Miley Cyrus Rocks, Finally
For a long time now, Miley Cyrus has seemed like she just wants to rock. In 2015 the former child star pivoted from the druggy trap-pop of Bangerz to Flaming Lips-assisted psychedelia with Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz, a pointedly weird album that, if not exactly devil-horn-throwing rock ‘n’ roll, at least stepped her into the rock milieu. In her Backyard Sessions series, she has consistently delivered gritty acoustic takes on classic songs, like a run through the Replacements’ “Androgynous” joined by Joan Jett and Laura Jane Grace. Last year, after reportedly stealing the show at a star-studded Chris Cornell tribute, she starred in a Black Mirror episode about a singer who breaks free from manufactured pop stardom and forms a rock band instead — a little on-the-nose, don’t you think?
With Plastic Hearts, released over Thanksgiving weekend, Cyrus has finally let herself embrace rock music as more than an extracurricular pursuit. The album is as much a meticulous exercise in image-crafting as the tongue-wagging, molly-addled Bangerz or 2017’s tepid and instantly forgettable Younger Now, on which she attempted to rebrand as a rootsy adult contemporary artist. She once again worked with a whole host of industry songwriters and producers, among them Ryan Tedder, Ali Tamposi, Watt, Louis Bell, Andrew Wyatt, and Mark Ronson. But if Plastic Hearts feels more like a product than a work of art, it’s a product Cyrus sounds fully invested in, one filled out with her best collection of songs to date.
This time around, Cyrus has styled herself as a Pat Benatar figure, an ’80s rock star on the precipice of pop. She’s telegraphed her intentions with glammed-out punk-rock photo shoots and a guest list that includes Joan Jett, Billy Idol, and Dua Lipa, whose own current album cycle mines the neon imagery of the ’70s and ’80s. Stevie Nicks shows up on a digital bonus track to blend her own “Edge Of Seventeen” with lead single “Midnight Sky,” itself a shimmering current of twitchy “Eye Of The Tiger” guitar, feverish low-end synth ripples, and Blondie’s disco-inflected new wave swagger. Recent live covers of that band’s “Heart Of Glass” and the Cranberries’ “Zombie” are also tacked onto the end. The message is clear: Miley Cyrus rocks. And although the branding is doing a lot of work to frame this diverse collection of music a certain way, Plastic Hearts rocks out quite a bit under its pristine sheen.
This is particularly true of the first few tracks, which function both as gleaming pop music and hard-hitting rock songs. “WTF Do I Know” comes charging out of the gate at full speed, guitars shredding and F-bombs flying, like early Paramore trying their hand at hair metal. “Plastic Hearts” is even better; building from “Sympathy For The Devil” bongos to a finger-snapping, head-bobbing, body-bouncing backbeat, it packs several of the album’s best hooks into one song. The chorus is a monster: “I’ve been California dreamin’/ Plastic hearts are bleedin’!” Cyrus howls, showing off the texture in her powerhouse voice. “Keep me up all night/ Keep me up all night.” As the refrain progresses, she eases into a subtler tone, lamenting with deep pathos, “I just want to feel something, but I keep feelin’ nothin’ all night long.” It’s a masterclass vocal performance on one of the best pop-leaning rock songs of 2020.
Although the album peaks there, Cyrus delivers quite a few more winsome pastiches before all is said and done. “Midnight Sky” presents a similar mixture of unbound passion and wistful reverie as it surges along the borderline between dance-pop and arena-rock. Similarly, the Dua Lipa duet “Prisoner” ably merges rock and disco like something off Thriller while seemingly borrowing the cadence from Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.” (This will surely confuse less attentive pop fans since Lipa used that track’s “Let’s get physical!” refrain for her own retro hit single this year.) The Billy Idol collab “Night Crawling” segues from crashing power chords to an immaculate era-appropriate synth hook, while pleasingly quirky vocal ad libs add flavor to what could have been a rote Joan Jett tribute in “Bad Karma.”
As Plastic Hearts wears on, it veers away from that crisp, hard-hitting retro sound more and more often, but the songwriting mostly remains strong. One exception is early misfire “Angels Like You” — backing its acoustic chords with booming digital drums, it’s like a drippy OneRepublic attempt at a Guns N’ Roses slow jam. In the power ballad department, Cyrus fares better with the country- and gospel-inflected “High,” a close cousin to the material her kindred spirit and fellow Lips collaborator Kesha has been kicking out in recent years. “Never Be Me,” one of many songs that directly address her divorce from Liam Hemsworth, is also a winner, Miley’s country croon drowning in tears in keyboards as she professes her aversion to monogamy.
Not every song on Plastic Hearts is directly informed by her breakups with Hemsworth and more recent love interests Kaitlynn Carter and Cody Simpson. As ever, Cyrus finds time to interrogate her own tumultuous relationship to fame, sometimes in extremely colorful fashion. Some may flinch at main tracklist closer “Golden G String” — a traditionalist waltz decked out in non-traditional psychedelic, symphonic, and hip-hop sounds, beginning with the perverse lyrics, “Yes, I’ve worn the golden G string/ Put my hand through hellfire/ I did it all to make you love me and to feel alive” — but for me, it nails the balance of reverence and audacity Cyrus has spent years attempting to perfect. “You dare to call me crazy, have you looked around this place?” she queries. “I should walk away/ Oh, I should walk away/ But I think I’ll stay.”
With this album, she is making sure of that. For a while there Cyrus, who turned 28 just last week, was starting to seem more like a past-her-prime celebrity to be trotted out at awards shows and tribute concerts than a currently vibrant pop star, her career held aloft by her mammoth voice and considerable star power but not any recent music of note. (Remember last year’s She Is Coming EP? Unless you are a diehard Miley Cyrus fan, it’s unlikely.) Now she’s found a sound that fits her and, more importantly, a handful of songs that would hold their own in a setlist alongside “Wrecking Ball” and “Party In The U.S.A.” Because she is both a consummate professional and a steadfast fan of the classics, Cyrus will inevitably reinvent herself again come next album, per the demands of both the pop canon and today’s fan culture. Whatever the particulars of her next aesthetic, though, she’d do well to keep unleashing her inner rock ‘n’ roller.
Everything’s coming up BTS on this week’s Billboard charts. The superstar pop group joins Taylor Swift as the only artists to simultaneously debut an album atop the Billboard 200 and a song at #1 on the Hot 100. That album, BE, tallied 242,000 equivalent album units and 177,000 in sales to become BTS’ second #1 album of the year following March’s Map Of The Soul: 7. (YoungBoy Never Broke Again is the only other artist with multiple #1 albums in 2020.) “Life Goes On” is similarly the second BTS single to enter the Hot 100 on top this year, and unlike its predecessor, the all-English “Dynamite,” it’s the first US #1 single to be predominantly sung in Korean. (“Dynamite,” by the way, is back up to #3 this week.) BTS are the first duo or group with two #1 debuts on the chart, and they now have three #1 singles in three months, a total that also includes their appearance on the remix of Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat).” As Billboard points out, that’s the fastest a group has accumulated its first three #1 singles since the Beatles in 1964.
In non-BTS chart news, Megan Thee Stallion’s Good News enters the Billboard 200 at #2 with 100,500 units and 16,000 in sales. Its 115.85 million on-demand track streams, which equate to 82,500 units, make it the most-streamed album of the week. The rest of the top 10: Ariana Grande, Pop Smoke, Future and Lil Uzi Vert, Taylor Swift, Luke Combs, Chris Stapleton, Juice WRLD, and Carrie Underwood’s Christmas album.
Elsewhere near the top of the Hot 100, 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” is down to #2, Ariana Grande’s “Positions” is at #4, Gabby Barrett and Charlie Puth’s “I Hope” is at #5, Justin Bieber and Chance The Rapper’s “Holy” is at #6, and Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” is at #7. Shawn Mendes and Bieber’s “Monster” debuts at #8, becoming Mendes’ sixth top-10 hit and Bieber’s 21st. The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” is at #9, good for a record-extending 41st week in the top 10, and Internet Money’s “Lemonade” closes out the top 10.
Mariah Carey – “Oh Santa”
Although far short of the iconic standard set by “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” this is so much better than it has to be.
Bad Bunny & Rosalía – “La Noche De Anoche”
Would be cool to hear these two collaborating over something other than a slow-motion reggaeton thump.
Tinashe – “Angels We Have Heard On High”
I am a sucker for traditional Christmas music performed with a modern R&B touch, therefore this rules.
Jennifer Lopez – “In The Morning”
“If you love me, say it in the morning, not just in the evening.” Good line!
3OH!3 – “KISSLETOE”
OK we’ve had the big 100 gecs crossover moment and now this reunion can go away.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Francia Raisa, who donated a kidney to Selena Gomez, responded to the Saved By The Bell reboot joke about the pop star’s transplant. [Billboard]
- BTS, Katy Perry, and Pink are among the performers on The Disney Holiday Singalong on ABC tonight. [EW]
- Billie Eilish did her annual Time Capsule video for Vanity Fair. [YouTube]
- Ty Dolla $ign and Post Malone released a video for “Spicy.” [YouTube]
- Justin Timberlake donated a wheelchair-accessible van to a Tennessee teen with cerebral palsy. [Tennesseean]
- Tones And I was among the Australian singers who paid tribute to the late Helen Reddy at the ARIA Awards. [YouTube]
- Finneas is releasing a Christmas song tomorrow. [Twitter]
- Chris Brown was the top winner at the Soul Train Awards. [ET]
- Lil Nas X will host Amazon’s Holiday Plays series. In the trailer he gives Miley Cyrus festive advice. [YouTube]