Miley Cyrus' performance at the 2013 VMAs this past weekend was a disaster--so much so, it eclipsed the most impressive and polished presentations of the evening. A combination of weird staging, clumsy choreography, poor vocals, and a pervasive and strident tastelessness, none of the elements landed with success. That said, critics and listeners should not be too quick to discredit Cyrus' new music. While she is cultivating an abrasive public image, her new album, Bangerz, will likely be the strongest record of her career thus far.
The best reason to be hopeful about the new album is Cyrus' teaser single, "Wrecking Ball." The track is nothing short of excellent. At the beginning, the song sounds like an 80s ballad, focusing on Cyrus' voice supported only by synthesizers. Her performance shares a lot in common with her cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," filled with ache and subtlety. Then, the chorus arrives, and Cyrus transforms from a folk singer to a rock star, shouting the hook over a hard beat. For the remainder of the song, the track fluctuates between these two stances: synth-folk balladeer and heartbroken belter. "Wrecking Ball" makes a much better showing for the singer than "We Can't Stop" as piece of pop craftsmanship because it reveals Cyrus' range and impressive interprative skills. Sadly, those skills just did not reach their potential during her stint at the VMAs.
However, it is clear we are witnessing an important artistic transformation for the pop star. Cyrus is finding her aesthetic footing, which she has clearly displayed in her bold fashion choices, in references throughout her new music to an array of cultural and artistic movements (some of them controversial), and in homages to 80s musical textures in her singles and the cover art for Bangerz. Not all of these moves have been successful, but they are the choices of an adult artist discovering herself; she is no longer a puppet child star but a grown woman making her own decisions about her message and style. Of course, not all periods of growth and self-realization are graceful. In the best case, the artistic merits of Cyrus' new music will hopefully have greater hold over the public than her antics. If Madonna's career is any evidence, schtick may get you in the papers, but good art will help you endure. Thus, there is still hope for Cyrus.