Miley & 'Joanne': How Pop's Left-Field Stars Are Moving Toward America's Center

Miley Cyrus photographed April 8, 2017 in Malibu.
Brian Bowen Smith 

Miley Cyrus photographed April 8, 2017 in Malibu. 

"I never would've believed you if three years ago you told me I'd be here writing this song," Miley Cyrus sings in one of the most revealing lyrics to new single "Malibu." It's no doubt a true statement for Miley for any number of personal and professional reasons, but for fans, the sentiment will most resound when interpreted musically.

Three years ago, Cyrus was trotting the globe on the Bangerz Tour, a trek that shed the final vestiges of Disney Miley in favor of a trippy, kaleidoscopic circus of sex, drugs and camp, with her own recent Mike WiLL Made It- and Dr. Luke-produced smashes providing the musical focus. The next year, she journeyed even further to pop's fringes with an extended collaboration with Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips that turned into the Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz album and its accompanying Milky Milky Milk Tour -- an even more outr√© extravaganza of lo-fi psychedelia that shrouded her most confessional songwriting yet in a haze of non-commercialism.

This is all to say that when Miley says that she'd never have imagined "Malibu" back in 2014, we pretty much have to take her word for it. The new single sounds like nearly as extreme a reaction to her pasties-and-phalluses era as "We Can't Stop" was to her PG-rated Hannah Montana days: a mid-tempo love song built around lovely harmonies and a gentle acoustic bounce, with no musical or lyrical shock and awe to be found. The singer-songwriter performed a live acoustic version of the single on New York station Z100 on Tuesday morning (May 16), and what was most striking about the performance was how little it changed the tune's essential character: This was a song meant to be performed live, around campfires, in dorm rooms, at weddings, with little assistance necessary except a captive audience.

It's an interesting move for Cyrus, and one that can be interpreted in a number of ways. The simplest explanation is the most personal one: That maturity and an upcoming marriage have mellowed Miley out to the point that she doesn't need to (figuratively or literally) megaphone her love of pot-smoking and party-starting through her music anymore. The most callous explanation is the commercial one: That the underwhelmed, if not downright befuddled, response to Miley's Dead Petz project from critics and fans -- not to mention its complete lack of presence on radio, even if that was clearly never the goal in the first place -- had the still-young star feeling her top 40 mortality a little bit, and scared her back to more broadly accessible pop fare.

But the most compelling explanation is probably the one the artist provided herself in her recent Billboard cover story: That she wants to reconnect with some of the people who were not only alienated by her struttin'-my-stuff era, but who have been disregarded by left-leaning pop stars in these days of obvious political polarization. “I have to ask myself, ‘How am I going to create real change... and not just ­f--king preach to the choir anymore?'” the active Bernie and Hillary supporter and #HopefulHippie related in that story. “This [upcoming] record is a reflection of the fact that yes, I don’t give a f--k, but right now is not a time to not give a f--k about people... 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.”

If some of that language sounded familiar upon first reading, it might be because it's not all that different from the rhetoric espoused by another left-of-center pop star preceding her own voyage back to the middle. Seven months ago, Lady Gaga was in the midst a three-date "Dive Bar Tour" as part of the promotional windup not only for upcoming album Joanne, but for her gig at February's Super Bowl, America's most monocultural annual event. Though lead single "Perfect Illusion" was a disco scorcher closer to the club-pop of her early singles, the set's other tracks -- particularly stripped-down power ballad "Million Reasons" -- revealed a Gaga more interested in connecting with fans of country and heartland rock.

"I kept envisioning this girl in the middle of the country somewhere crying her eyes out in the field with a drink in her hand and her kid in the other, going, 'I can't believe that Lady Gaga understands how I feel,'" she told E! News last October. "The point of this record was to find that human connection with the world in a deeper way."

Of course, Gaga's back-to-basics transition came at a similar point in her career arc to Miley's: Having plunged into the deep end of art-pop with her 2013 album (literally titled Artpop) with diminished commercial returns and critical acclaim, Gaga could drift no further from the mainstream and ever hope to paddle her way back. Ultimately, she decided it was important to her career and her message to try to bring back those fans left cold by her days of high-conceptuality. She did that via a straightforward pop-rock album and a Super Bowl performance that delivered the hits and rocked the boat only in subtle ways, allowing her to remind people at all points on the political and social spectrum why she was once a pop star without peer.

It seems that Cyrus' new music is taking her down a similar path in the post-Trump age -- one in stark contrast to that of a top 40 fixture like Katy Perry, who embraced full wokeness with her weighty, living-in-a-bubble disco callout "Chained to the Rhythm." Perry sounded the clarion call for what she called "purposeful-pop" with that single, but it's unclear how much the pop world wants to follow her example just yet -- especially considering that by Katy's own sky-high standards, the song under-performed: "Rhythm" debuted at No. 4 on the Hot 100 but fell off from there, making it her first lead single (previewing this June's upcoming Witness LP) not to top Billboard's marquee songs chart.

That's not to imply, however, that Cyrus is guaranteed a commercial rebirth by following closer in Gaga's footsteps. While Joanne topped the Billboard 200 albums chart, and "Million Reasons" eventually climbed its way to No. 4 on the Hot 100, the set hardly proved a blockbuster: "Perfect Illusion" stalled at No. 15, "Reasons" only reached the top 40 after being performed at the country's most-watched televised event, no official third single has yet been released, and the LP continues to slide its way down the Billboard 200's bottom half. Though accessible pop/rock has long been a reliable commercial default for mainstream musical acts, the core sound of top 40 radio has undeniably shifted to a more electronic base -- something Gaga seems to have already acknowledged with the EDM-lite drops of latest post-Joanne single "The Cure." Miley may be falling back into a pop safety net that no longer really exists.

Nonetheless, "Malibu" doesn't have to top the Hot 100 to mark an important moment in the singer-songwriter's career and musical evolution, and the song is lovely and relatable enough to capture some ears that had previously been closed to her. And nearly a week after the song's release, and it's still lingering in the top five on iTunes and the top ten of Spotify's U.S. Top 50 chart -- an impressive showing for an artist who hasn't had a major hit since 2013, and whose new stuff bears little musical similarity to any of the other most-sold or most-streamed songs in the country. "Malibu" may end up being the big two-way hug Miley hoped it would be -- and even if not, just six days into its lifespan, the song already doesn't seem that unbelievable anymore.

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