A few days ago, Miley Cyrus went undercover as an Australian reporter for a Jimmy Kimmel Live segment to ask people what they thought of the divisive pop star. One pedestrian sporting a tank top, cowboy hat, dog tags and Civil War-era facial hair looked into the camera and evaluated Miley: “Well, the whole fabric of America is falling apart, and she’s not doing anything to try to keep it together.”
Miley, in character, affirmed the man’s sentiments with an “Absolutely.” Despite the thick accent and the bit, Miley was being 100-percent serious. In terms of mainstream pop music, Miley isn’t doing anything to keep the fabric of America together, and that is a good thing. But In terms of what pop could be, she’s doing a lot of good by weaving said fabric into a multi-paneled quilt, broadening pop music’s scope, and making us question what pop music is capable of being in 2015.
At a certain point last night, Miley turned the MTV Video Music Awards into a surprise album release party, announcing that her new album, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz was available for streaming. What’s most significant about the record, because surprise releases have lost their shock, is that Miley’s passionate progressivism and personal taste have found a home in her creative output. The material is as experimental as anything championed by indie music blogs this decade, yet her pop origins still lurk under the Flaming Lips-guided haze.
The album is distinctly not pop, at least not in the traditional sense, which raises questions that will surely prompt many thinkpieces in the coming days: Is pop music a distinct genre characterized by specific musical characteristics, or does pop, which has always been shorthand for “popular,” denote all popular media made by popular people? If the first question is answered in the affirmative, we have to acknowledge that it came to be that way because it is what pop consumers have always wanted, so it was made for them. A quick listen to the first five seconds of Miley’s new album indicates this is not the case.
Miley, as a pop icon, is a huge part of establishing consumable American entertainment, and yet, her prognostications on gender fluidity, support of the “free the nipple” campaign, and other various societal calls-to-arms are decidedly progressive and sometimes controversial philosophies. Entertainment norms are typically consistent with the morals of society as a whole, but at the moment, Miley is subverting both by skirting expectations by putting the experimentalism she wears on her sleeves into her music. Not everybody is equipped to handle that yet.
If Miley wanted to break free from her celebrity shackles while still remaining somewhat radio-friendly, she found an ideal ally in The Flaming Lips, who have remained relevant, at least in the indie community, for the better part of the past 20 years. The band co-produced the album and co-wrote half of Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz, 12 of the record’s 23 tracks. Their influence is audible on the song like the lead single “Dooo It!”, which finds a peaceable middle ground between arena-ready pop and the direction it may be headed: not as narrowly defined, and more open to regular redefinition.
There’s old-Miley contemporary pop in “1 Sun”, which would have been at home on Lady Gaga’s 2013 album ARTPOP. But beyond that, the album’s 90 minutes dive further into Lips-inspirited Sgt. Pepper’s territory on tracks like “Karen Don’t Be Sad”, “The Floyd Song (Sunrise)” and, nominally, “Pablow The Blowfish”, which is actually a clear and poignantly raw break from the preceding psychedelia.
“Pablow The Blowfish” is a piano ballad lamenting the loss of a pet that never reached its full potential in the expanses of the sea, instead having been left to die in a tank without having ever seen the clouds. Miley’s performance feels genuine–so pained that she seems to end the song prematurely by slamming trembling hands down on the piano. Pablow is a stand-in the creative futility she feels as part of any corporatized machine, and in that moment, the fact that she subjected another being to restriction or censorship is repulsive to her (it should be noted that Miley also lost her dog last year.)
In terms of pop culture, our Kimmel pedestrian friend is partially correct: the fabric of America is changing, but it’s not falling apart: it’s stretching, switching stitch patterns, and becoming more inclusive. Miley Cyrus’ responsibilities are not to keep the fabric together; rather she is doing us a favor by testing mainstream music’s furthest reaches, hopefully allowing new artists more territory to claim as their own.
Stream Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz here.
Featured image courtesy of mileycyrus.com