Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson are Hittin ‘em where it Hurts
Editor’s Note: LR Net doesn’t usually run music criticism. However, this piece, by Michael E. Berumen, seems to us to be important on both an aesthetic and also a political level. In it, Berumen looks at a recent work by Miley Cyrus and concludes that it is more than just a pop tune. It is, he says, actually important social commentary.
You can move the pop-rock superstar out of the country to the shores of Malibu–––but country is not ever going to leave this girl. Whether she’s doing trap, pure pop, country, rockabilly, psychedelic rock, or bubblegum, you’re always going to hear that drawl. Sometimes the twang is more pronounced than others, but it’s seldom entirely absent–––and it’s the very same sound that you’ll hear when she talks naturally––y’all. Miley Cyrus is not a singer who sings country songs. She’s a born and bred country girl, and she sings songs in her true voice, including country, but of other styles, too, and sometimes more than one genre in the same song. And she does it with an articulated legato that transitions from a chesty contralto to a resonate mezzo soprano–––and when purposefulness is needed, she does it with a soaring power incongruous with the pixie-like frame from which it emerges. Now comes the remarkable collaboration between Cyrus and songwriter-producer Mark Ronson in the new single, “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” (NBLAH), which was released in late November along with an evocative video, one chockfull of pertinent messages and iconography, and punctuated by nuggets of mischief and whimsy about Cyrus’ own musical trajectory and celebrity. Ronson is noted for his musical production sense, and he has helped guide musical luminaries such as Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, and Adele, among others, to a good artistic and commercial outcome. This is continuing evidence of his gifted touch.
The song begins with lovely strings and an orchestral crescendo that quickly transitions into a soulful and countrified pop sound with ample guitar and percussion throughout. On the one hand, the lyrics convey a plaintive lover’s sense of loss and disappointment, and on the other, they suggest a miasma that results from the kind of searing conditions that corrode our social fabric, fragile, much like our hearts. As with all of the best tunes, one can make what one will of the lyrics to suit a particular mood. Notwithstanding its darker message, the song definitely prompts both head-bobbing and foot-taping, and before long, one can’t help but sing along. As she often does, she intersperses her lead with her own background vocals. Her ability to launch notes from a throaty tremolo into a smooth phrase is one of her trademarks, and it’s on full display here. Perhaps her most extraordinary ability, though–––and not a mere technical ability–––is evincing feeling through her voice. She is the very definition of an empath, a veritable Geiger counter of emotion, and someone who absorbs what is occurring around her and then transmits it back through both her physical visage and her intonations in a viscerally palpable and convincing way.
The song stands alone quite well–––it’s entirely radio worthy and something one is likely to want to listen to time and again. Indeed, I believe that it’s the best song of the year. What is more, the accompanying video is to my mind perhaps the best done in the last decade. Like O.J. Simpson’s famous freeway escapade, Cyrus is seen driving a car pursued by law enforcement in the air and on the ground as a television newscaster excitedly reports on the cavalcade in real time, focused on the “star” in her car, whilst all manner of social ills are being ignored. During the chase, adoring fans cheer her along the way as she passes by Jesus, nuns, and dispirited working men; goes through strip joints where women are being objectified with salacious priests looking on; passes by a young white fan who adopts (i.e., “appropriates”) a shibboleth of the hood by displaying a Miley grill; crashes through a house in cookie-cutter suburbia to find loving lesbians; drives by children shooting guns at targets of silhouetted children, as one young shooter’s hand is guided by an adult’s; passes by football players taking a knee; pays witness to crass commercialism and a hysterical mob’s material greed; and then after a wreck at the end, she is seen standing in a crucifixion pose aloft of bricks like those she crushed with a wrecking ball in a previous era. All of this occurs amidst various totems from her several musical periods scattered along the way
And then there’s a very purposeful and deliberate shot of her exposed posterior, which one can look upon with prurient interest–––as I certainly did–––or, as I also did, with a self-conscious recognition that while one is attending to Miley’s ass, tragedy abounds everywhere else in the world. It’s a brilliant visual double entendre that slaps moralizing scolds–––and it very likely will be misunderstood by them–––sensationalized, and oversimplified, missing the very point being made: a lack of moral proportionality. That, at least, is my speculation–––and even if my interpretation is inaccurate as to denotation, like most great art, it can produce varying responses in the mind of the observer. That’s mine.
The video is stunning. Produced on a cinematic level, the special effects do not overwhelm or obscure the message–––often the case when the effects themselves become the message. Cyrus is clearly the star, but topical maters are never far from our view. The camera loves Cyrus. To be sure, movie star looks and expressiveness don’t hurt. But it’s more than that. There’s a charisma that pours through the screen, an unusual trait even with famous performers. Ronson clearly knew how to capitalize upon it. Her steady and sure vocals combined with solemn and soulful facial expressions give added gravitas to the provocative proceedings that envelop her. We are drawn to her eyes and a gaze that conveys seriousness, sadness, and determination all at once. Many interpretations have already been posited in social media, but the common denominator is that the video hits hard in a no-holds-barred manner on various social ills. And it stirringly and disturbingly juxtaposes the innocence of children along the way with the darkness that surrounds them, the most clearly depicted malefactions being racism, media hype, homophobia, gun violence, objectification, religious hypocrisy, celebrity culture, and excessive greed.
Cyrus, of course, is no stranger to stirring the pot or disturbing our musical somnolence. A Disney television star and bubblegum pop sensation, she broke out of her late-adolescent phase with a top-selling and sexy pop album, Bangerz, a solid collection of booty shaking music that included a couple of songs influenced by hip hop. Her nude “Wrecking Ball” video and the accompanying song both got record-setting attention. To the consternation of some, she would soon abandon more commercially oriented pop and trap sounds for a psychedelic experimentation in Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, a double album that she gave away for free on SoundCloud that includes several redolent pieces written by her. During both periods, Cyrus was much in the public eye doing concerts, appearing on TV, and a favorite subject of the paparazzi and tabloids. Controversy was never far behind, especially over some youthful antics, much in the tradition of Madonna, Beastie Boys, and many others decades before her, let alone what male rock stars were doing with groupies off stage with relative impunity, making Cyrus appear positively prudish by comparison, phenomena that had quiesced in more recent years with a resurgence of Pat Boonish, sanitized, and virginal pop, along with a concomitant focus on glee-clubish vocals, perhaps making her own harmless exhibitionism appear more novel to the ever-vigilant puritans than it really was–––and all the more scandalous when contrasted with her earlier Disneyfied Hannah Montana persona.
Her next album, Younger Now, was more focused on the lyrics than her previous works, placing particular emphasis on change, growth, and possibilities, all encapsulated in the eponymous title song, “Younger Now.” It’s her most mature writing to date–––underappreciated in my view–––and it represents a honing of her craft, perhaps a kind of transitional period before taking the next large step, one that might be telegraphed in this latest song with Ronson. During her Younger Now period she openly questioned the sexual objectification in which, by her own admission, she herself had been a participant, and she also denounced the misogyny that has percolated in hip hop music since its inception. That genre is hardly unique in this, for women have been demeaned and treated as sexual chattel in opera, country, rock, jazz, and R&B for even longer. But her comments landed her in trouble with some who accused her of exploitive “cultural appropriation”–––an absurd misuse of an important anthropological concept used to mis-characterize the adoption and adaptation of musical forms and cultural expressions, a process upon which all music necessarily relies. She was criticized for using and then abandoning hip hop in her Bangerz period for what was deemed ignoble and utilitarian purposes, as if all commercially sold music weren’t inherently utilitarian.
The fact is that hip hop was never a major part of Cyrus’ repertoire; its influence was apparent in only three songs on Bangerz; and it certainly was not the source of either her pre-existing wealth or her fame. Moreover, and here’s the point being missed by critics, she never disowned hip hop, which she continued to follow and admire. It was a diversionary criticism, a slight-of-hand pivot to veil an uncomfortable truth–––which is what Cyrus really denounced: misogyny and objectification, undeniably part and parcel to the history of hip hop, as well as of other musical traditions. And, I hasten to emphasize, she has been a consistent and outspoken critic of racism, homophobia, and bigotry of all types since she was a teenager, and unlike some glib armchair warriors, she puts both her money and her personal labors where her mouth is in charitable contributions and activities, most notably with her Happy Hippie Foundation. I believe her recent effort in NBLAH puts the final exclamation point on her true sentiments.
Having only just recently turned 26, it’s remarkable to consider how many kinds of music Cyrus has tackled and how much her music has already evolved. She has put out six albums, and one can identify five distinctive styles. One of her most consistent characteristics, though, is a nearly preternatural authenticity. What you see is what you get with her, and her music is a reflection of who she is at any given time, letting the commercial chips fall where they will. Ronson has brought forth her talent in a relevant and commendable way, and I hope this is not their last collaboration. I am assuming that she is working on a new album, one that is likely to be released in 2019. And I am hoping that NBLAH hints at more of what is in store for us. As a performance package, this song and video represent a superior and important work of art and social commentary, especially when juxtaposed with the self-absorbed, often nauseatingly narcissistic drivel dominating much of popular music today. To be sure, it does not ignore our need for beats and rhythms making us want to shake, rattle, and roll, or for visuals that will captivate and excite our imaginations. With that said, their work offers crucially important messages in an impactful way through verse and stagecraft, and they remind us that art can serve to inform us as well as entertain us.
Michael Berumen is a retired CEO and a published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, music, and philosophy. He has lectured to civic, academic, and business audiences internationally, and testified before the US Congress and local legislative and regulatory bodies as an expert witness. He has served on various boards of directors. Among other things, he is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. An Army veteran, aviator, kung fu sifu, outdoorsman, music lover, former juvenile delinquent, Stanford alum, and longtime Californian, he and his wife, Carol, retired to the northern Colorado countryside. He still takes on speaking engagements, but on a limited basis. www.cogitoservices.com