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Miley Cyrus’ ‘Bangerz’ Serves Up the Perfectly American Horrorshow We Deserve

Miley Cyrus / Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 4 of 10
Release Date: October 04, 2013
Label: RCA

What is there to “review” when it comes to a Miley Cyrus album? Her singing, affected and perfected by software? How her powerless pop makes you feel, deep down in your quivering soul? How to rate this latest iteration of her personae (code name: “strategic hot mess”), to address these complex matters of cultural ownership with a post-teen girl who has belonged to the public her whole life, a simulacrum of girlhood turned into one of the great products of our age, a bigger emblem of the empire than the very Mouse itself? What else could she do but nuke it, saturate herself in our greedy gaze until she dissolves, give it all away, turn herself out until our knowledge of her is borderline gynecological? Is there a part of Miley that remains unknown? Did you really expect an album called Bangerz to reveal anything to you?

In knowing everything, we find we know nothing. The entertainment value of Cyrus’ work is more than simply typical pop pleasure: It is the slow-motion horror of watching toxic sleaze replace toxic purity (cf. Dave Hickey). Her work has always engaged our puritanical American mores at their most Plasticine extremes — from saccharine virgin to knowingly fellating a sledgehammer with doe-eyed upward gaze, at once both banal and pernicious.

Though Bangerz may seem like some sort of sudden, shocking transgression, grinding gears as Cyrus shifts from Disney World to Worldstar, 2009’s “Party in the U.S.A.” foretold it all: the wow and much-ness of fame, Jay Z on the radio. Cyrus has touted this album as “sexy” (ehh), “believable,” and “very adult.” Though only the latter rings true — in the traditional, male-fantasy-driven, pornographic sense of “adult” — her actions, and even moreso her inactions, conform to the arc of most mainstream adult entertainment. Here, she’s often pliant and guileless, begging to serve, or at least be noticed and deemed worthy. On the Pharell-penned “#GETITRIGHT,” she lays in bed, powerless and horny, overcome and waiting to be activated by male desire; on “My Darlin’,” she solicits the revivifying attentions of a dude who is just not that into her; on “Maybe You’re Right” and “FU,” she leaves; and on “SMS,” she alludes to taking her satisfaction into her own hands, but it’s all played for (what else?) titillation.

On the other three tracks, she’s don’t-give-a-fuck, she’s crazy, she’s partying, she’s doing her bitch-bad thing. It’s all very familiar-sounding-and-feeling, and it should be: “Wrecking Ball” gives co-writing credit to Sasha Karbeck, the man who helped pen “Born to Die” and “Paradise” for obvious influence Lana Del Rey; also credited are Dr. Luke and Cirkut, the team behind (most recently) Katy Perry’s “Roar.” Bangerz is a precise album that flits between bombastic and turgid; it is not very fun.

It’s strange to think that anyone could find this record offensive or controversial. What are we even to extract from Bangerz about the interior life of someone whose true liberation was driving an Explorer down Philly’s South Street, a cheap chain her zipless fuck — a glance into a fantasy life unlived? Is her woman-spurned triumph as powerful as the version Katy Perry sells to us? Is her pathos as grand as Rihanna’s? Her pleasure as real?

Though Cyrus has a lovely, albeit generic voice, singing is not her truest gift; instead, it’s the sheer quality of her mirroring, the way she gives us exactly what we want in lethal doses, grinding against our most American horror. As Pharrell himself says in the new MTV doc Miley Cyrus: The Movement, “Why is she doing this? Because she’s a product of America.” She’s playing it like a rebel, but she’s simply being who we’ve goaded her to be.