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Review: Miley Cyrus Fakes Her Own Career Suicide on ‘Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz’

5
SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: September 2, 2015
Label: Smiley Miley Inc.

There’s one excellent song on Miley Cyrus’ lowest-selling album, Can’t Be Tamed, called “Robot,” about her desire to no longer be a tool of the industry that’s been very lucrative for her, and vice versa. That album landed her in pop-star purgatory we could call Kiss Land, with a desire to break free of her Disney Channel prison. Her very next album, Bangerz, managed to do just that, though it’s hard to remember now that it was somewhat of an uphill battle. Dogged by bad reviews, KISS-grade tongue-wagging, and Robin Thicke, she nevertheless dragged the DJ Khaled-suitable “We Can’t Stop” and the soaring metaphor “Wrecking Ball” up the charts by their fake dreads. Then someone — maybe her cannabis runner — told her to get weird.

One of the reasons Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is Not Actually a Big Deal is because if you follow her Instagram-filtered antics, or merely watched the neon-vomit-strewn awards show she just hosted, you know that casting off the chains of discipline in her music is merely the last barrier to her Valhalla-on-earth fantasy of complete, full-metal DGAF. No one in pop history has ever been thirstier for total inscrutability while simultaneously being so clueless about how to attain it. So the Flaming Lips’ overseer Wayne Coyne is her Yoko Ono and this 93-minute VMAs gift bag is their Two Virgins, a rabbit hole for a pop star to slide down and end up “F–kin’ F–ked Up” on the other side.

What’s annoying is that beneath the glitter bukkake adorning its cover art, nothing is all that f–kin’ f–ked up on this record — Ono’s old buddies beat Cyrus to the peyote-spurned wailing of “Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz,” and the Flaming Lips have a Guided by Voices-sized suitcase of ambitiously dada-slime titles like “Milky Milky Milk” already in their rearview. Neither the guests (Big Sean! Phantogram! A yes-still-on-brand Ariel Pink!) nor the track titles taken directly from her text messages (“I’m So Drunk,” “Fweaky”) bring any one of the 23 tracks here closer to something you’ll immediately have to discuss with your coworker. The “Shake It Off” video, by Cyrus’ ultra-square foil in the Current Landscape, did a better job of that than anything here.

Some found Bangerz to be legitimately fun, just like some will find Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz to be legitimately weird. But the chance is high — using the word advisedly — that your own attempt to make an inside-joke record with friends would be weirder, even without the reported $50,000 (as opposed to the M’s dropped on Bangerz) this record cost at your disposal to ensure it. The “Dead Petz” designation of her backing band is no joke, it turns out; the numerous ballads among these 23 tracks are often tributes to the succession of pets she lost during the course of recording. “Pablow the Blowfish” sounds sincere enough (“I can’t bear to see something so wild just die in a tank”) even before she starts crying at the end. But it’s much more interesting to read the elegy for Pablow as a stand-in for the two-week friendships she admits to leaving behind on a regular basis whenever she transforms again.

Which brings up the reality that Dead Petz is a short-lived album by design. She doesn’t care about her pre-Bangerz music, which was her best music — “7 Things,” “See You Again,” and the greatest and most prescient version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” — and there isn’t a song here that sounds, in all their determinedly-tossed-off glory, like something that will survive two set lists from now (though the budget-Dev Hynes ballad “Lighter” and more soulful “I Get So Scared” do try). Despite the opening feint “Dooo It!,” which is the only song here that took a stab at an above-ground existence (via its confetti-crotch VMAs performance), her explanation to the New York Times that Dead Petz doesn’t count toward her RCA contract is the most revealing (and unique) takeaway from this record.

The only known precedent for a label letting a major artist keep their own weird-ass record, in this case dispatched via Soundcloud, would be Beck’s early Geffen deal, uniquely designed to let him to continue recording small side records for weirdo indie labels like Bong Load. And that went awry in court when he tried to make the highly anticipated Odelay follow-up, Mutations, one of those “parenthetical” releases. Cyrus’ label heard Dead Petz only when she completed it, and decided that not a song here was worth fighting Big Miley LLC over. Before the era of the surprise free album, record companies would refuse to release an uncommercial record, or let it choke to death without promotion. But the last three Cyrus albums — Breakout, Can’t Be Tamed, and Bangerz — don’t just sound nothing alike, they were for three completely different sets of fans. Whether this experiment succeeds or fails, it would only be the latest victim of pop’s most notorious walking Etch-a-Sketch. “Pablow the Blowfish” is destined to be buried in the same graveyard as “7 Things.”

On Petz, the total lack of unpredictability is what betrays Cyrus’ true lack of imagination, her fatal flaw as a Youth Culture Messiah. Her first true sex song, “Bang Me Box” contains no revelations about sex’s meaning for her or even a bon mot filthier or funnier than “You finger my heart.” The most relatable song on the record, “BB Talk,” earns its bid with Sopranos-using-emojis dialogue: “You put me in these f–king situations where I look like a dumbass bitch and I’m not a f–king dumbass bitch.” Still, this is extraordinarily shallow stuff for someone who’s combating the same pigeonholes of gender, sexuality, and relevance in the world as many of her fans.

The thing is, when Cyrus triumphantly declared that “a Jay Z song was on” with the still-jubilant “Party in the U.S.A.,” it was more noble and honest that she didn’t name-check one than when she pretended to care about French Montana on Bangerz. Is Cyrus still a robot? No way, just an actual human being who would flunk her Turing test because she stayed up all night not studying. Any other MTV employee would get slammed for possibly confusing Kendrick Lamar with A$AP Rocky, and with songs as not-weird-enough as these, she risks an all-time backlash if her next contract-official album doesn’t woo radio. Maybe she knows it and truly wants to live like common people, truly longs to make $50,000 records like common people do. Maybe she really gets off on the fantasy of career suicide like she says. But the label-approved chart vacation that is Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz barely looks over the cliff.