“ATTENTION: Miley Live” Review: Vocal Virtuosity and Popularity as a Means of Enjoyment

When a song ascends from momentary popularity to pop culture artifact, it goes through a process of semantic satiation. The words stop making sense, the writing stops mattering, preconceived feelings on its performer don’t register and enjoyment is derived more from the spirituality of the song’s collective familiarity than the quality of the song itself. Miley Cyrus’ 2013 comeback single “We Can’t Stop” is a great example.      

         The song was never popular for its uncanny mismatch of Ke$ha style party-girl lyrics and piano balladry, with a descending chord progression that wouldn’t feel out of place on a child-friendly friendship ballad. Instead, the over-publicized reinvention of the child star turned trainwreck was so hard to turn away from that the song’s worst lyrics (including “we run things, things don’t run we” and “can’t you see it’s we who own the night, can’t you see it we who ‘bout that life?”) and faux-rebellious persona were no match for the radio play a song this controversial could have. Her follow up single, “Wrecking Ball,” another ballad significantly stronger in writing and vocals yet distractingly overproduced, met a similar fate as the then-still barely out of her Disney darling phase Miley Cyrus swung naked on a wrecking ball and licked a sledgehammer in its music video.

          It would take four years for Cyrus to abandon this image, but in that time those two songs simultaneously became larger than Miley herself and impossible to separate from the antics of the twerking provocateur (who could forget the MTV performance?). Over the past two years, however, Cyrus seems to be just as focused on cementing her status as a top tier performer as she was being a sexual symbol in 2013 and, say what you want about her personality in the media, it’s working. With the release of “ATTENTION: Miley Live,” that has never been more apparent.

       For nearly an hour and a half Cyrus flexes her vocal muscles on tracks that span all throughout her career. While 13 years is far too young to call a song old, Cyrus is at such a different place now than she was in 2009 that performing any of her pre-Bangerz material feels like she’s digging up relics of the past. This feeling is prevalent on “See You Again,” here mashed with Cher’s “Bang, Bang,” and “7 Things,” which are enjoyable almost as much for repackaged nostalgia as they are for catchy choruses, and feeling the energy of the crowd around her makes living through her Hannah Montana era not a required experience for this phenomena. “Party In The USA,” which is as loved today as it was in 2009, meets the same fate as she closes the concert with an extended seven-minute jam version of the hit, letting the crowd sing chunks of the song and the band play her out impressively.

       Rarely does a bad song become a good one, with the exception of “Bangerz,” which is transformed into a dance punk rager. Its braggadocio is far more convincing with yelled lyrics over chunky guitars than rapped verses over weak synths. However, she often brings out the power in previously mediocre songs. The mashup of “Wrecking Ball” and Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” turns the former’s emotional impact up with live instrumentation and Cyrus’ matured vocals, and as she channels Sinead O’Connor’s iconic performance of the latter she puts both songs in the same league of heartbreak and triumph. “The Climb” is perhaps the most powerful example. She extends the country ballad into an Aerosmith style power ballad. Her vocals, which have had 13 years to mature in tone, dynamics and volume since the release of the track, soar over the pummeling drums and guitars. It’s a shockingly large improvement on an already powerful, if not cheesy song. And then there’s the case of “We Can’t Stop,” which she uses to open the concert up (with a surprising transition into the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind”). No live performance can save the song from its clunky mix of styles, but Miley singing it at this point in her career, nearly a decade on from her reinvention, carries a mix of self-awareness, evolution, maturity and acknowledgment of her place in popular culture.

        It’s hard to think about any reservations on the tune itself as a crowd of thousands sings a song that likely played a significant role in their childhoods. This is where musical semantic satiation hits, but instead of perceiving the songs as meaningless sounds, they’re perceived as significant moments in culture, ones that unite everyone in the audience through the collective joy of whatever the hell the tune is about. At that point, does it matter if the song is good?