The world's most maligned former Disney princess is strutting down the stage, leading a platoon of dancers dressed in (more) preposterous costumes, the most preposterous of them a pair of seven-foot foam finger outfits where the dancers' heads stick out of the knuckles.
It's a direct reference to the moment Miley Cyrus finally figured out how to make an entire society clutch its collective pearls: The one with the Beetlejuice suit and the twerking and the aforementioned foam finger applied to her vagina. You remember.
And this isn't even the first time tonight in Denver that Miley's blown to cartoonish proportion the very things she's most frequently mocked for. Earlier there was the entrance, where she slid down her own giant, inflatable, cockeyed tongue.
See also: Photos -- Miley Cyrus at Pepsi Center
So she's strutting, and singing "We Can't Stop," one of her many Top 10 Singles. Yeah, it's about partying and how we're not gonna stop partying, basically, but it is a genuinely taxing thing to perform. As the story goes, this one was originally meant for Rihanna, but you need more than her five-note range for that hook. You need Miley's several octaves of diva-quality power, which she can employ so effortlessly she's still got the capacity to simultaneously do things like, say, strut.
The rapid evolution of Miley Cyrus has been met with a smirk. Our nation's news feeds are overrun with jokes about her. Mostly, it seems, they are about her physical appearance. She looks like Justin Bieber or Draco Malfoy or some startled stray animal or whatever thing someone slapped next to some unflattering photo of her. There are plenty of those to be found; Miley does not shy away from unflattering portrayals of herself.
But why should she? Why should a very powerful woman (or anyone) feel the need to meet any particular expectation about how female singers should look or act? We have cherished androgynous rock stars since right about the time rock music began. Miley Cyrus has embraced traditional masculinity by doing things like cutting her hair short and doing lots of air humping and, yes, strutting. That does not make her ridiculous.
What, then? Surely it's not her commercial success, which is nearly unparalleled at the moment. And surely it's not her actual singing ability, which, again, is prodigious. Let's give the naysayers a fair shake: The lyrical and aesthetic content of all this stuff is undoubtedly frivolous and short sighted. The music itself clearly contains no original ideas. There's more. There are the multitudes of kids who will walk from the Pepsi Center through the thick snow to their parents' minivans with barely anything covering their torsos and limbs. And there's the hardest thing to dismiss: the accusation of cultural appropriation, the demeaning of everyone from African-Americans to Amazonians. Some people think Miley is mocking those groups and their cultures. I don't know what Miley's intentions are, obviously. But she does not seem to be a tourist. She has surrounded herself with people who don't look like her or come from the place she came from, and those people have joined her not only in public roles but also important behind-the-scenes ones.
Do you really think she makes the backup dancer with dwarfism smoke her joints on a separate bus after the show? I don't. As for the kids, they're wearing costumes. Miley's message contains no suggestion that you should do something someone else is pushing you to do.
The other objections strike me as hedonism, which is one of only a few traditions prouder than androgyny in rock and roll. Even the lyrics don't even seem that dumb by comparison. What would you rather have: Miley Cyrus throwing away the line, "It's our party, we can love who we want," or Macklemore telling you some self-conscious fairy tale about how once he thought he might be gay because he drew a lot and kept his room straight (get it????), but oh don't worry he's actually super into girls and rules at sports?
That leaves us with a pop star who has managed to use the enormous platform she earned as a shiny, pre-packaged and mass-produced teen icon to realize an ambitious musical and cultural vision. I know, I know, hear me out: Where else does a hip-hop producer from Atlanta meet a pioneering TV animator meet Dolly Parton? That seems plenty compelling to me, especially given the efforts of her peers. Justin Bieber had a similar opportunity and instead of making any music at all he chose to just make an ass of himself. Lady Gaga's out of tricks. Katy Perry's sexuality is demure, whipped-cream boob cannons being to spread-legged crotch grabs as a snuggie is to a power suit. I guess Taylor Swift has something to say, but I'd still rather have Miley talk to my hypothetical daughter (or son) about how to handle societal pressures and achieve her dreams. Taylor seems a little boring. Miley is articulate and deprecating and unapologetic. "No one cares about the man behind the booty," at the 1:27 mark of this 2013 Ellen interview, is a sentence that belongs cross-stitched onto a throw pillow.
There have been some grumblings about ticket sales not meeting expectations on the Bangerz Tour. I didn't take a head count, but it seems there is plenty of interest in Miley Cyrus in Denver. If there is a problem with getting people to go to these shows that goes beyond the usual uncertainties, it would be a consequence of Miley's odd middle ground. She definitely isn't family-friendly any more, but she was family-friendly recently enough to damage her credibility as an artist for adults. And there is homogeny to the crowd tonight. As many as four out of every five people I see are women who grew up at about the same time Miley did. Of course. So an arena full of people who felt this very specific connection to the artist writhing before them are making as much noise as any crowd I have ever been part of. Miley is strutting, remember, and singing the hell out of "We Can't Stop." I assume there are nuclear tests that do not generate as much noise as there is in the Pepsi Center right now.
It's common practice for huge pop tours to employ about a hundred million backing tracks to supplement the full band and the star herself. They're doing that now, but so many people in the crowd are singing along with practiced cadence to every syllable that Miley barely needs the help. The sturdy cement stands vibrate beneath our feet. The three-story video screen displays a dead-eyed kitten, mouthing the lyrics while the world of Blade Runner whips along below it. The giant human lighters dancing alongside the giant foam fingers begin to glow. Miley reaches the end of the stage, a third of the way into the arena, and stands on the balls of her feet. She's wearing white cowboy boots covered in rhinestones and a matching leotard. She leans toward the hyperventilating masses before her, smiling.
She's down to the hits. She does "Wrecking Ball" next and then heads back into the acid-trip set to change into a sequined flag costume that practically winks. That's because she's about to play "Party in the USA," which even the skeptics agree is an amazing pop song. The stage elevates her 35 feet in the air, where she stands on a small square while red, white and blue confetti billow toward the nosebleed seats. She cocks her hip. Justin Timberlake should fold up his penis and go home.
And then it's over already, even though it's only 10 p.m. The rain has turned to wet, heavy snow and everyone's underdressed. Still, the air crackles with energy. Sometimes, or even most times, you leave an arena show like this surrounded by a bunch of people who just want to get the hell out of there already. Not here. The chatter is lively conversation. The shouts are rebel yells.
Follow the author on Twitter @kmaletsky
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