pointedly, controversially distanced herself from the genre during the Younger Now rollout. In her first interview promoting the album, Cyrus implied she had matured beyond rap and praised Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” by dismissing the rest of the genre: “I also love that new Kendrick song: ‘Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.’ I love that because it’s not ‘Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock.’ I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ — I am so not that.”

This rubbed many people the wrong way, especially since her previous dalliances with rap already had the air of (to put it kindly) cultural tourism. It was painfully awkward watching Cyrus try on black culture like a costume, profit off it richly, and then discard it with condescending judgment. For some, it was just plain painful, or outrageous, or laughable. Blood Orange even wrote an entire song apparently subtweeting Cyrus. And as with Justin Timberlake’s similar back-to-my-roots pivot with Man Of The Woods a few months later, neither the creative nor commercial returns were stellar.

So now we get Cyrus piling on hashtag-ready slang and overt sex and drugs talk over percolating synths and booming 808s. Along with a team of writers and producers led by Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt, who worked on four of six tracks, Cyrus has conjured a distinct vibe. She Is Coming presents brisk and dreamy minor-key pop songs grounded in trap but often venturing into other forms of digital club music. The hooks are abundant, the beats resplendent. In a vacuum, without the context that makes it feel so craven, there’s a lot to like about it. There’s also “Cattitude.”

“Cattitude” is an attempted empowerment anthem starring Cyrus and RuPaul. Its central conceit: “Turn up your gratitude, turn down your attitude/ I love my pussy, that means I got cattitude.” Over a thundering club beat, it also features Cyrus rapping about how you can call her queen, how she loves Nicki but listens to Cardi, how she’ll keep working from dawn to dusk so she can keep buying cars from Elon Musk. The sex talk is explicit and intense, particularly RuPaul contributions including “Bust my pussy nut while I’m fingering your butt” and “What I do with a dick, elect me president/ Put tears in his eyes when I milk a brother dry.” It plunges way past audacious into obnoxiousness, providing plenty of ammunition for those who delight in scoffing at Cyrus. I guess she’s softened her stance on lyrics about fellatio?

The rest of She Is Coming tones down those tryhard tendencies enough to let the highlights shine. The sweeping “Mother’s Daughter” and creeping “Unholy” make an appealing one-two punch, their sleek, hard-hitting production topped off by melodies that let Cyrus flaunt her powerhouse voice. “Don’t fuck with my freedom!” — a message that will appeal to a broad range of potential Miley Cyrus fans, from Planned Parenthood benefits to NRA conventions — is her rallying cry on “Mother’s Daughter,” a song that succeeds despite lyrics that feel like a series of workshopped slogans strung together. “Unholy” flirts more aggressively with self-parody (“Wake up in the middle of a breakdown/ Have sex on the table with the takeout”) before exposing her exhaustion with the scrutiny she always seems to be courting: “You hate me, you love me/ You just wanna touch me/ I’m only trying to get some peace/ So let me do me.”

Up next is “D.R.E.A.M.,” which flips Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” into a bleary party ballad complete with a Ghostface guest verse. “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” becomes “Drugs Rule Everything Around Me.” Cyrus sings about sex on redeye flights and waking up with new tattoos on her body. By this point she’s laying on the hedonistic excess a little thick, and that’s before “Cattitude” comes on. Promo videos like this one aren’t helping.

If she’s going to age out of anything, ideally it’d be the look how rebellious I am impulse that defined Bangerz and Dead Petz. Her button-pushing now carries an air of desperation, as if she’s reverting to old habits as a last resort in the absence of sustained public attention. “Why I gotta be so motherfucking extra?” she asks sarcastically on “Cattitude,” but it’s a fair question on an EP where she’s so often undermining her own boundless potential.

Most of the new EP pales compared to the new Cyrus song that’s actually supposed to be a joke. In a new 67-minute Black Mirror episode titled “Rachel, Jack And Ashley Too,” Cyrus stars as Ashley O, an orphaned pop singer trapped in her hyper-positive image by the aunt who raised her. Despite Black Mirror’s usual array of technological twists — a robotic personal assistant named Ashley Too, a hologram dubbed Ashley Eternal — the episode’s commentary on the perils of celebrity and the artifice of pop stardom is even more basic than the vapid pop they’re attempting to skewer. And given her origins playing a similar character on the Disney Channel, the symbolism is heavy handed to the point of knuckle dragging. (It’s easy to imagine Ashley O cutting “Party In The U.S.A.”)

At least “Rachel, Jack And Ashley Too” gave us a bop. In one of the episode’s more successful attempts at satire, Ashley O’s big hit is a version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like A Hole” converted into a series of cheery daily affirmations. “I’d rather die than give you control” becomes “Riding so high, achieving my goals!” Instead of “Bow down before the one you serve/ You’re going to get what you deserve,” she sings, “So full of ambition and verve/ I’m going to get what I deserve!” The joke lands, but so does the tune. This thing is just obscenely catchy. Cyrus should seriously consider working it into her live show, though given the way the episode winds up, I doubt she will.

As for material she’s actually taking seriously, the end of She Is Coming presents a way forward. Not “Party Up The Street,” the requisite Mike Will Made-It collab featuring his trusty lieutenant Swae Lee; that one’s so unmemorable it seems evaporate before your ears. Rather, closing track “The Most” finds a promising sweet spot for Cyrus. Produced by Ronson and BJ Burton, known for his work with Bon Iver and Low, it’s a heartrending country ballad reimagined as a futuristic pop mirage. More than anything else here, it lets Cyrus whip herself up into a grizzled roots-rock force of nature, belting out a chorus that cuts deep: “So why do I hurt you so? Is it ’cause you love me the most?”

Cyrus rarely sticks with one aesthetic for long, but if she’s looking for a lane she can thrive in, may I suggest this one? Her skill set, her heritage, and even her consistent support of LGBTQ causes suggest she’d make a hell of a 21st century Dolly Parton if she wants to be. Cyrus is Parton’s goddaughter. She has covered “Jolene” for years and performed it onstage with Parton on Grammys weekend. And she’s never better than when forgoing juvenile provocations and just wailing her heart out. Keep feeding her heartbreakers like “Wrecking Ball” and “The Most” and I’ll be noddin’ my head like yeah.

CREDIT: Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

CHART WATCH

“Old Town Road” keeps on riding atop the Hot 100. Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ viral smash and presumptive Song Of The Summer spends its ninth straight week at #1, surpassing Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” to become the longest running #1 single this year. According to Billboard, the song posted its second biggest streaming week ever — and the second best streaming week of all time — with 130.7 million on-demand audio streams. It now boasts eight of the 10 largest weekly streaming totals ever.

Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” already the biggest single of her career, climbs to a new #2 peak. Also reaching a new peak at #3 is Khalid’s “Talk,” which matches his previous best chart high point as a guest on Logic’s “1-800-273-8255.” After Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” (#4), Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” (#5), the weekly Post Malone double-glob (“Sunflower” with Swae Lee at #6, “Wow.” at #7), and Sam Smith and Normani’s “Dancing With A Stranger” (#8) comes DaBaby’s “Suge” at a new #9 peak. It’s the rapper’s first top 10 single. Ava Max’s “Sweet But Psycho” remains at #10.

Not only does Eilish have a big week on the Hot 100, thanks to a slow week in terms of major album releases her blockbuster debut WHEN WE ALL GO TO SLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? returns to #1 on the Billboard 200 for a third nonconsecutive frame. Per Billboard, the album put up 62,000 equivalent album units and is the first release to spend three separate stints at #1 since Drake’s Views in 2016.

After DJ Khaled at #2 and Tyler, The Creator at #3 comes a #4 debut for Moneybagg Yo’s 43VA Heartless via 40,000 units and only 5,000 in sales — his career best chart placement. Khalid comes in at #5, followed by the #6 debut of the new Aladdin soundtrack with 38,000 units/19,000 sales. There’s another debut at #7, this time YG’s 4Real 4Real with 37,000 units and just 4,000 in sales. DaBaby, Ariana Grande, and Lizzo round out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Katy Perry – “Never Really Over”
Have we considered the possibility that Katy Perry is like Sampson or Rapunzel, and the quality of her music is related to the length of her hair? (Also, this video pleasingly reminds me of the Mad Men finale and its associated famous Coke commercial.)

The Chainsmokers & Bebe Rexha – “Call You Mine”
I am both pleased and alarmed to inform you that the Chainsmokers are back on their bullshit.

Tove Lo – “Glad He’s Gone”
On first pass this is not blowing me away like the best Tove Lo songs, but I have a feeling it’s going to sneak up on me and take over my life at some point.

Kesha – “Rich, White, Straight, Men”
Here’s a serious message song that’s presented like a goof and is just ridiculously catchy.

Machine Gun Kelly, Yungblood & Travis Barker – “I Think I’m OKAY”
Name a more iconic trio.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Disney’s latest The Lion King trailer features the voice of Beyoncé as Nala. [YouTube]
  • Rihanna is the world’s richest female musician with a net worth of $600M. [Forbes]
  • Madonna lost her appeal to block the auction of her personal items by a former friend. [Yahoo]
  • Billie Eilish scared Melissa McCarthy on Ellen. [YouTube]
  • Meanwhile on Corden Carly Rae Jepsen read fans’ tweets describing dreams they had about her. [YouTube]
  • Ed Sheeran released an acoustic version of “I Don’t Care.” [YouTube]
  • James Bay covered Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger” in front of Noel Gallagher. [YouTube]
  • Halsey covered Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. [Twitter]
  • Niall Horan joined Maren Morris for “Seeing Blind” in London. [Instagram]
  • In other Maren Morris news, she and Stevie Nicks joins Sheryl Crow on her new track “Prove You Wrong.” [YouTube]
  • A new Future EP, Save Me, drops Friday. [Instagram]
  • Cardi B, Lil Nas X, Billy Ray Cyrus, DJ Khaled, and Migos will perform at the 2019 BET Awards. [Billboard]
  • The iHeartRadio Music Festival has announced Alicia Keys, Cage The Elephant, Camila Cabello, Chance The Rapper, Def Leppard, French Montana, Halsey, Heart, H.E.R., Miley Cyrus, Mumford & Sons, Tim McGraw, Zac Brown Band, and more for this year’s event. [E!]
  • Mumford & Sons released a video for “Woman.” [Dance]
  • BTS’ Jin shared the solo track “Tonight.” [SoundCloud]
  • Bryce Vine’s major label debut album Carnival is out 7/26. [Instagram]
  • Major Lazer released a video for Skip Marley collab “Can’t Take It From Me.” [YouTube]
  • Lindsay Lohan is “hard at work” on new music. [CNN]

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