For a brief moment last week, directly after Miley Cyrus‘s new Bangerz (RCA) leaked, it looked like people might start discussing the actual music on the album rather than the barrage of partial nudity and questionable cultural appropriation that’s doubled as its prerelease promotional campaign. But then star photographer Terry Richardson, who’s made a career out of shooting salacious images of young women (and who directed the video for Cyrus’s single “Wrecking Ball“), posted photos on his blog that—after years of Miley handbras, Miley sideboobs, and other coy ways of almost baring her breasts—finally gave the world a more or less unobstructed view of her nipples. The world responded predictably, with a self-sustaining paroxysm of outrage, outrage at the outrage, and celebrity concern. (Somewhat surprisingly, Sinead O’Connor got in on the action; entirely predictably, Amanda Palmer did too.) This mix of scolding, shaming, and support had already come to typify the dialogue around Cyrus, so things were pretty much back to normal.
To be fair, it’s hard to resist talking about Miley’s increasingly sexualized image and “hip-hop” affectations. The sexuality of young women and the white appropriation of black culture are perennial hot-button topics, and discussion of them has been massively amplified by the Internet. I can barely imagine a more perfect button pusher than a 20-year-old former Disney star literally simulating analingus on an ass-shaking black woman in front of several million people.
There was hope that this would change, though. The conversation around Miley had made a lot out of the fact that she’d recruited Mike Will Made It—the producer behind massive hits for Future, Juicy J, and Kanye’s GOOD Music crew—to be the executive producer of the album she’d use to try to find a new musical identity rooted in hip-hop. But few people seemed prepared to consider the possibility that putting a pop vocalist with a million-dollar voice in the studio with a rap and R&B producer who’s had an impeccable run of sonically satisfying, radio-dominating hits could actually result in an amazing record.
Unfortunately it didn’t. Despite Cyrus’s talk about going hip-hop, her molly-referencing lyrics, and her efforts to surround herself with a coterie of rappers (Future, Big Sean, French Montana), she’s still a fairly typical pop star, and Bangerz is for the most part a fairly typical pop album. It’s got an infectious, up-tempo lead single (“We Can’t Stop“); it’s got a walloping torch song destined to become a karaoke standard (“Wrecking Ball”); and it’s got a bunch of frothy, forgettable dance-pop numbers and droopy ballads. Because it’s 2013, there are of course a bunch of dubstep synths. There’s a song by Will.i.am and two by Pharrell. All in all, pretty standard stuff.
Going by the book isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Cyrus. “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” both come straight off of the same blueprint that pop records have been using for a million years, but they’re so instantly memorable and instantly addictive that it hardly matters. Those two songs more than compensate for the disposability of filler tracks such as “Someone Else” and “Maybe You’re Right.” (“My Darlin’,” however, somehow manages to fall flat on its face despite an appearance by Future, who’s currently one of the most fascinating vocalists working—that’s far less forgivable.)
But Bangerz, like the young woman whose name is on its cover, gets more interesting as it gets more eccentric. “FU,” written and produced by LMFAO affiliate Rami Afuni, is driven by a nervy arrangement for piano and horns that has more than a little show-tune flavor, making it sound kind of like a Fiona Apple song that French Montana somehow stumbled into. The Pharrell-produced “4×4,” featuring Nelly, is a weird amalgam of Gypsy music and square-dance country folk with trap-rap hi-hats scattered on top, and though it’s basically unlistenable—its accordion part borders on the nightmarish—it also sounds unlike anything else on the radio, or really anything else anywhere.
In a couple of spots we get a peek at the album that might have happened if Cyrus, Mike Will, and Cyrus’s management had let the project go as far off the rails as some of us had hoped they would. “SMS (Bangerz)” is a raunchy, lovably blatant rip-off of Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” with rapping on the verses from Cyrus and its hooks sung by Britney Spears (another Disney trouper turned pop star turned object of America’s hypocritical hand-wringing and destructive lust). While “SMS” is unlikely to leave anyone hoping that Cyrus will launch a full-time rap career, she compares favorably to almost every other nonrapping pop star who’s taken a swing at being an MC—her flow is way less stiff and far more natural sounding.
Bangerz is hardly a triumph, and it’s not even the boundary-smashing album Cyrus seems to think it is. It’s also definitely not strong enough to distract the public from the myriad controversies swirling around her. But it at least suggests that she’s not going to settle comfortably into pop-star routine. Who knows? After a few years and a couple more records, she might actually become the interesting artist she’s trying so hard to be.