It’s easy enough to look at the cover art of Bangerz and say, “Oh, she’s just being Miley.” But a closer look reveals how strange the image is: Cyrus stands face-foward, head cocked and staring daggers at you; her lower legs are truncated with a sharp line, as if she is a cardboard cut-out; behind her hang fragmented postcards of palm trees and the album title scrawled in a garish neon font. It’s a surreal image, and the past six months of Cyrus’ career have felt just as surreal. Since the success of “We Can’t Stop,” every move she’s made seems engineered to get people’s tongues wagging (and when they don’t, she’s more than happy to do that herself): grinding with Robin Thicke, performing regularly with little people, and starting Twitter feuds with Sinead O’Connor are among some of her shenanigans. For some, this isn’t surprising; it was only a matter of time she broke fully from her Hannah Montana upbringing (despite the fact that she already had her good-girl-gone-bad narrative completed by Can’t Be Tamed). Still her relentless persistence in asserting that she is a badass is jarring. A title like Bangerz anticipates more of the same “crazy kid” behavior. But the album doesn’t open with “We Can’t Stop.” It opens with “Adore You,” a pretty but pretty boring ballad that wanders aimlessly for almost five minutes. This unexpected opening sets the tone for the rest of Bangerz, an album so purposeless and unfulfilling it’s near impossible to get through.
Bangerz is enough of a chore thanks to Cyrus throwing any aspirations to consistency out the window, but the resulting hodgepodge of tracks couldn’t be less suited to her strengths. Cyrus’ voice carries a gritty twang that can and has served her well, though on the ballads it becomes shrill, and on the club tracks (the “bangerz,” as it were) she affects a snotty tone and ends up sounding like Kreayshawn (if you can’t remember: no one’s favorite ironic hipster rapper whose one-off “Gucci Gucci” spread like a rash on YouTube two years ago). The only moment Cyrus sounds at home is the country-inflected “4×4,” though her claims to rebellion are undermined by how hokey the whole arrangement is.
Elsewhere, Bangerz is lazy. The Pharell-helmed “#GETITRIGHT” might as well have been called “Slurred Lines,” given Miley’s vocal performance against the mid-tempo bump that recalls Robin Thicke’s cocksure summer hit. Meanwhile, if “Do My Thang” doesn’t prove once and for all that will.i.am. (who penned and produced the song) has nothing to say, I don’t know what will. Bangerz’s worst moment, though, is “FU,” which supplies whatever little demand existed for dubstep-showtunes. The song finds Cyrus howling about texting an ex those two letters, as well as “SMH” and “LOL.” It’s cartoonish in the worst sense, an abject failure that can’t even commit to convincing parody. And in between all this mess sit the mellower songs, which vacillate noncommittally between adoration and rebuke. The songwriting falls flattest here. In fact, “Wrecking Ball,” as if to spite its obnoxious video, ends up being the album’s highlight thanks to its strong chorus.
The complete lack of any unifying themes suggests that Cyrus just doesn’t care. In that respect, Bangerz could be seen as a success; it matches the persona that Cyrus has been crafting this whole year. Yet it’s still unsatisfying. This sentiment, most clearly manifested in “We Can’t Stop,” isn’t new. The past year of pop has seen a surge in songs that expand upon the model set forth by Drake’s “The Motto.” From fun.’s “We Are Young” to Ke$ha’s “Die Young,” YOLO-pop prioritizes not caring as the best way to seize the day. Even a more recent entry into this micro-genre like Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” which adds some venom to its hooks, feels liberating. “We Can’t Stop” just sounds miserable and sad, and it’s not just because of Mike WiLL Made It’s sludgy production and Cyrus’ garbled delivery.
The key difference is the extent to which Cyrus embodies this DGAF ethos. Perhaps what makes her such a fascinating and repellent figure is how she thumbs her nose at everything. Perhaps it’s jarring to hear the sound of someone who truly doesn’t give a damn. Beneath the sharp-tongued veneer of “I Love It” lies sincerity; they act like they don’t care, but when they shout that title, they show their cards. But Cyrus takes things a step further, not caring to the point of neglecting to create a coherent artistic image. Bangerz fails hardest because of this. While a whole album of ham-fisted club raps wouldn’t be so appetizing, leading off with a single like “We Can’t Stop” and then delivering an album that is by and large straight-faced is even less appealing. It reads as a bait-and-switch, a cheap ploy to get the public talking with inflammatory content, only to then back down and offer an olive branch in the form of more serious material. In doing this, Cyrus demonstrates a lack of commitment to both bangers and ballads. After enduring Bangerz, it’s hard to know where Cyrus stands as an artist, and it’s harder to decide whether she’s doing this – any of this – for anyone but herself.