“Miley’s going to be sliding down the tongue,” pronounced a pre-teen concertgoer, just prior to the start of Miley Cyrus’ Wednesday night performance at American Airlines Center in Dallas. The young girl had no doubt already witnessed countless YouTube clips from Cyrus’ built-to-shock “Bangerz” tour, including – yup – the moment when Cyrus emerges from the mouth of a giant self-portrait, and descends to the stage via a tongue-shaped slide.
The girl’s distracted mother, busy taking a selfie, responded by asking: “How do you spell ‘Bangerz’?”
Yes, it’s easy to be cynical about the phenomenon of Miley Cyrus, the onetime Disney tween queen turned twerking, tongue-wagging sexpot. And, indeed, throughout Wednesday evening’s performance, Cyrus offered plenty of ammunition to her critics: If you’ve ever suspected that her hyper-eroticized, foam-finger-wielding act feels a little too coldly calculated and desperate for attention, well, watching Cyrus climb astride an enormous plastic hot dog and sail through the arena is not going to convince you otherwise.
Yet the Bangerz tour also offers ample evidence that Cyrus is playing a far more sophisticated game than anyone realizes. One minute surrounded by dancers in Technicolor furry suits, the next grabbing her crotch, the minute after that recording video of herself and uploading it to Instagram, she’s captured the spirit of an overstimulated, easily distractable era. Her sexed-up provocations, too, feel like both a celebration and a subversion of a unique culture moment, when pornography saturates our cyberspace and sexting is a commonplace activity.
Seriously, how else to make sense of the moment in the concert, where – after first writhing in a bed onstage and touching her private parts – she is joined by a dwarf wearing a cone-bra, whom Cyrus then cradles between her legs?
The first half of the nearly two-hour set drew mostly from Cyrus’ hit Bangerz album, though if you came to hear artfully rendered versions of her frequently interchangeable, hip-hop-flavored pop songs, you were definitely in the wrong place. Instead, Cyrus piled on the spectacle (and the bedazzled thongs). During the opening number, she gleefully spanked one of her back-up dancers – a full-figured, ample-bottomed woman who enthusiastically twerked in response. During Love Money Party, Cyrus spiritedly humped the windshield of a gold-plated, miniature car.
Indeed, in any other concert the appearances of a towering, inflatable wolf (during Can’t Be Tamed) or an undulating orange puppet (during FU) would be the visual showstoppers. Here, they felt almost like distractions – something to keep the audience busy until Cyrus could find a new way to shock us.
What was surprising, though, was that the spectacle frequently gave way to something a little more personal and human. Briefly relocating from the main stage to a makeshift stage at the opposite end of the arena, Cyrus confidently served up a series of covers, among them Dolly Parton’s Jolene, Bob Dylan’s You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, and a country-rock arrangement of Outkast’s Hey Ya. Her gravelly, sometimes nasally voice proved even better suited to a cover of Irma Thomas’ Ruler of My Heart.
As a stage presence, Cyrus doesn’t exactly project unbridled joy – she’s much too self-conscious and knowing for that. But she displays a toughness and verve that’s equally hard to resist. Midway through the performance, she had a wardrobe malfunction, when the back of her form-fitting bodysuit came unzipped. Without breaking stride, she ordered her security guard to lift her younger sister, Noah, onto the stage to fix the problem. Cyrus’ manner was brassy, bossy, a tad self-deprecating. It’s hard not to think of the tough-old-broad likes of Mae West, Bette Davis, and Elaine Stritch – and wonder if she might just be her own show business legend-in-the-making. (When the zipper broke a second time, Cyrus shrugged it off and said perhaps she’d just have to perform naked.)
Cyrus saved her biggest hits -- We Can’t Stop, Wrecking Ball, and Party in the USA – for the encores. By then, the mostly female, teenage and early twentysomething audience had worked itself into a raucous frenzy, and they sang along word-for-word. Many of them glammed-up and/or scantily clad themselves, these young women seemed less shocked and more inspired by Cyrus.
Which is to say: Maybe Miley Cyrus is ultimately more sleaze that savvy, and maybe she’s just a hapless plaything of an entertainment industry that insists upon sexually demeaning young women.
Or maybe, just maybe, she’s a one-of-a-kind millennial role model – a young women who encourages other young women to act out, test their limits, and celebrate their bodies, all in a mostly boy-free environment.