The Sky Is So Blue in Malibu
Miley Cyrus’s new single “Malibu” is pop perfection. She released the single off her forthcoming, as-yet-untitled album last week, and I’ve been playing it on repeat ever since. The lyrics are best ignored (but that’s not really plausible, is it? The first verse gives us this: “I always thought I would sink, so I never swam/ I never went boatin’, don’t get how they are floatin’/ And sometimes I get so scared of what I can’t understand”). Malibu is a painfully basic love song for her sexy boyfriend, actor Liam Hemsworth. But derogatory comments aside, Miley has, again, blessed me with something wholly unexpected because of its simple yet pervasive beauty.
It’s been two years since Miley’s last album release, 2015’s Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, a dreamy if slightly sinister collab with the Flaming Lips. On Dead Petz, Miley sings about drugs and her dead blowfish Pablo, among other things. A few choice tracks: “Fucking Fucked Up,” “I’m So Drunk,” and “Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz.” Bangerz was her 2013 breakout (not to be confused with 2008’s Breakout, a release from a much younger, “more wholesome” Miley) that made us say, Oh, okay, I guess this is the real Miley. Bangerz is loud, infectious, and also “nasty” in the way that Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” is kind of “nasty.”
But “Malibu” gives us a new “real” Miley. And we’re used to this — Miley now has a history of reinvention, always in an alleged effort to portray personal “politics,” to be the change she wants to see in the world. Miley got her groove in country and pop music as Hannah Montana, then divorced herself from the clinical purity of Top 40 by writing songs about how much she likes to get fucked and fucked up on both Bangerz and Dead Petz. A reaction, it would seem, to the responsibility of being a chaste role model for young listeners. Bangerz is all tongue wagging, marijuana leaf-shaped nipple pasties, and ecclesiastic masturbation; Dead Petz takes us on surreal acid trips in the desert with moments of almost blissed-out EDM, but “Malibu” brings forth something totally different.
In her May 2017 cover story for Billboard about her new “raw” and “countrified” album (the same story making the rounds in which Miley shrugs off rap music because it doesn’t suit her white feminism), Miley says, “The fact that country music fans are scared of me, that hurts me. All the nipple pastie shit, that’s what I did because I felt it was part of my political movement, and that got me to where I am now.”
Then she says some other things that leave me horrified. She implies that smoking weed makes you lazy, and it seems she’s also convinced herself that she can change the mind of a Trump voter by dressing-down in dirty whites and singing about love. Because that’s her thing now? Uniting humanity? Or something.
The “Malibu” announcement broke Miley’s two-month “media blackout.” (Apparently, reinventing herself only took these two short months, which is how long it takes me to follow up on an email invitation to discuss Chicago’s lit scene over coffee.) But if we’re going to get into it, we should take a closer look at her Instagram feed. Followers would have sensed an almost imperceptible shift around April 2016 — Miley started mostly posting about her family and morning yoga. We watched her blonde shag grow out into a brunette mane that will eventually be, at once, both girly and serious. She’s just a girl, seeing the beach for the first time, the boats docked in the harbor, learning the physics of buoyancy. The voice Generation Y has been waiting for.
But how did she get here? She’s been a judge on The Voice, a terrible show I will never watch, for over a year now, and I guess spending so much time with Blake Shelton made her realize that, for the betterment of our country, she needs to befriend Trump sympathizers. That is, Blake Shelton’s fans. She’s scared of the American public and is trying to… what, persuade Trump’s constituency to be decent human beings? She tells Billboard, “I like talking to people that don’t agree with me, but I don’t think I can do that in an aggressive way. […] I don’t think those people are going to listen to me when I’m sitting there in nipple pasties, you know? […] I have to ask myself, ‘How am I going to create real change?’ […] This record is a reflection of the fact that yes, I don’t give a fuck, but right now is not a time to not give a fuck about people.”
Let’s take another look through the annals of Miley’s career. Jessica Hopper’s 2013 Spin review of Bangerz is harsh, deservedly so, but Jessica Hopper is a much better person than I am, one that probably doesn’t experience heart-welling emotions from MSG-laden pop music, and who also probably doesn’t follow two Bella Hadid fan accounts on Instagram. She is unaffected by formulaic beats and pleasant if unoriginal Girl vocals.
Hopper writes, “What is there to ‘review’ when it comes to a Miley Cyrus album? Her singing, affected and perfected by software? How her powerless pop makes you feel, deep down in your quivering soul? How to rate this latest iteration of her personae (code name: “strategic hot mess”), to address these complex matters of cultural ownership with a post-teen girl who has belonged to the public her whole life, a simulacrum of girlhood turned into one of the great products of our age, a bigger emblem of the empire than the very Mouse itself?”
So she has the platform, and her heart is in the right place, but her message, as usual, is not totally clear. Nor are next steps for her fans. She tells Billboard, “I’m giving the world a hug and saying, ‘Hey, look. We’re good — I love you.’ And I hope you can say you love me back.”
But, and this I am thankful for, there are traces of Bangerz-era Miley in “Malibu.” In the video, her hair is messy—her roots have grown out to a frizzy and uncomplicated, half-blonde shoulder-length cut, but there are ample shots of a heavy-lidded Miley biting her lip dressed in tiny clothes that show off her #yogabod. She’s also definitely not wearing a bra. She hasn’t changed too much. She’s just, yet again, attempting to broaden her fan base. I know that Miley is my problematic fave—she’s inarguably one of the celebrities most guilty of cultural appropriation, for which her denial is staunch—but, and this is also inarguable, even if from a completely theoretical standpoint, she’s a damn good pop star.
Editor’s Note: Something I find totally sus, though, is her new stance on smoking weed — she’s known for being outspoken about drug use; there was a time when she constantly referred to herself as a “hippie” — an outdated term, in this respect, that might appeal to a younger set who daydreams about getting stoned on the beach. And she FOR SURE shuts her phone off for a day a few times a year to take psychedelics in order to “regain balance.” But in her Billboard interview she complains that weed made her lazy, that she doesn’t want to be stoned all the time anymore, implying that people who smoke a lot are only really concerned with smoking a lot.
“’This is crazy,’ she says with her signature raspy-voiced charm, ‘but I haven’t smoked weed in three weeks!’ Cyrus — who’s sitting across from a lighted wall plaque that reads ‘It’s 4:20 Somewhere’ — elaborates on why she decided to quit ‘for a second’: ‘I like to surround myself with people that make me want to get better, more evolved, open. And I was noticing, it’s not the people that are stoned. I want to be super clear and sharp, because I know exactly where I want to be.’” Which, you know, RUDE.