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Miley Cyrus @ BMO Harris Bradley Center

March 9, 2014

Mar. 10, 2014
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Photo credit: Rachel Buth
From Britney Spears’ wink-nudge Catholic schoolgirl uniform to Christina Aguilera’s dirty makeover all the way back to Nancy Sinatra’s sexy boots, the good girl gone bad has been one of pop music’s most enduring mainstays. Miley Cyrus may not have invented the archetype, then, but no other singer of her generation has embodied it quite so effectively. Last year the fallen Disney singer proved so deft at provocation—and so committed to her ultra-sexualized new image—that her album Bangerz arrived to a furor of “Child star in trouble!” tabloid hyperbole. Those headlines underestimated her: For all the meltdown buzz surrounding Cyrus last year, her performance for a packed BMO Harris Bradley Center Sunday night revealed a savvy performer very much in control of her own image.

Cyrus’s Bangerz tour promised spectacle, and it didn’t skimp. From the get go the concert was a sensory overload of ass-shaking dancers, costumed furries, gigantic set pieces and dizzying adult cartoons and animations, some of them from Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi. For her part, Cyrus cycled through about a half dozen costumes, none of them involving anything resembling pants, as she pleasured a horse puppet, groped a little person during a simulated orgy and rode a suggestive flying hot dog. Those antics made for a decidedly racier show than the one Cyrus delivered four years ago at the Bradley Center during her Hannah Montana days, but even with all the exposed skin and implied debauchery it was still on the safe end of PG-13, more interested in manic camp than true titillation.

For decades former teen stars have used sexuality to shed their teenybopper image, so what is it about Cyrus’s act in particular that’s incited such scandal? It’s almost certainly because Cyrus has embraced rap music as the medium of her rebellion. On Bangerz, she recorded with rap producer Mike Will Made It and a coterie of guest rappers; in concert, she performs in front of twerking dancers, animated overflowing syrup cups and Cash Money-inspired iconography. A century after “indecent” jazz dances stoked moral fear, there’s still a strain of American puritanism uneasy with the thought of white women being corrupted by black music, and those old values heavily colored the media narrative of Cyrus going off the deep end. The sight of a young, white country girl pressed against shirtless black dancers sets off alarms that society is uncomfortable admitting even exist anymore.

These are very cynical buttons to push solely for the sake of pushing buttons, and Cyrus never seems crasser than when she flirts with racial provocation, as she seemed to do at her 2013 MTV Video Music Awards performance. For the most part, though, Sunday’s concert made it easy to give Cyrus the benefit of the doubt: Her hip-hop afflictions seemed less a bid for attention—or a scorched-earth campaign to rile her religious country-star father, as many have speculated—than an honest celebration of the music. Bangerz is a lot of things: a flighty pop album, a display of total reinvention, a breakup album disguised as a party album. But first and foremost it’s a study in the sometimes-uncomfortable ways white youth relate to and appropriate rap culture. The union of white kids and hip-hop can be clumsy, even embarrassing or borderline insensitive at times, but ultimately it’s grounded in honest intentions and real affection. As she laid clear repeatedly Sunday night, Cyrus simply came to party, and in 2014, this is the sound of partying.


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