Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz: Another Thing to Apologize For

Here it is, a perfect illustration of the difference between self-indulgence and rebellion.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Once upon a time, Miley Cyrus hated talking to the press. But as of a recent chat with The New York Times’ Joe Coscarelli, conducted shortly before her stint hosting the VMAs and the release of her album Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, she had decided interviews were cool after all. “It’s fun to say how you feel and to not worry about it,” she told Coscarelli. “You say it honestly and then as you say it honestly, you figure out things—how you really feel.”

This statement came during the same five-hour gabfest during which she held forth on how Nicki Minaj is “not too kind.” Now that those comments have led to a somewhat humiliating call-out from Minaj that overshadowed Cyrus’s hosting antics and the announcement of her new album, one can’t help but wonder if she’s yet again revising her interviews policy. When you’re a superstar talking to a reporter on the record, figuring out how you feel on the fly, it turns out, is a good way to annoy people.

A similar principle holds for Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Theoretically, the album’s creation could be seen as a brave declaration of independence from someone long seen as a corporate-controlled, Disney-made pop puppet. Recorded without the input or money of her record label RCA, featuring heavy contributions from indie-rock legends The Flaming Lips, and unleashed without warning, for free, onto SoundCloud at the conclusion of the VMAs, it’s certainly a project without precedent. Cyrus has said her team of advisers told her “they’d never seen someone at my level, especially a woman, have this much freedom. I literally can do whatever I want. It’s insane.” They also told her that at 22 songs, Dead Petz was too long. In response, she added one more track, an instrumental called “Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz,” “not to be mean, just to prove that it can’t be too long.”

Of course it can be too long. High-volume, low-quality—even if it’s a giveaway, a lot of people who give 92 minutes to the album will want an apology from her. As the VMAs made amply clear, Miley 2015 is very caught up in attempting to prove her own zaniness by using extremely played-out signifiers of zaniness: psychedelic colors, nudity, RuPaul’s Drag Race. The album duplicates the act sonically, with Lips-provided rock distortion, spoken-word odes to the departed animals of the project’s title, and the already infamous-for-being-innocuous opening line, “Yeah I smoke pot / yeah I love peace / I don’t give a fuck / I ain’t no hippie.” Beneath the haze are a bunch of halfway written songs that will almost certainly not blow anyone’s mind. The first impulse might be to pick out a few nice moments and leave the rest, but even the best moments (the pop fantasia “Space Boots,” the Gaga-ish apocalypse anthem “1 Sun,” the wistful Beatles tribute “Karen Don’t Be Sad”) are far from essential.

Music critics are having a great time with the album, serving up some of the most entertaining reviews of the year while getting at the idea that Petz is Rebellion In Name Only. Dan Weiss at Spin: “The chance is high—using the word advisedly—that your own attempt to make an inside-joke record with friends would be weirder.” Lindsay Zoladz at Vulture: “Dead Petz often feels like the sonic equivalent of a John Lennon dorm-room poster, purchased from the campus store with a parent’s (or, perhaps in this case, an eccentric uncle’s) credit card.” Pitchfork’s Meaghan Garvey has the most withering take, saying that Cyrus is “an ex-child star seemingly unaware of how fundamentally inseparable her own privilege is from her ‘do whatever the fuck you want all of the time’ ethos.” (Alex Pappademas at Grantland provides a valiant and hilarious defense of the album, which seems to hinge on the fact that Miley’s ode to a dead blowfish made him cry.)

The album will disappear from the public conversation soon, without much cost to her record label, which could mean that Cyrus will probably retain the freedom that allowed her to create it in the first place. But it’ll be interesting to see whether and how she chooses to wield it next time. Cyrus’s surprisingly powerful vocal abilities and her interest in (if not aptitude for) pushing boundaries makes her a pop star with real potential; her 2013 video for “We Can’t Stop” is one of the most exquisitely surreal things she or any famous musician has done in years. With luck, this particular moment in her career—VMA hype and backlash, totally unedited album and backlash—might end up being a teachable one. “Self control is not something I’m working on,” she sings at one point on Dead Petz; thank goodness, at least, she realizes there’s room for improvement.