Cover of Younger Now

Back in the Saddle

Ages ago, in 2006, Miley Cyrus entered the music scene as the fictional Disney character Hannah Montana, the star of a television show as realistic as the name of its protagonist. (Fun fact: they almost named it Alexis Texas instead.) For a number of years her oeuvre consisted of carefully written teen pop songs, culminating with ‘The Climb’ and ‘Party in the U.S.A.’ in 2009 – both remain among Cyrus’s biggest hits.

Once of age, the singer proceeded to immediately shed the blonde wig and the constructed persona of bubblegum innocence with Can’t Be Tamed (2010), her third studio album. That plan was not exactly successful. To quote a review in The Boston Globe, ‘really, Cyrus needs to be tamed? Please. This stuff is already pretty innocuous.’

Miley Cyrus entered the music scene as the fictional Disney character Hannah Montana, the star of a television show as realistic as the name of its protagonist. (Fun fact: they almost named it Alexis Texas instead.)

Well, James Reed from The Boston Globe, Miley Cyrus certainly heard what you and your colleagues had to say. Her following record Bangerz (2013) shook the Western pop music scene with ‘We Can’t Stop’, ‘Wrecking Ball’ and repeated twerking. The album was a hit combination of sincere and deliberately provocative, a musically diverse collection of songs about love and partying and sex and little else.

While licking hammers, shooting videos in the nude, and gushing about weed were not unheard of behaviours, a new generation of journalists and audience appeared since Madonna’s wild days. Furthermore, differently to Lady Gaga or Eminem, Miley Cyrus’s public self ca. 2014 was starkly and consciously at odds with the original image of the artist. The shock was largely due to the contrast between the ‘wholesome’ naiveté of Hannah Montana and the fierce ‘hot mess’ that was Bangerz. It was opening an old cinnamon jar to discover it was now full of habanero – the label was misleading.

Miley Cyrus
MILEY CYRUS. APRIL 2017. BRIAN BOWEN SMITH & BILLBOARD / CELEBRITIES GLOBAL

Yet, after the success of Bangerz and the release of her surprise psychedelic album Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz (2015), the singer decided to return to a more conservative sound and image. Her sixth studio album Younger Now is a country pop record with simple lyrics and equally undemanding tunes, with the strongest point being Cyrus’s impressive vocals.

Similarly to Kesha, who released the country-inspired record Rainbow earlier in 2017, Miley Cyrus is embracing her country roots. Tennessee-born goddaughter of Dolly Parton, Cyrus is aware of the genre and its traditions (her father Billy Ray Cyrus once topped every country chart with ‘Achy Breaky Heart’), but this transition from hip-hop and psychedelic pop feels less like a natural development and more like a calculated decision.

The message of Younger Now is that of change and acceptance. That is, change and acceptance with a healthy dose of feminist anger, bisexual love, and environmentalist anxiety.

Miley Cyrus had campaigned for Hillary Clinton during the presidential election of 2016 and, following the loss of her candidate, resolved to try to reach out to conservative America through the means available to her: her music. If one is to take into account this determination, then Younger Now makes perfect sense. It is difficult to imagine a medium more appropriate for reaching out to perceived Trump’s voters than country pop, and the message of Younger Now is that of change and acceptance. That is, change and acceptance with a healthy dose of feminist anger (‘Bad Mood’), bisexual love (‘She’s Not Him’), and environmentalist anxiety (‘Inspired’). Wait what, is this leftie agenda masquerading as country pop? You betcha.

Miley Cyrus Performing Live at The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon
MILEY CYRUS PERFORMING LIVE AT THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JIMMY FALLON. ROCKEFELLER CENTER, NEW YORK CITY. JUNE 14, 2017. ANDREW LIPOVSKY & NBC / BILLBOARD

Two singles have been released leading up to the album’s publication: ‘Malibu’ and ‘Younger Now’ (see below). Both have been accompanied by bright, optimistic videos and sound upbeat and openly autobiographical – that sets the tone for the rest of the record.

All eleven tracks from the album were written and produced by Miley Cyrus and a long-term collaborator Oren Yoel, and this is her most personal work to the day. Eliminating the middleman and working on the songs in her private studio, Cyrus gets the message across every time, but that very well might be at the expense of musical accomplishment.

The album feels like a result of prolonged introspection, or a series of open letters. It has none of the firework immediacy of Cyrus’s earlier records, although the maturity itself can be refreshing.

‘Rainbowland’, track number three, is a duet by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton. It is a peace anthem in a country music style, purposefully saying that, if we all work together, we can end the fight. John Lennon and Yoko Ono are smiling in the background and hippie ghosts are humming ‘Kumbaya’. This is also a blessing from the fairy godmother to Cyrus, lending the latter credibility as a country artist. And while well-intentioned and not unpleasant, ‘Rainbowland’ is dreadfully boring and sounds as if made for a cheerful tourist commercial.

This calculated quality is present in the majority of the tracks: ‘Week Without You’ is a remarkably restrained break-up song, while ‘Miss You So Much’ is a light piece full of measured longing. The album feels like a result of prolonged introspection, or a series of open letters. It has none of the firework immediacy of Cyrus’s earlier records, although the maturity itself can be refreshing.

It would be a mistake to describe Younger Now as entirely safe. ‘Thinkin’, track number seven, strikes genius with the repeated throaty ‘All I do is think about you, oh yeah!’ – suggesting an erotic fantasy and providing another dimension to the otherwise tired trope of ‘boy ignores girl, girl gets mad, girl sets the house on fire’. Wrong Eminem lyric, oops.

Altogether, it is the songs about love (or lack of it) which are of more interest on Younger Now, not the ballads about change and acceptance. ‘I Would Die For You’ makes up in sincerity what it lacks in sophistication, and ‘Love Someone’ has the ultimate insult one can throw into their partner’s face: ‘Ever since the day I met you, / I knew you weren’t the one.’

Younger Now reads as if one day Miley Cyrus decided to make the world better, one song at a time, and entirely on her own terms. The result is not exactly bad, but rather so overwhelmingly ‘okay’ that it still feels like a defeat.

‘She’s Not Him’ deserves an honourable mention as a very traditional slow-dancing song – the kind meant for high school proms – about a non-traditional subject: breaking up with your girlfriend because you still have feelings for your ex-boyfriend. It is encouraging to hear a woman sing about her relationship with another woman this directly, without it being a titillating aspect made for show (see ‘I Kissed a Girl’). ‘She’s Not Him’ is wonderful for how normal it is. Three hurrahs for bi visibility.

In the end, Younger Now is a thematically mature work that lacks the ferocity and fun of Cyrus’s previous records. It reads as if one day Miley Cyrus decided to make the world better, one song at a time, and entirely on her own terms. The result is not exactly bad, but rather so overwhelmingly ‘okay’ that it still feels like a defeat.

Out of the three country pop albums released by big and unlikely female artists – Joanne by Lady Gaga, Rainbow by Kesha, and Younger Now by Miley Cyrus – it is Cyrus’s record that is least innovative. Yet, the whole trend is interesting and if this is the direction Miley Cyrus intends to go, I am looking forward to the follow-up to Younger Now.

Discography: Miley Cyrus, Younger Now. United States. Released on RCA Records from September 29th, 2017. (On AllMusic)


Current album: Miley Cyrus, Younger Now
Current book: William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Current TV series: Riverdale, Series 1 (2017)

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