Hey haters: rock stars like Miley are supposed to be rebels, and a little crazy

Aren’t rock stars supposed to be daring?
Aren’t rock stars supposed to be daring?
Image: Reuters/Danny Moloshok
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Last night, as this year’s edition of MTVs Video Music Awards rolled out, my social media feed blew up. While Kanye West’s seemingly unironic announcement that he’s running for president in 2020 was a hot topic, the majority of what I saw were more generalized cries of foul from boomers, decrying just about everyone and anyone who took the stage.

“Zero talent loudmouth idiot.”

“I muted it – the whole thing was ridiculous!”

“Thank God for the Taco Bell commercial that used ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’!”

“Oy Miley coming up… do what… she trying to outshine the Gaga thing, which even Lady has chilled out about……that scene is so played out…..go home Miley…..your 15 mins were up like what last year.”

These folks do remember how their parents reacted when they first presented them with Elvis, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, right? You can argue that the music of yesteryear was superior all you want, but Kanye, Taylor and Nicki aren’t trying to appeal to you. In fact, they don’t want to, nor should they.

At the top of the hate parade, right up there with Kanye, was last night’s host, Miley Cyrus.

I freely admit that I found Cyrus’ turn on Hannah Montana excruciating. But with a young daughter in her thrall I learned to power through those Disney Channel marathons. As she left the show behind, and the young women in my house grew up, I followed Cyrus’ trajectory as what at first seemed like just another popstar wannabee, especially after her infamous 2013 VMA performance with Robin Thicke. But somewhere along the line, amidst the Rolling Stone cover story and endless hand-wringing in the media about the weed and nudity in her Instagram feed and her ahead-of-the-curve pronouncements on LGBTQ and animal rights issues, it became obvious there was more to Cyrus than what the mainstream press and boomers on social media thought about her.

Then last night, as the VMAs wrapped up, Cyrus surprised everyone by releasing a new album, Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz, via Soundcloud as a free stream. It’s a remarkable step forward for an artist who not that long ago seemed to be nothing more than another attention-seeking former child star.

It’s certainly hard to tell after just a few listens, but Dead Petz probably isn’t great. But it also isn’t the lowest common denominator music contemporaries from Taylor Swift to Foo Fighters churn out, much of which was on display last night during the VMAs. Instead, it’s a sprawling, weird, ultimately pretty satisfying collection of sonic experimentations wholly unusual for a mainstream artist in this day and age.

Much of the credit goes to the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, whose sonic fingerprint is all over Dead Petz. While Oren Yoel and Mike WiLL Made-It, the producer and architect of Cyrus’ 2013 album Bangerz, offer up some of the strongest songs here, they are pop confections that serve as brief respites from Coyne’s overall modern psychedelic aesthetic. Coyne serves up the sound he perfected on the Lips’ Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and then some, melding it with the in-your-face take on the world Cyrus has embraced, especially in the past year or so, and delivers so effectively in her lyrics on Dead Petz.

Cyrus tackles her image and sexuality, drugs, in a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner, LGBTQ issues and the awkward period of self-discovery we all face, plus yoga, her love of animals and the environment, if you care to pay attention. And it’s worth it if you do. Cyrus has something to say. She’s speaking to her fanbase, of course, none of whom will be shocked by what she says here. But it’s authentic and intimate, and they will certainly respond to that. But for anyone who isn’t a fan, Cyrus is challenging us in unexpected ways, both sonically and via her lyrics.

By releasing the album as a free stream, Cyrus has earned the public support of her label RCA–“Miley Cyrus continues to be a groundbreaking artist. She has a strong point of view regarding her art and expressed her desire to share this body of work with her fans directly. RCA Records is pleased to support Miley’s unique musical vision.”–but it has also said the album won’t count toward fulfilling her contract.

That’s too bad. But given that the album contains 23 songs and lasts over 90 minutes, Cyrus doesn’t seem to care about that all that much either. I don’t want to make any boomer heads explode, but when’s the last time Neil Young gave away 23 songs? Face it, we don’t live in an era of constantly challenging art from Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Jimi, Townshend or even Strummer and Jones. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t artists who are willing to take chances, regardless of the financial rewards. If Dead Petz is any indication, Cyrus is one of them.

Cyrus told the New York Times that “this music was not meant to be a rebellion, it was meant to be a gift.” Ultimately, though, the album is rebellious. And that’s what we want from our rock stars, isn’t it?