A dark arena illuminates with a 60-foot specter of Miley Cyrus' head floating independent from her body. Her giant, LED-emblazoned eyeballs glare into a sea of mostly 18- to 21-year-old female faces, as her pupils saunter in opposite directions. The crowd roars and shrieks as her lips begin to part, and her mouth opens, extending well past her jaw.
Cheers grow louder as an enormous, curved pink tongue slinks out and down past her distended chin. A crescendo from the band and Miley appears inside of her own mouth. She lets out an impassioned "Woooo!" and slides down the curvature of her own tongue as the red and white feathered epaulettes on her leotard flutter. In one fell swoop, she sticks the landing with the fervor of a competitive cheerleader, plants her hand on her hip and lets out one of those cascading Disney-brand pageant-girl waves. Same old Miley. The glint in her eyes says "HEY Y'ALL" in her instantly recognizable Southern drawl. Then she rubs her vagina and books it to her mark downstage. It's Bangerz time, bitches.
This is a starlet who wants you to know that she is grown up now, and if you didn't get the memo she's going to shove her cooch in your face until you do. But the more of Miley we see, the more desensitized we become to her sexuality. The more we see her tits on Terry Richardson's tumblr, the less we care. We have come to expect her to Instagram photos of her scale-model fist dildo, so it barely breaks the news cycle when she does. Anyone can spread their legs and call it their art.
The first half of her set last night at the American Airlines Center featured predominantly new songs from Bangerz. The theatrics were pretty staggering. Some of it was cool, like the gold chrome lowrider that she writhed on as money cannons fired into the crowd, and someone in an enormous Big Sean mascot suit vamped the crowd during his verse on "Love Money Party." Some of it was bizarre, like Ren and Stimpy-style cartoon animation depicting a naked Miley frolicking and twerking with animals in the wild. She even broke out the old Erotica tour bit, and did a number while thrashing around and fondling her backup dancers on a giant bed.
The fact that Miley's big reinvention single, "We Can't Stop," was originally written for Rihanna speaks volumes to our conundrum with Miley's newfound slutwave. Her vocal talent is astounding; she's got the stuff. Rihanna is hampered by an often flat, inflexible range and lungs lined with blunt guts. Sure, Miley's trademark Southern drawl is beginning to sound like if Butters from South Park was blowing down a quarter pound a day. But Miley doesn't need to fall back on crotch shots.
Bangerz, though. Bangerz does.
During the show's second act, Miley and her band moved out to the soundboard for a more intimate, stripped-down interlude with the back of the venue. At this time, she was more clothed than we'd see her throughout the show, in a leopard-print short set and jacket. Her talent shone through as she rattled off covers of Bob Dylan, Irma Thomas, Dolly Parton and Lana Del Ray. Even her cringe-inducing, country-fried version of Outkast's "Hey Ya" had some impressive vocal runs.
But while her talent shone brightest here, so did her insecurities. She interrupted a verse to update the audience on the status of her crowd Instagram video upload, and even stopped singing to nervously tug at her shorts, complaining that they were too long and that she needed a shorter hemline to better shake her ass. It was ... troubling.
Not all of the new album numbers were more spectacle than substance. During the torch-y and romantically vengeful "FU," she trailed a long belt with the seething hiss of "You stupid motherfucker!" The crowd went wild at the most authentic display of emotion we'd see from Miley through the entire show. The over-the-top encore finale of her best known song, "Party in the USA," was flawless, from the red, white and blue streamer cannons to her dancing Statue of Liberty.
Celebrate her vagina's liberation all you want. Bangerz is terrible. It's a 13-track album with 10 songs of filler. If she wanted to be taken seriously, she wouldn't be rolling Mike Will's blunts while he layers country fiddle samples over trap beats. She'd lock herself in a studio with Charli XCX for a few months and probably make the pop album of the decade.