It does not take very long to notice when Miley Cyrus is in town. By 8:30 p.m. on the night of her Wednesday performance, the Orange line rail I’m using to jet to her American Airlines Center performance is alive with the sound of Bangerz. From small children in worn-out “Hannah Montana” shirts to the group of young women intensely discussing pop star antics, I’m surrounded by several generations of Cyrus fandom. While somewhat overwhelming, the vast representation among age in this particular train car feels important—a testament, even, to Cyrus’ longevity. It also serves as an explanation for the schematics of Cyrus’ show: cognizant of younger fans, the show starts a lot earlier than my anticipation. As a sad result, I miss the entirety of Icona Pop‘s set.
Overall, the Bangerz Tour‘s best asset is imagery. Miley opens up the show by sliding down her own “tongue,” her infamous weeping kitty makes a reappearance amongst detached grinning/preening Miley heads, “Party in the USA” explodes into a mess of red, white and blue streamers, multicolored furries make frequent trips to the stage, and at one point she parades out in a weed-and-gold stained leotard. Only one of Cyrus’ mid-show skits does not actually feature color: in grayscale tones, she poses, snarls, and writhes in black panties and pasties to sultry background music. While sometimes a cacophony of over-stimulation, the show’s insistence on color is a welcome diversion from the sometimes muted color schemes from other pop stars. It’s deliberately over the top, drenching everything from Miley’s outfit changes (think glittery leopard print and sleek, off-white one-piece bathing suits) to her onstage illustrations, which range from Tumblr-style gif cartoons to a 3D, Jordans-adorned chubbster who shimmies its way through Cyrus’ rendition of “23.”
The concert does present interesting details on Cyrus as a performer. Those expecting Cyrus’ VMA antics and shock-rock tactics most likely exited slightly unsatisfied. On stage, Cyrus is the epitome of demureness, smiling and interacting gently in between songs and stage changes. I think of Dolly Parton long before Cyrus rips through the diva’s 1973 hit “Jolene:” Cyrus’ wit and interjected quips are a dead ringer for Parton’s stage presence. In general, Miley’s country/folk roots are obvious, even while belting through Bangerz’s bigger hits. It’s what makes her chosen cover choices interesting, if not a little misguided: for example, an acoustic cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” is executed nicely in instrumentation (although Cyrus’ soft twang of a voice doesn’t do Andre 3000 much justice) but Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” falls flat without Del Rey’s smoky contralto. Bob Dylan’s “Lonesome when You Go” is easily the best adaptation of the night, as Cyrus’ emotes more into the classic song. Even Cyrus’ past hits fare better. In a genius remake of her smash hit “Party in the USA,” Miley laces the guitars from Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” over the song’s drums, and still manages to sound good.
Yet many of the performances fall flat. “23″ is a blip on the night’s map after her rousing Dolly Parton cover, and seems unnecessary after witnessing the true extent of Cyrus’ voice. “Love Money Party,” while excellent when blaring through stadium-worthy speakers, leaves a lot to be desired as Cyrus lounges on a gold SUV and rushes through its verses. “4×4″ holds the same unremarkable spot it holds on the album. Cyrus’ “Adore You” rendition delivers the same strained vocals as found in the single.
“SMS Bangerz,” “Rooting for My Baby,” and “On My Own” are both the exceptions and the surprises of the night. As the show’s opener, “SMS” is a rowdy menage of color and humor, and is accompanied by the show’s best skit, which features an animated Cyrus and friends causing a Ren and Stimpy-style ruckus. “Rooting for My Baby,” Bangerz’s understated surf-pop ballad, proves effectively that when given the right track, Miley shines vocally. “On My Own” sounds like an `80s pop radio jam and, with the addition of dancing animal friends, is just as fun. With these tracks, Miley’s humor shines the brightest, and bring back the fun to pop music. In fact, the aesthetics of Miley’s humor are the most welcome to me. Although it may seem strange in an age of music dedicated to the “put together” pop star, Miley’s insistence on warped, ugly faces and “childish” cartoon imagery is fresh and should probably be the first thing anyone envies in Cyrus’ performance.
The concert’s other conundrum involves Cyrus’ backup dancers. There’s been plenty of controversy surrounding her use of black female “twerkers” (more appropriately called “shakers”) and little people. It’s a controversy Cyrus has stirred about herself with various rebuttals against the arguments of appropriation. I will say this: I don’t know if Cyrus means any harm by the representations of these demographics in her show. There is certainly evidence against this idea: the back up dancers are honestly skilled, and obviously have been selected to perform in Cyrus’ show based on their skills. This is something I can appreciate, especially in the larger, heavily misguided outlook on twerking in mainstream popular culture. Cyrus can’t twerk, but she makes sure that her dancers can, and that’s a good foundation to a less offensive show.
In the end, the Bangerz Tour entertains during its highest points. As a vehicle for Cyrus’ influence on pop music today, it serves as a great discussion to the complexities of a star’s place in pop music.