Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz
Smiley Miley, 2015
By Matt Meade
When I first saw the pictures of Miley Cyrus with Wayne Coyne on Instagram, (because yes I am a man in his 30s with a family who follows Miley Cyrus on Instagram), I wondered if she was taking for granted her access to The Flaming Lips. I knew that they were her sometimes accompaniment on her Bangerz tour, but here she was paling around with the frontman, who has the coveted and difficult to attain position of rock and roll’s weird uncle. What did all this mean? Was she just tossing her celebrity around to make manifest the musicians who she is most interested in listening to at the moment, or did she really need him to make her next project? Was she studying at his feet, or using him to accessorize?
Though Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz is not as good as most of the work of Coyne and Co., it is certainly of a piece with their work. The record shares a sonic palette with the Lips’ brilliant ’90s masterpieces The Soft Machine and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, but thematically Cyrus has cast herself as her own wild, beautiful, and long-awaited Superman, as her own scratchy-voiced and synthetically-created Yoshimi. Despite its similar soundscape to those ’90s records, Dead Petz is a spiritual cousin with the Lips’ laterday foray into the sloppily experimental. Cyrus’ record cannot boast Embryonic‘s muscular, Can-inspired workouts, but it does share the record’s bizarre ‘70s drug-haze album art, and surprise release schedule, the record only having been hinted at by Cyrus and the likes of people as random as Kathleen Hanna and Mike Will Made It
Despite its surprise release, the record is astonishingly well-ordered and intentional. It is filled with experiments like the way the drum breaks are cleanly and neatly attached to “The Floyd Song” like some kind of perfect parasite clamped onto the exterior of the warm body that is the song, and the ear popping left to right panning of “Dooo It!” In addition to these and other attempts at the surreal, the record offers a few beautiful melodies like the “Mind Games” influenced “Karen Don’t Be Sad” and the trippy echoes of “Tiger Dreams.”
The songs are not fussy, but they are sturdily constructed by craftsmen. They are just tossed off enough to sound lively. The late ‘70s disco bass of “Bang Me Box” is delightfully gnarly, though also adorable at the same time. “Cyrus Skies” sounds like a deep album cut from a Pink Floyd record that is designed to be a valley, meant only to transition from one peak to another, sort of like “On the Run” from Dark Side or anything from Meddle. The synth on “Slab of Butter” is placid, almost pastoral and features funky break beats and leads over it, along with a hooky “I’m gonna get fucked up,” cadence from Cyrus. “Fweaky” knows what it is and manages to achieve its modest goals, namely to be a sweet and honest love song with a muscular and simple piano part; “na na nas” in the chorus; a super slow boom-clap backbeat; and shocking, R. Kelly-esque ‘90s R&B confessions. It’s pretty much fine. They are all pretty much fine.
Too much of an effort is given to showing the seams of this record (Cyrus babbles “keep that last one” to an engineer, or whoever she is currently dating (I like to think it’s Demi Lovato), and keeps all of her rambling intros and swear word outros) but it adds a charm to this post-teen princess playing like she is a kid in her room, messing around with her toys.
Her lyrics on songs like “Milky Milky Milky,” and “Slab of Butter” are strange and silly, but she takes them as seriously as the songs the Dead Milkmen, Ween, or They Might Be Giants used to treat songs about palindromes and space aliens. She keeps the gag up on “Pablow the Blowfish” until the very end. Even when she starts to fake cry though, you still wonder if this is a person trying to be silly, or if it is a crazy person pretending to be a sane person pretending to be crazy. So thoroughly does she commit that I almost have to wonder if Pablow is a stand-in for her father or a lost love. Almost.
The final song “Twinkle Song” is sweet and maybe the most enduring because of its earnestness, simplicity, its images of a record store with yellow doors, and of David Bowie looking like Gumby (which is surprisingly easy to conjure). She even goes so far as to stretch out her vocals and they sound halfway decent. It is one of the few places on the record where she can be caught actually singing. If it didn’t sound so much like “I Started a Joke,” I might even like it.
However, the best thing on the record is “BB Talk.” It is the brave honesty of a person who is admittedly rich and famous, but is also just a young woman struggling with her emotions. Cyrus realizes that, not unlike Eminem, Kanye West, and anyone running for office, that she is the product. She reveals her interactions and emotions because she realizes that that is what people are interested in. This is some kind of documentary, a strange vignette in the life of Billy Ray Cyrus’ kid. Perhaps the most revealing moment on this most revealing song is during the cringingly honest opening rap where she talks about her “energy” and says “they say you gotta think what you want into existence” making the assumption that everyone just reads and internalizes The Secret.
The record as a whole has a good sound, but I have to wonder if The Flaming Lips are wasted on someone who is stunned by their ability to play their instruments. “But they’re real musicians,” she breathlessly told Rolling Stone in 2014 when she first started working with the ’90s space-rock heroes. “They can change keys on a whim. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
It’s almost like Dr. Luke tried to convince her that all of the sounds on her favorite Rihanna and Bob Iver records were pieced together with loops, samples, and auto-tune. Most of what is here is disposable, though and some of it is downright bad. “Lighter” is trafficking in the nostalgia for bad ‘80s synth and drum music the likes of which Destroyer inexplicably are trying to keep alive and “1 Sun” is quaint and misguided attempt at a song with “meaning.”
And she is still an entitled and spoiled little brat with a shockingly limited perception of the world and music, as evidenced by naming a song “Tangerine” and not even making a Zeppelin reference in it even though she first partnered with Soundcloud last year with an unfathomably bad cover of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.”
Maybe it’s for the best she stay away from Zeppelin altogether.
Artistically, she is far from precocious. She has had all the best teachers and lessons money can buy. All the practice she could want. She has dressed up like a cowboy and sold cheap guitars with her face on it, hung out with Dolly Parton, and played sold out concerts before she knew that wasn’t normal, but she is still growing. She is just learning to escape that programming. It’s like she has been told how to form chords, read charts, and sing on key her whole life and now she finally gets to do it and she is lost. Just like any of us would be. She is fumbling around, trying to please, and realizing what she wants to do with her life.
But whether or not the songs are good is not the point. It is strangely immaterial and I almost never say that. As a matter of fact this might be the first time I have ever said that.
What is more important here is Cyrus’ further attempt to define herself. She is still trying to trade on her barely clothed body which usually has about the same amount of sex appeal as a used rubber glove. She is no Katy Perry who presents herself as a sensual robot who is ready for coitus right out of the box, and she is no Beyoncé Knowles type sex goddess. Cyrus, who is of course a beautiful young woman, doesn’t have the gravitas or the weight (literally or figuratively) to really command a covetous gaze the way those other performers do. For example, I guess she was trying to be sexy on Kimmel, bless her heart, but I have to wonder if she borrowed those pasties from Jessica Simpson. Her heart was in the right place, pointing out the hypocrisy of female nip aversion, but it was hard to take her seriously with those pasties covering up more of her torso than a tuxedo vest would.
It was far from the kind of thing that would give a dad a heart attack and closer to the kind of thing that would make him embarrassed for his adolescent daughter who was trying to be a little too adult. But seeing her try to be sexy is maybe part of her appeal. Seeing her wear mummy’s heels and smear her makeup on is part of what endears her to an audience, male, female, trans, gay, straight, or pansexual. It is that kind of awkward stumbling that makes her such a curiosity. The effort, the struggle to be sexy is not evident in the music of Shakira. That struggle is part of what makes Cyrus so human and, as she admits on this very record, awkward.
Some people criticize her for being the child of a country music star, a spoiled rich kid. They say that she somehow did not earn her fame but instead inherited it. I ask you: Since when is being the child of the guy who sang “Achy Breaky Heart” an advantage? I would argue she had more to overcome than anyone.
As far as being rich, all great artists have had their patrons and Cyrus, having been born with hers, has decided not to squander that. Like it or not Her Dead Petz is a sneakily important statement from maybe the most relevant artist making music today.
Cyrus offers this record not long after Neil Young, predictably and grumpily, pulled all his songs from the streaming world, joining other curmudgeons like Van Morrison and Prince in harrumphing modern channels for exchanging music. I like to imagine over the hill rock stars talking to each other about the music industry, sounding like people in a nursing home trying to decipher what “ratchet,” “on fleek,” and “Kbps” mean. They are obviously wrong, but I like that they are so insistent that the business model established in the late 50s remains intact. Meanwhile, people like Miley Cyrus are trying to figure out how we are going to share music now.
This is not as groundbreaking a release as Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want format introduced with the release of In Rainbows, but it may be as profound a statement as Radiohead’s follow up to that album The King of Limbs which, after IR had devalued music, began the process of revaluing it again by setting the price of songs at just north of a buck a song, pricing it at $9.00 for the 8 song record.
Her Dead Petz is another take on the next President of the United States Kanye West’s Good Friday Project where he, at the height of his powers and as he prepared to traditionally release his masterpiece, gave away one song a week to fans. While Her Dead Petz is not exactly a mix tape (though Big Sean is on it), it is an artist finding a way to explore the areas she wants to without wasting her fans’ time or money (though not all her fans feel that way.)
So, even though there is a Neil Young shaped hole on Spotify and YouTube, Cyrus has filled part of the void with the biggest streaming event of the year and in doing so has bravely paved the way for artists of every stripe to make big, bloated, experimental documents without being exploitative or manipulative.