Miley Comes Unmasked And Meets The Moment
At the risk of sounding condescending to someone with whom I only have a parasocial relationship, I’m proud of Miley Cyrus. Any time someone in my vicinity has dismissed her as, I don’t know, day-old Disney channel bread with a chronically bouncy butt, I’d hold up my hand, like, STOP! I will not hear blasphemy.
Regardless of era, and there have been many — Hannah Montana and “Party In The U.S.A.” teen-pop stardom, tongue-wagging Bangerz rebel, country-pop disciple (on 2017’s Younger Now), spaced-out Wayne Coyne disciple (on 2015’s Dead Petz), ’70s rock revivalist (on 2020’s underrated Plastic Hearts) – I’ve kept one thing in mind: Miley can sing. Just witness her dueting “Jolene” with godmother Dolly Parton or any of her Backyard Sessions. While some might view her always-pivoting persona as flighty, I see range and killer taste. (What other mainstream pop star has worked with such a vast array of popular artists, from Parton to Kathleen Hanna to the Laura Jane Grace to the Flaming Lips to Dua Lipa to Wiz Khalifa and Mike Will Made-It?) Now, on her just-released eighth studio album, Endless Summer Vacation, Miley has traded pastiche and shtick for an honest self-evaluation.
I didn’t have the Disney Channel growing up, so sadly I never connected with Hannah Montana. I was probably a little old for it, anyway. I do remember thinking early defining singles like “Party In The U.S.A.” and “See You Again” were a lot better than I expected them to be; even on record, Miley had a rare star-quality confidence that could only be attributed to growing up with a country-famous dad in Billy Ray Cyrus and a childhood home that saw visits from godmother Parton, among what I’d assume were countless other musicians and creative types.
I was, however, working at MTV the year Bangerz dropped, and I witnessed all of the subsequent mania surrounding Miley’s shock-pop years. As part of my job, I had to document (blog) every tongue curl, twerk, ill-advised Robin Thicke grind, scantily clad photo shoot with a problematic photographer, and completely nude wrecking-ball swing. For clarity, I held/hold zero judgement around Miley’s undressed years; if I was made to wear a purity ring in high school and lead a squeaky-clean Disney juggernaut, I’d probably want to cut off all my hair and run around naked, too. Like iconic pop shape-shifters Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Madonna, I would feel I’ve earned the right to really pivot. (Though I’d leave Robin Thicke out of the equation. 2013 was a different time, I guess.)
After her eye-popping VMAs performance, MTV saw a spike in ratings — the show drew a total of 10.1 million viewers, likely also helped along by a brief *NSYNC reunion — and though my team worked on digital, it felt like the entire company was popping corks for months afterward. Once the VMAs mania died down and we all caught up on sleep, the company gave us handfuls of mini foam fingers blaring the words “We’re #1.” The following year, ratings sank to 8.3 million, and then 5.03 million viewers in 2015 despite Miley serving as host. (For context, VMAs ratings have always fluctuated; the show’s most-watched year was in 2011 with around 12 million viewers, but last year only drew about 4 million across all networks and streaming.)
Since the massive success and controversy of Miley’s Bangerz moment, which gave her her first Hot 100 #1 with “Wrecking Ball” (“We Can’t Stop” came in at #2), it feels to an extent that she has mirrored the VMAs in trying to recapture a lightning-in-a-bottle moment. None of her follow-up efforts have been outright bad or unentertaining. Regardless of where she goes as an artist, Miley has a true entertainer’s presence, a willingness to experiment, a handle on numerous genres (though her interest in hip-hop has crossed over into cringey cultural appropriation territory), and a sincere enthusiasm around music history. Maybe it’s her willingness to plop Joan Jett, Billy Idol, and Stevie Nicks on a rock-reinvention album that makes industry deciders dismiss her as little better than a well-paid covers singer. (In which case, why does Bruno Mars still get showered in Grammys at every opportunity?)
On Endless Summer Vacation, Miley is maskless — there’s no rock star cosplay, glittery distractions, or guerrilla-style nudity. Much of the album tackles her odyssey of a relationship, marriage, and divorce from Liam Hemsworth, whom she met in 2009 when they both starred in the Nicholas Sparks adaptation The Last Song. Nine years later, they finally married after a series of starts, stops, engagements, broken engagements, and reconciliations. In 2019, they divorced, and in January of this year, Miley released Endless Summer Vacation lead single “Flowers” on Hemsworth’s 33rd birthday. It shot to #1, where it has now spent seven weeks.
I admit, I was underwhelmed by “Flowers” at first, but (no pun intended) it’s a grower. The song is held aloft by Miley’s powerhouse rasp, which has only deepened with time, partially due to a condition called Reinke’s edema, which is when vocal cords swell up with gelatinous fluid. (She underwent surgery for the condition in 2019.) A triumphant ode to self-love, “Flowers” takes direct aim at her ex and the life she anticipated having. “We were good, we were gold/ Kinda dream that can’t be sold/ We were right ’til we weren’t/ Built a home and watched it burn.” (Conflagration is a frequent metaphor in breakup songs, but in Miley’s case, it’s literal: her and Hemsworth’s Malibu home was destroyed in the Woolsey Fire of 2018.)
“Flowers” is easy listening — neither great nor terrible. The album even closes with a stripped-down “Flowers” demo, which gives the single an added layer of poignancy. But Endless Summer Vacation really gets going with the soaring “Jaded,” which is the album’s best vocal moment by far. Over dissonant synths, Miley howls about an ex’s unhealthy coping mechanisms and feeling guilt around ending the partnership. (“You’re not even willing to look at your part/ You just jump in your car and head down to the bar till you’re blurry/ Don’t know when to stop so you take it too far/ I don’t know where you are and I’m left in the dark till I’m worried/ Oh, and it hurts me.”)
A well-placed Brandi Carlile features on the Americana-tinged “Thousand Miles,” which finds Miley “holding on like a rolling stone” despite emotional chaos. Later, piano waltz “You” embraces feeling untethered and giving into hedonism with a rebound relationship. The spoken-word “Handstand,” cowritten by Harmony Korine, is a low point on the album, more filler than substance — though I do like the hazy electropop breakdown on its second half.
Speaking of electropop, single “River” is a thrill ride that, to my ears, interpolates Dead Or Alive’s 1985 classic “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” on the chorus. Miley sing-speaks again on the infatuation-themed “River,” and it goes down much more successfully than on “Handstand.”
Miley throws a verbal punch on “Muddy Feet,” which features Sia and accuses an ex of cheating (aka “smelling like perfume that I didn’t purchase”). “You’re coming around/ With your muddy feet/ I’m about to do something about it,” Miley rasps, straightforwardly growling: “Get the fuck outta my house with that shit.”
On “Wildcard,” Miley questions her own viability as a long-term marriage partner, holding two truths at once. She can love hard and loyally (“I want all in/ I want all or nothing”), but that intensity is not a guarantee of anything permanent: “I’m a wildcard, ooh/ Forever may never come.”
The heart of Endless Summer Vacation lies within “Island,” which juggles perspectives. In this new phase of life, is Miley “stranded on an island” or has she “landed in paradise”? Newly divorced life can feel like both scenarios depending on the moment. Being alone translates to freedom where you can do whatever, whenever, which feels great! No one to answer to, no one to raise an eyebrow when you get a bunch of Amazon packages in the mail all at once. (Not that… I would know anything about that.) On the flip side, being adrift at sea can feel isolating, too quiet. Then you remember why it feels good to share time, experiences, a seaside picnic, a beach umbrella — whatever floats your dinghy.
I’ve seen overall mixed reviews for Endless Summer Vacation, but I unapologetically love it, and not just because I can personally relate to a “divorce, babe“-themed album. I have always loved Miley’s uniquely hoarse vocals, which have only grown more weathered over the last decade and a half and thus sell the album’s themes better than maybe Miley even realized. Its flood of producers — BJ Burton, Jonny Coffer, Kid Harpoon, Tyler Johnson, Greg Kurstin, Mike Will Made-It, Jay Moon, Maxx Morando, Jesse Shatkin, Max Taylor-Sheppard, Jerome Williams, and Zwiffa — somehow don’t cause Endless Summer Vacation to sound disoriented.
I like that we can see – perhaps for the first time – an unequivocally talented artist with newfound focus — one who is not gazing at the audience through the haze of molly, marijuana (no judgment!), marriage, or other people’s music. Everybody’s got to look at themselves sometimes, and Miley proves she’s brave enough to do it on Endless Summer Vacation.
Calvin Harris – “Miracle” (Feat. Ellie Goulding)
Ellie Goulding and Calvin Harris?? Are we sure the year isn’t still 2013?? *Checks watch* OK, yep, the year is still 2023 and these two made a song together! It’s good, too! I’ve always preferred clubby, electropop “Lights” Goulding, as opposed to pop ballad Goulding, and this thumping bop definitely scratches that itch.
PNAU & Khalid – “The Hard Way”
PNAU have found a worthy collaborator in Khalid, who infuses this sparkly disco gem with warmth and heart.
d4vd – “Worthless”
Yung newcomer d4vd — pronounced “David” — may only be 17 (well, he’ll turn 18 later in March, but still) but he’s clearly got style and loads of star power. The angsty “Worthless” easily melds genres to fit his vision, with a bit of emo, Y2K retro-rock, and classic soul. Let’s keep a close eye on d4vd.
Echosmith – “Hindsight”
In some ways it feels like we never let Echosmith move on from their 2013(!) hit “Cool Kids,” which found new life on TikTok nearly a decade after its release. “Hindsight” contains the same type of wisdom found on “Cool Kids,” except where “Cool Kids” was primarily driven by sarcasm, the alt-pop “Hindsight” comes from the perspective of musicians who’ve lived a little longer. The song beautifully reflects Echosmith’s growth, personally and professionally.
Mimi Webb – “Amelia”
“Amelia” is the title track to Webb’s debut album, which dropped earlier in March. Ostensibly a love letter to her younger self, “Amelia” does what most of us wish we could: tell our teenage counterparts, “When you’re older, you’ll see life will pass you by/ So just enjoy the ride, don’t cry/ Everything is gonna be just fine.”
Victoria Anthony – “Can’t Hold Back”
I spent about 10 full minutes trying to think of what the guitar riff in this song reminds me of, and I got it! Victoria Anthony’s “Can’t Hold Back” is really giving Fefe Dobson’s “Take Me Away.” Highly recommend watching Anthony’s video, too, where she’s really giving it her all around empty parking garages in Vancouver and Europe.
Mike Shinoda – “In My Head” (Feat. Kailee Morgue)
Always love hearing from Mike Shinoda, who leads the Scream IV soundtrack with this propulsive rap-electro-pop-goth offering that somehow works despite that unlikely genre combo. And I just read that goth-pop vocalist Kailee Morgue changed her stage name from “Moore” to “Morgue,” which is kind of brilliant.
Lil Kee – “Yall Know”
Atlanta-based singer/rapper Lil Kee (and Lil Baby affiliate) tends to layer vulnerable verses under a haze of Auto-Tune, which earned acclaim on his 2022 debut mixtape Letter 2 My Brother. The same affecting emotion washes through “Yall Know,” which rests on a poignant piano track and pained lyrics that reprocess the death of his older brother, Lamar.
EMELINE – “feelings”
I wonder if EMELINE was thinking of the Offspring’s “Feelings,” which is technically a cover of Morris Albert’s 1974 song, when she recorded this one? Anyway, the lyrics here – about a lady getting strung along by a fuckboi – are full of sage advice, such as “good dick don’t mean that’s it’s meant to be” and “she’s nobody’s Barbie bitch and you’re no fucking Ken.” Agree, the bar is in hell.
Lauren Spencer Smith – “Best Friend Breakup”
I WISH there were more songs about best friend breakups. That shit hurts, there’s usually no closure, and no one talks about it anywhere near as much as they should. Lauren Spencer Smith tackles this scenario with utter honesty (as she is wont to do), and I bet a lot of her fans will feel much less alone in their own best friend breakups.