Come this year’s MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 26, it will be four years since Miley Cyrus, then 22, surprise-dropped Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz whilst hosting the 2015 show. Amid the colorful chaos of the finale — and wearing little more than a single pant leg and a glittery, eye-shaped pastie to cover her right boob — Miley announced that her brand-new, 23-track joint album with The Flaming Lips had just been unleashed independently, for free, on SoundCloud.
Then, she stuck out her tongue.
The album arrived to mostly eye-rolls and confusion, and it’s not hard to see why. Clocking in at an hour and a half, Dead Petz is a woozy, mind-melting, psychedelic free-for-all that begins with the line “yeah I smoke pot” and ends with the lyric “what does it mean?” Song titles range from the bizarre (“Space Bootz”) to the nonsensical (“Milky Milky Milk”), including a 50-second interlude called “Fucking Fucked Up.” “Self-control is not something I am working on,” Cyrus sings on the dizzying “Slab of Butter” — and early reviews didn’t hold back, either, finding the album self-indulgent (Pitchfork), amateurish (Vulture) and, despite its weirdness, unimaginative overall (Spin).
But amid the mess, there were gems — fleeting moments where the weird-but-good ratio landed just right. Early on comes the soothing, otherworldly lullaby “Karen Don’t Be Sad,” where Miley advises listeners to “hold on to your soul / ‘cause they’ll crush it if they can.” There’s a deliciously infectious hook on the upbeat “BB Talk,” an extended monologue about a lover’s creepiest tendency. The Mike WiLL Made-It-produced lesbian sex anthem “Bang Me Box,” with its slinky, electro-R&B vibe, reads like erotic fiction. And with its warm synths and trippy sonic bubbles, the quirky “I Forgive Yiew” would fit seamlessly as a sync on an episode of Broad City.
Other songs find Miley more vulnerable than ever. “I get so scared I’ll never get over you / everything I imagined and all of our plans never coming true,” she sings on “I Get So Scared,” while on mellow breakup ode “Space Bootz,” she bemoans that “all the colors left with you.” Admit it: Even the oddly sincere, sniffling eulogy for Miley’s pet “Pablow the Blowfish” made you melt just a little (R.I.P.).
Best of all is “Lighter,” a blissful, so-wholesome-it-hurts love song that envelopes you in ‘80s-style drum kicks and dreamy synths that float and crash like waves. “We never truly see ourselves / you gotta leave it up to someone else,” Miley breathes, an insight so strong and beautiful, it’s okay that it serves as one of the few true epiphanies on the album, which otherwise covers the highs and lows of dating with fairly standard lyrical fare. Dead Petz includes many of what you might call high realizations, but the verses on “Lighter” feel fuller and clearer than the rest.
Not everyone disliked Dead Petz. At the time, John Mayer was “transfixed,” calling the album a “masterwork of whack genius” in a series of tweets. Rolling Stone gave the album three and a half stars out of five; in his review, Billboard’s Jason Lipshutz noted that Miley is “too skilled of an artist to not place some beauty inside this madness,” awarding the album three out of five stars. Even Elton John deemed the album “fucking brilliant,” comparing Miley Cyrus to Frank Zappa: “Break the mould, girl,” he urged.
Indeed, Dead Petz obliterated the mold altogether, and not just in terms of its sonic kink. Miley famously released the project outside of her multi-album contract with RCA Records, which did not contribute to the budget (a mere $50,000), allowing the singer to do her thing on the side in a rare, nearly unprecedented move for a major label. And Miley did it online, for free — a bold and potentially lethal move for any artist today, let alone a pop star in 2015.
Keep in mind that when she released Dead Petz, Miley was just two years removed from her Bangerz peak. That raunchy 2013 album included such mainstream hits as “Wrecking Ball” and “We Can’t Stop,” singles she respectively promoted by singing naked on an actual wrecking ball, and, infamously, twerking on Robin Thicke. The whole rollout arguably made her the biggest pop star in the world at the time, or at the very least the most talked-about.
That said, with Dead Petz, Miley also rejected the idea that every album release from a pop singer denotes a clear-cut “era,” a restriction rarely applied so heavily to other genres or genders. Think of Christina Aguilera’s rebellious “Xtina” phase that began with Stripped, or more recently, Taylor Swift’s Reputation cycle, where the master of love odes shifted toward snark and snakes. You can similarly divide Miley’s career into “before Bangerz” and “after Bangerz,” but Dead Petz is a singular blip. The project asserts that pop stars, too, should be afforded the freedom to experiment with one-offs — while they certainly can use the “era” model if it serves their artistry best, not every release must connote the beginning of a heavily-promoted album cycle and matching persona; not all the eggs have to be in one basket.
You could look back on the project as a predecessor (if not a catalyst) of today’s rule-breaking, tradition-flipping pop scene — one where Lana Del Rey is teasing a project called Norman Fucking Rockwell with a single that lasts nearly 10 minutes, Billie Eilish is leading a generation of streetwear-clad teens with possibly the darkest pop Top 40 has ever seen, and Ariana Grande is dropping two albums in six months with the swiftness and swagger of a SoundCloud rapper.
Like Dead Petz, Miley’s She Is Coming EP — released in June, the first in what will be a three-part series — finds the singer genre-hopping once again. But with standouts like the spunky “Mother’s Daughter” and smooth, Swae Lee-assisted “Party Up The Street,” she finally dips her toes in a range of genres in a way that feels and sounds authentic. Come the full trifecta of EPs, she has the chance to prove that she’s not just interested in pushing boundaries, but also skilled at doing so, while crafting a sound that’s all her own.
Forgotten as quickly as it arrived, Dead Petz may also have predicted today’s brisk, ephemeral post-album landscape. But have another listen, and pay attention. When fellow pop disruptor Troye Sivan tweeted last November that “Dead Petz was ahead of its time,” he was likely half-joking, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t totally right.