by Mike Derrico

While doing some research on Rock Under Fire’s Ticketmaster episode, I stumbled on some facts regarding Miley Cyrus and her Hannah Montana period that found their way into the podcast discussion. From there, it snowballed. This is the end result.

If there is one thing certain about Miley Cyrus as a recording artist, it’s that she has yet to settle on any one particular sound or style of music to define herself. The good news is, with six studio albums behind her it’s probably a little late for that. Either that, or she is right on the cusp of something that may or may not transpire next time around.

The biggest criticism of Cyrus’s latest album Younger Now, is that it’s the most “dishonest” work she’s ever done, and lots of the hipper-than-thou publications that rose to glory on the Internet in the past decade and a half are trashing her album most expectedly. These are people, who either A.) were hoping for more of the half-naked color-by-numbers hip hop trend-following of Cyrus’s 2013 Bangerz album, or B.) were hoping her drugged-out I-Don’t-Give-a-Fuck psychedelic period that gave us 2015’s Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, would continue with even more outlandish career-sabotaging antics. But let’s face it. They call it the music business for a reason. So while I give her props for being brave and going in the direction she did on Dead Petz, it was not released as tangible product and not for sale as such. Therefore, she really only had one foot in the waters of badass when she knew it was time to put together a proper commercial effort and get it out to her fans…and in turn, make the suits happy. To suggest, however, that she has just turned out her most dishonest album yet, is to also suggest that she has already established herself as something we could clearly define and pigeonhole her into…as if to say, This is what Miley Cyrus is, and this is what Miley Cyrus is not. This is when she’s keepin’ it real, and this is when she’s full of shit.

The truth is, unlike most of her contemporaries, Cyrus has not made the same album twice, nor do her albums seem all that similar to each other. Sure, they’re quite alike in the sense that they follow trends of their time, and none are shockingly different from each other in that they offer no departure from the sounds of the past 15 years of pop music. But they are all conscious (and perhaps self-conscious) efforts of different genres and production values. What’s more, they all stress the underlying factor of Cyrus coming of age and highlight the only real natural evolution over the course of the six-album run, more so, beginning with 2008’s Breakout… and that’s the beginning of the artist maturing as a teen about to cross over into some provocative content over the next five years.

From the outset of Cyrus’s departure from the Hannah Montana character, or even more accurately, as she was straddling both identities, she was putting out generic pop rock songs penned by teams of writers, and produced along the same synthetic lines of Kelly Clarkson and the modern rock stylings of Fall Out Boy. In other words, Millennial Rock. So when “Behind These Hazel Eyes” was working its way inevitably into the earworm aesthetics of 2005, it was already forming the structure of what producers and record execs would hear happening for Cyrus. Clarkson was the “it” girl in 2005, and Cyrus was the next logical step in the progression of flavor of the week. That said, the execs were not really taking into account that Cyrus would eventually grow up, have a mind of her own, and attempt to continue in a manner in which the industry no longer cultivates or supports…an artistic evolution, artistic clout, and staying power. But at the time, Cyrus always seemed to release her own stamp on a trend a few years after the fact. To be fair though, Miley only turned 12 a week before Clarkson’s Breakaway LP hit the stores in 2004. By no means were her pop sensibilities, creative preferences or artistic ambitions even conceived of yet… at least not as Miley Cyrus. So by the time of her 2008 album, Breakout, Miley was 16, and surrounded by all the right writers and producers to help her create the latest generic and catchy pop rock album in the tradition of the formulaic 2000s.

2010’s Can’t Be Tamed was a further continuation of Cyrus maturing past the limitations and expectations of Hannah Montana and more or less an official separation from the TV character. Like Breakout, it stays in the territory of straight forward millennial pop, but strays as well, into the fat-bottomed production trends of Lady Gaga’s first two albums. Although Cyrus’s music coexisted in the same general ballpark, it didn’t evolve so much as change. Mainstream artists rarely take a natural evolution. They’re more informed by trends and directed by record labels. In general, there is very little room for evolution as an artist if you just follow current trends, and there are very few ground-breakers in any given generation of mainstream pop. More to that point, not every generation even has a ground-breaker to push the whole thing forward. Years and years… decades of following and reacting to past and current music go on at a time before anything remotely new happens, which in turn will only set in motion the next wave of copycat performers doing what everyone else is.

Cyrus, who has proven masterful in getting attention, is by no means a ground-breaker. She is simply not that kind of artist. The other good news for her is that she doesn’t have to be. Most don’t have to be. Trendsetting and groundbreaking were never prerequisites and criteria for great artistry, but it does help an artist’s credibility if they’re able to interpret trends with their own brand of authenticity. And trends continued to work out famously on Bangerz, the 2013 album that accompanied an all-out visual and conceptual media storm that saw Cyrus pushing boundaries not even her most ardent fans saw coming. Though none of her publicity stunts were shocking or original, she used the media and public responses, both bad and good, to her advantage. Regarding the actual music, there was nothing on Bangerz that distinguished it from everything least not on any philosophical or creative level. It just proved to be another abrupt shift, this time toward the most plastic commonality that mainstream pop offers…the tired old hip hop trend of using airtight kick drums and processed handclaps as the foundation for almost every song.

Bangerz was no doubt a highlight for fans who live in that brand of 21st Century pop where the stars are a dime a dozen. The bottom line is not the art itself, but the fashion statement that the tabloid world is waiting for upon the initial drop, or appearance on the next awards show. The people of this world like awards shows and they like to get awards. The awards are the bottom line. It’s a world of delusional assholes who have cheapened the word artistry by accepting and expecting accolades for the work of the dozens of producers and writers who create the music they win awards for. So in that respect, Bangerz is a product of its own superficial times. If anything in Cyrus’s catalog stands as dishonest, it’s Bangerz. And although, her marijuana-fueled erratic exploits of the next few years would alienate fans who could no longer relate, her 2015 Internet release Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz would be her boldest work to date, opting for capturing spontaneous moments and shoving uncomfortable and awkwardly pathetic lyrics in our faces while the star totally fucking melts down in our ear buds. Thank you Wayne Coyne. If there was ever a Dylan goes electric moment in the 21st Century, serving as one collective WTF, Dead Petz is it.

Which brings me to Younger Now, and it’s funny because while critics are trashing it, they’re also describing it as a country pop album.
Sure, Dolly Parton sings on a song, but that’s about the extent of it. Cyrus’s content is too radical for country music, even on this rather non-controversial record, and she is too much of a free thinker. There is an unspoken code in country that calls for a foundation of conformity, blind patriotism, unquestioned right wing values, and an arrogant prioritization of the Second Amendment over the First Amendment. Given her support of Hillary Clinton alone, it is surprising Cyrus hasn’t been declared an anathema in the world of country music. The clear reason for this is that she has never been known as a country artist despite her roots. Had she been making country music all along and gotten famous through such an identity, the 2016 election would probably have initiated her exile from the genre, which would have disowned her. Fortunately for Cyrus, she doesn’t need country music and is artistically far superior to any current country artist that will be allowed to develop on their own criteria. Make no mistake…country artists are not allowed that freedom. Anyone remember the Dixie Chicks?

What Younger Now is instead, is a collective meditation on life after the noise settles. It is the sound of someone stepping back after (or perhaps during) some serious soul searching, and dropping all of the baggage of bullshit. It is the anti-Bangerz, and it is through Younger Now where Cyrus distances herself from the excess of that entire experience. Sure, it’s excess that she brought on herself, and if she becomes one of those chameleon artists where she occasionally returns to the bullshit every decade or so, then so be it. At least she owns her bullshit.

The arrangements are sparse and often seem unfinished, as if the blueprints are serving as the finished product. I feel however, that works to the album’s advantage as a cohesive piece as opposed to the patchwork schizophrenia of sounds over the past two efforts. The first few singles were denounced as lackluster and tame. While the title track could have used some structural work, “Malibu” is deliberate in its subtlety and doesn’t go for the throat with instantly catchy hooks. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t a “blockbuster.” The song is light, airy, and floats along in a reflective Jewel “Standing Still” sort of way. Musically, it’s that subtlety that marks most of the album, in that it holds back and refrains from making you instantly sing along to big predictable choruses. The songs call for more attention and are more demanding in the sense that it’s not base brain music that comes from the crotch. The architecture is mostly of rock structures but without the crunchy distorted guitars of Breakout. The production of Oren Yoel is impressive. Yoel is one of the 6482 names associated with the writing and production of Bangerz, the typical approach to most big hip hop albums. This time around, Yoel and Cyrus alone are largely responsible for everything we hear, and the result is her most streamlined and focused work yet…which leaves me wondering just how clueless some of these critics are when they say it’s her most dishonest album.

As someone primarily raised on rock music and a musician trained to play by ear, my natural instinct in hearing new music for the first time is to notice the familiar parts that connect it to something older. Even if it’s inadvertent on the part of the artist, I still hear older songs within newer songs. On “Week Without You,” just that happens, as Cyrus (to my ears) skates into Fiona Apple territory in a delivery much like “Paper Bag.” Until Cyrus starts fully writing her own material, it’s tough to gauge exactly what her true musical style sounds like. But because it’s only one writer and producer this time, the work feels less deliberate…less self-conscious…more intimate…more honest…more real. The music presented on Younger Now doesn’t necessarily make me view Miley Cyrus much differently. I still believe she’s a fucking mess…and who wouldn’t be, given all she’s been through by the age of 25. What I view differently is her potential as an artist by way of surrounding herself with the right people in the industry, and not the ones who are only thinking of the next smash disposable hit song or controversial headline.

What is most impressive on the album is Cyrus’s vocals. Her voice is undeniably powerful, and has always (as far as my personal limited experience with her goes) been most effective while covering someone else’s song in an onstage setting. I’ve never been able to enjoy the sound of her voice on studio recordings, and those synthetic-sounding backing vocals that always seem as if they’re generated by hitting a keyboard, always made me cringe. Yoel manages to finally get a great studio sound on Cyrus’s voice. What is most stunning about the entire project is the effect he achieves with the backing vocals. “Bad Mood” and “She’s Not Him” are shining examples of this. Or listen to “Love Someone,” perhaps the greatest thing Cyrus has ever done commercially. I haven’t heard distant ethereal backing vocals like that since Stevie Nicks recorded Bella Donna. I even had to check the credits to make sure Stevie wasn’t actually singing on it. Come to think of it, Stevie once said it best…”She has the ability to be great.”

Well anyway, that’s the gist of it. When you push boundaries on a mainstream level to places that Cyrus has done, you have few other places to go from there. You either tone it down, and move in the opposite direction or you do porn. Let’s thank the good lord that Miley has found herself in that place where time is an ocean that ends at the shore. And Younger Now begins with the ocean. Time will let us know which type of artist she chooses to be. She seems to have a firm handle at this point on what’s real and what’s not. Put this girl in a project with T-Bone Burnett next time around, and see if they don’t create a masterpiece together. But that’s just my elitist rock-centric mind talking. What do I know?


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Complex Simplicity: Reflections on Tom Petty

Tom Petty 77

by Mike Derrico

There is a lineage of a certain brand of American artists going straight back to Woody Guthrie that puts the human heart and the human voice before the human ability to sing or showcase your vocals as “talent.”   And for that reason, I say “voice” in the context of exercising the right to expression, and not the one many asshole music fans are going to judge you by.   Perhaps the most important of that lineage for obvious well-established reasons that I don’t need to go into, has been Bob Dylan.  He’s the one who gets the most “oh well I know he’s a good writer, but I can’t stand his voice and he can’t sing” comments.   But rather than make this about Dylan, let me make myself crystal clear that there are reasons why he and the Beatles were, are, and always will be the exceptions.  But Tom Petty in his own unique manner was also an exception in that he always seemed to be the one artist who Dylan haters liked.   On a universal note, for the broad spectrum of music fans over the past 40 years, he was often a bridge from the counterculture artists to the more modern ones of the 80s, 90s, and beyond.  He was loved by fans of hard rock, classic rock, easy listening, and even punk and metal, both of which usually have strict codes attached.  Serious music fans for whom music is everything enjoyed his songs, as did the casual listener.  The nasally voice and Dylan influence always persisted, yet there was something so undeniably catchy and infectious about his melodies, that most people were instantly hooked and couldn’t turn away.

Formed in Gainesville, Florida in 1976, Petty and his band the Heartbreakers was a staple sound to Baby Boom and Generation X rock radio, and his past and present longtime musical companions Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Scott Thurston, Steve Ferrone, Howie Epstein, and Stan Lynch were every bit as responsible for sharing in that exceptional sound.  Few bands did three-chord rock as tastefully elaborate as the Heartbreakers.    Aside from a great live performer and some brilliant albums, Petty was usually most effective as a singles artist.  A Tom Petty song when first heard, always sounded familiar.  On first listen, it would stick in your craw until you heard it the second time, even if it was a few days later.  By third listen, you knew it by heart.  As a songwriter and lyricist, he had that rare double connection to his talent that allowed him recognition, respect, and reverence from critics, peers, and most importantly, his own icons and influences.   And still, he had the natural instinct for a three and a half minute pop song that had “hit” written all over it.  That said, it wasn’t just FM radio he was a staple to.  He utilized the medium of video very early, and did it much more effectively than any other rock artist of his generation, becoming a staple to MTV as well, during the music channel’s relevant years.

Petty’s long-held status as a respected elder statesmen in rock music happened gradually sometime during the mid to late 1980s while he was only in his mid 30s and some seven or eight years into his recording career.   Amidst the plastic musical abyss of what was the most superficial decade of the 20th Century, there was something very real and authentic about Tom Petty that Bob Dylan recognized enough to label him and the Heartbreakers as the “last great American band.”  There was enough for Dylan to take them on as his own backing band for a stadium tour around the world in 1987.  And there was enough for Petty’s own icons and influences to marvel at, as they all wanted to work with him in some capacity.  It also doesn’t go unnoticed that he was the only young artist in 1988 to be included in a band made up of 1950s and 60s legends called the Traveling Wilburys.  There were also very good reasons for that.   Even the British who were obsessed with American music and made up two fifths of the Wilburys knew that the American story as well as its myth was the backbone and lifeblood of their inspiration.  Tom Petty like so many of the best writers was steeped in Americana.   He knew, respected, and was influenced by that tradition of where real rock and roll came from, and not just the usual suspects like the great blues artists,  but the ones going back to that folk universe that people like Harry Smith would preserve.   The roots that more or less served as the road map to rock and roll.

Well for anyone still in doubt that the rock era as an historical period that encapsulated vision, relevance, and a common cause, ended long ago, take a look at Tom Petty’s songbook.  The absence of Tom Petty has been a symptom.  It’s been a while since he was on the charts, but he stuck around, scoring FM hits well into the mid-late 90s, even through the beginning of rock’s worst trends as they were about to gut the whole fucking thing into its inevitable decline.   Even then, he left marks on the radio and the public conscience much longer than his contemporaries did.   The casual listener (and there are far more of them than there are us snobs) may not know Dylan’s 1989 masterpiece “Man in the Long Black Coat,” but they certainly know Petty’s  “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” from the same year.   And it doesn’t devalue his music to say that his best songs were his hits.  “Hits” is usually a curse word for rock fans and thus often rejected in favor of the album cuts.  But again, the quality in the writing of those hits was undeniable to even the most elite of critics.  The immediacy and urgency of songs like “Breakdown” and “I Need to Know” has rarely been matched.  The unique angle on relationships in songs like “Refugee” and “You Got Lucky” has rarely been attempted.   So complex, yet so simple.  And that right there was the magic of Tom Petty’s work.   Many could do one, and many could do the other.  Few had that gift for sounding on the surface one-dimensional and straight forward, while actually being profoundly layered and multi-dimensional beneath the surface.  Well, for those still in doubt, you won’t be hearing new songs like that on the radio anymore, not that there’s been a single memorable rock song written by anybody in the past few decades.   And no, those songs of his weren’t on the messianic level of “Kashmir,” “A Day in the Life,” or “Like a Rolling Stone.”   They just had that ability to make you feel, move, sing, and recognize some part of yourself along with some sense of hope and possibility up ahead…which was the fundamental basic aim of a rock song to begin with, until it became the central informant for generations raised on promises…generations that couldn’t help thinking there was a little more to life somewhere else… and a whole lot more than I can say for rock today.

I’m reading the headlines today, and they’re telling me we’ve lost Tom Petty.  I had to post about it on our site late last night after hours of mixed up confusion.  But now it’s official.  And yet, I know we still have his art.  We have his words and music and irresistible melodies, and even the counter melodies that often crossed over and merged harmoniously with those irresistible melodies .  They’re in our heads right now.   Even as you read this, you know exactly what I’m talking about.   You can hear them too.  And so he’s still with us.

Ep. 32: The Corruption of Ticketmaster

In Episode 32, we go after Ticketmaster, spell out the problems of the ticket industry, and call out those in positions of power, influence, and the media itself for continuing to blame the artists instead of drawing attention to the culprit for years of blatant thievery right in front of our faces. We also discuss Walter Becker, Charles Bradley, Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series Volume 13 (1979-1981), Adrian Vandenberg, Whitesnake, Doro Pesch, Warlock, and the 1987 metal classic Triumph and Agony.

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